Sir Alfred Sherman who died aged 86 in 2006, was the former Communist who became one of Margaret Thatcher’s earliest intellectual soulmates when she succeeded Edward Heath as Opposition leader.
Sir Alfred Sherman and Lady Thatcher
In 1974 he co-founded, with Sir Keith Joseph and Mrs Thatcher, the conservative think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), and became its first director. He was ousted from the CPS in 1984 after he fell out of favour with the Tory leadership.
Sherman was arguably the most eccentric, and certainly the most contradictory, figure ever to have been a leading adviser to a senior politician. His early imbibed skill in Marxist dialectic made him a formidable logician; at his best he could be witty, educated and shrewd on economic matters. But he could also be breathtakingly naive, never losing the instinctive fanaticism which put him in the Communist party in the first place.
That fanaticism never enabled him to fit into the clubbable world of British politics. Though sensitive and easily stung by criticism, Sherman’s inability to compromise, and his deep contempt for large swathes of the Establishment, brought him few close friends. Many people regarded him as a sinister figure; but others found pathos in a man who effectively destroyed himself by a series of venomous quarrels that left him isolated from former colleagues.
During the years when his star was in the ascendant, Sherman’s clear thinking and willingness to say the unsayable – Sir Keith Joseph once described Sherman as the Tory Party’s “hair shirt” – provided a vital stimulus to Mrs Thatcher, giving her the intellectual confidence to proclaim her radical free-market vision in her early years as leader.
His access continued after Mrs Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, and it was Sherman who first introduced her to the monetarist Professor Alan Walters, who became her personal economic adviser in 1980.
In 1981 the CPS under Sherman’s directorship brought the Swiss monetarist Jurg Niehans over to Britain to advise on economic management. Niehans wrote a report critical of the government’s economic management that was crucial in influencing the change of policy in the 1981 budget; this tightened the government’s fiscal stance to make possible a looser monetary policy – the foundation for the policy successes of the Thatcher years.
Sherman also contributed to Mrs Thatcher’s speeches. It was said that at party conferences he could be relied upon to provide a draft of 50 pages, 48.5 of which were so outrageous as to be unusable, while the other one and a half contained phrases of pure gold. Mrs Thatcher’s close advisers were convinced that Sherman would continue to make a real contribution to the process of policy formulation in government, but strains in his relationship with the prime minister soon began to show. She was reported to find his frequent telephone calls irritating, and complained that he was too ready to sneer at difficulties she was encountering.
By 1983 Lord Thomas (the historian Hugh Thomas), who had been appointed chairman of the CPS in 1979, was finding Sherman impossible to work with. In the summer of that year, following a row over the relationship of the CPS with the Tory party, Sherman was summarily sacked from the CPS in a “virulent” letter from Thomas.
Sherman did not blame Thomas personally, but criticised “changed attitudes among Conservative leaders towards ideas, once back in office”, typically adding, “the effects on the CPS of de-Shermanisation are painfully evident in the brain death inflicted.”
After leaving the CPS, Sherman increasingly found himself cold-shouldered by former colleagues. Even Mrs Thatcher, who, it was said, continued to regard him with exasperated affection, appeared to avoid him. In 1987, when Norman Tebbit, then chairman of the Conservative Party, was asked whether Sherman still had the Prime Minister’s ear, he replied: “Not if she sees him coming he doesn’t.”
For Sherman himself, defeat brought bitterness and encouraged a tendency to romantic self-dramatisation. “If it wasn’t for me, Mr Heath would still be the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition”, he declared.
Alfred Sherman was born at Hackney on November 10 1919, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His early years were spent in grinding poverty; as a child he suffered from rickets. He was educated at Hackney Downs County Secondary School, which became notorious during the 1990s for its abysmal standards of education, but which was then, as a grammar school, regarded as a flagship of opportunity.
He went on to Chelsea Polytechnic, where he studied science. There he joined the Young Communist League because, as he later explained, “to be a Jew in 1930s Britain was to be alienated. The world proletariat offered us a home.”
In 1937, aged 17, he volunteered for the “Major Attlee” battalion of the International Brigades to fight as a machine-gunner for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil war. As a gifted linguist (he became fluent in at least five languages), Sherman was given the task of translating the orders of the battalion’s Red Army instructor into English, French and Spanish. He took part in the battle of Fuentes del Ebro in the lower Aragon before being captured by Franco’s Italian allies and sent back to Britain.
After the Second World War, in which he fought with the British Army in the Middle East, Sherman enrolled at the London School of Economics, where he became president of the student Communist Party. In 1948 he was due to deliver a paper on politics in Yugoslavia, following a visit to the country, when news came of Stalin’s break with Tito. Sherman was asked to amend his paper, but, when he refused, he was expelled from the Party for Titoist deviationism.
After graduating in 1950 Sherman found work as a teacher, but resigned a few weeks later when he found it impossible to keep order in the classroom. The experience stood him in good stead, however, because he wrote about the wreckage of his hopes in an article in an education journal, thus opening up a career in journalism.
Over the next 40 years Sherman wrote widely on political matters for many national newspapers. In 1965 he was recruited by Colin Welch, then deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, as the paper’s local government correspondent. He was squeezed out soon afterwards, but continued to write fiercely-argued polemics for the Telegraph’s leader pages on many issues.
In 1986 he was sacked as a leader writer by Max Hastings, as one of his first acts as editor. In the following year Sherman alienated fellow Jews by arguing that young members of Hitler’s SS were as much victims of Hitler as the Jews. He also caused outrage by inviting the French National Front leader, Jean-Marie le Pen, to a Tory Conference fringe meeting. In 1992, when secret Soviet archives were opened, it emerged that in 1984 Sherman had given an interview to Pravda in which he was quoted as saying: “As for the lumpen, coloured people and the Irish, let’s face it, the only way to hold them in check is to have enough well-armed and properly trained police.” During the furore that followed, Sherman merely complained that the quotation missed the word “proletariat” after “lumpen”, and denied using the phrase “well armed”.
Not that everyone took his outbursts seriously. On one occasion, when Sherman was supposed to have sounded off about the need for all second-generation immigrants to go home, an affable Jewish stockbroker patted him on the shoulder and said: “Okay, Alfred, I’ll meet you at Heathrow for the Thursday Aeroflot flight to Moscow.”
In 1993 Sherman became an adviser to the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, a position which gave him a new opportunity to pour scorn on former allies in the Tory Party who regarded Karadzic as a war criminal.
Of the woman he once claimed he would die for, Sherman later said: “Lady Thatcher is great theatre as long as someone else is writing her lines; she hasn’t got a clue.” Nonetheless, when, last year, he published a book of memoirs, Paradoxes of Power: Reflections on the Thatcher Interlude, Lady Thatcher attended the launch party.
Alfred Sherman was knighted in 1983.
He married first, in 1958, Zahava Levin, with whom he had a son. She died in 1993, and in 2001 he married Angela Martins.
He was the second president of the Society for the History of Medieval Technology and Science.