John Barnes, Historian

Sir Alfred Sherman

Alfred Sherman made a remarkable intellectual journey from the Communism he espoused in the late 1930s, which took him to Spain to fight in their civil war, to the economic liberalism that underpinned his advice, first to Sir Keith Joseph, and then to Margaret Thatcher. A few days after her first election victory Mrs Thatcher wrote to Sherman, "We are over the first hurdle; now for the real battle. In that I hope you will play as important a part as you have done over the past few years. You have been a constant inspiration to Keith and myself through difficult times. Your creative mind has been responsible for many skirmishing victories in the great battle of ideas, which I am convinced we are on the way to winning..."

Sherman had been one of the founding members in 1974, and the driving force behind the Centre for Policy Studies. He became its second Director of Studies 1975-83. It was not a think tank in the normal sense of the word since the minds of its principal members were already made up. Rather it was a political organisation, designed to take the ideas formulated by the Institute of Economic Affairs and give them political force both within the Conservative party and in the country at large. As Sherman noted in 1983, when he was being ousted from the CPS, "After Margaret Thatcher's election as leader this objective was modified to changing the climate of opinion in country and Party in order to expand the scope for Margaret Thatcher to propound, and ultimately to implement, those policies she knew to be right." Much of this was done through the medium of speeches, and Sherman drafted for both Joseph and Mrs Thatcher: he was the author of Joseph's Stockton lecture, 'Monetarism is not Enough', and in 1977 worked with the latter on her major speech to the Zurich Economic Society which was aimed squarely at a British readership.

He was probably the single most influential force in the key months in 1974 which saw economic liberalism and more particularly monetarism begin to regain widespread acceptance. The campaign began with Joseph's Upminster speech in July, but it was the Preston speech, 'Inflation is caused by Governments', made on 5 September, that put the proverbial cat among the pigeons. Not only was it seen as a repudiation of Heath's call for a government of national unity and the repudiation of much the Heath Government had done delivered on the eve of a General Election, but it attracted massive press attention, which ranged from two pages in The Sun to a reprint of the entire speech in The Times, which devoted an editorial, 'The Sharp Shock of Truth' to it and concluded that the main lines of the argument were "unquestionably right". Joseph was propelled into a position where he looked the obvious successor to Heath, a position he blew with an ill advised addition to the speech Sherman prepared for him to deliver at Edgbaston on 19 October. But Sherman was by then the key economic guru to both Joseph and Margaret Thatcher, aided and abetted always by the economist, Alan Walters, and his work for them was a major contribution as 'events' pushed a majority of the British people into acceptance of their diagnosis of what needed to be done to address Britain's economic problems. As Joseph observed, Sherman's "fecund mind supplied the 'prism' through which he saw political reality", and his ability to think in headlines was invaluable.

Sherman's absolutist temperament made him much less well fitted to advise in Government, but it would be a mistake to think from the single reference in Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street Years that he was without influence on the course of her first government. It was at his instance that Alan Walters was brought back from the United States in January 1981 to provide Mrs Thatcher with a source of independent economic advice. More crucial still was his suggestion in November 1981 that the CPS should commission an independent study of the reasons why sterling was riding high to the detriment of British Industry. The Swiss monetarist, Jurg Niehans, was invited to Britain and his conclusion that monetary policy had been too tight and that M3, the indicator that had been at the heart of the Government's financial strategy, was misleading, came as a nasty blow to Mrs Thatcher and her Chancellor. This was crucial in influencing the change of policy in the 1981 budget; which tightened the government's fiscal stance to make possible a looser monetary policy and proved the foundation for the policy successes of the Thatcher years. Sherman's influence, however, was in decline and his position at the CPS under threat from the its Chairman, Hugh Thomas. In 1983 he departed on sabbatical, never to return.

After his departure from the CPS, Sherman found himself increasingly ignored by his former colleagues. Mrs Thatcher continued to regard him with exasperated affection, but did not solicit his views. Indeed Norman Tebbit, when asked in 1987 whether Sherman still had the Prime Minister's ear, replied: "Not if she sees him coming, he doesn't." In part that was because he had caused immense embarrassment to the party by an ill-judged attempt to bring the French fascist, Jean Marie le Pen to speak to a fringe meeting at the Party Conference. The Conservative press turned on Sherman and a particularly wounding attack on him as "ego-maniacal, spiteful, obsessive, prone to temper tantrums which would disgrace a three-year old" was published by the Sunday Telegraph. In fairness to his critics it must be said that his provocative outspokenness had gone well beyond mere tactlessness where questions of immigration were concerned.

Although sensitive and easily stung by criticism, Sherman's deep contempt for the English political establishment was pungently, almost brutally expressed, and he found it difficult to maintain friendships. Formidable in argument, he was a brilliant conversationalist with a sharp wit. He could be charming and he could be insufferable. Some key friends of both Joseph and Margaret Thatcher like the Letwins could not stand him, and most of his relationships were destroyed by venomous quarrels for which he was largely to blame. They were product of an inability to compromise that made him on occasions surprisingly nave about politics. Despite a fundamental belief in the importance of ideas, he could never divorce them from personalities, and in later years was inclined to romantic self-dramatisation. "If it wasn't for me," he would remark, " Mr Heath would still be the leader of Her Majesty's Opposition". He could be dismissive of his most important political patrons. "Lady Thatcher," he once said, " is great theatre as long as someone else is writing her lines; she hasn't got a clue." His anger was born of deep frustration, and shrewd friends allowed for that. Lady Thatcher herself remained conscious of her debt and at the launch of his memoirs in 2005, she told her fellow guests, "We could never have defeated socialism if it hadn't been for Sir Alfred."

Alfred Sherman was the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia and his early years in Hackney were spent in grinding poverty; as a child he suffered from rickets. Growing up in the East End, "you were born a socialist", but it was also a place where if you worked hard, you got on. His father became a Labour Councillor. The Worshipful Guild of Grocers school, later Hackney Downs County Secondary School, gave Alfred his chance, and he went on to Chelsea Polytechnic to study chemistry. There he joined the Young Communist League for "to be a Jew in 1930s Britain was to be alienated. The world proletariat offered us a home." In 1937 he volunteered for the "Major Attlee" battalion of the International Brigades to fight for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil war. As a gifted linguist, he translated the orders of the battalion's Red Army instructor into English, French and Spanish. He took part in the battle of Fuentes del Ebro, but was then captured by the Italians fighting alongside Franco, and repatriated to Britain in 1938. His languages were also of service in the Second World War where he fought with the British Army in the Middle East, served in Field Security and in the administration of enemy-occupied territories. He helped organise the police in Libya and taught himself shorthand and Arabic.

After the war he studied at the London School of Economics. He took charge of the student Communist Party, but was expelled from it in 1948 when he refused to amend the report he had written after visiting Tito's Yugoslavia despite Stalin's break with Tito. After graduating in 1950 Sherman became a teacher, but found it hard to maintain order in the classroom. Resigning, he wrote about the way in which his dreams had been wrecked for an education journal, thus opening up the possibility of a more successful career in journalism. After writing for The Observer, he went to Israel in 1952, working briefly as Foreign Editor of the Jerusalem Post, and subsequently for Haaretz. Later he became economic adviser to the General Zionists Party. It was in Israel that he met and married his first wife.

Returning to England in the 1960s he worked first as a leader writer for the Jewish Chronicle and then moved to the Daily Telegraph, becoming its first local government correspondent in 1965. He was subsequently to serve himself as a Councillor in Kensington and Chelsea 1971-78. Trenchant pamphlets on local government flowed from his pen even though he had moved on to other positions with the paper, contributing leaders from 1977 until 1986. He first interviewed Joseph in 1962 and subsequently impressed him with his writings, in particular an essay in The Case for Capitalism (1967), which drew public praise from Joseph. Sherman was drawn into Joseph's early crusades for economic liberalism in the late 1960s, first as a critic of draft speeches, and then as a speechwriter. Although Joseph was later to excoriate himself for apostasy during the Heath Government, he remained an economic liberal, and conversations with Sherman in February 1974 simply regenerated his campaigning enthusiasm. Sherman forced Joseph into action, fathering not only the CPS but largely authoring Joseph's speeches. They brought monetarism and economic liberalism to the centre of political debate in the autumn of 1974 and propelled Joseph to the prominence which would have enabled him to run for the Conservative leadership with the support not only of the right, but of younger figures like Norman Fowler. Ironically the passage in the Birmingham speech which aroused a public storm and denied him that possibility was the only one that did not come from Sherman's pen. Instead the party got Margaret Thatcher and she had already irritated her titular boss in the shadow Treasury team by turning for help to Sherman. He continued to draft speeches and other forms of discourse for both the new leader and Joseph. To the fury of his increasing number of enemies, amongst them most members of the Shadow Cabinet, he had her ear, and many an argument ended with the irritating rejoinder, "But Alfred says..." Sherman also was good at finding fresh talent to advance the causes in which he believed so passionately, and he was instrumental in recruiting John Hoskyns, who headed Margaret Thatcher's policy unit 1979-82, and in bringing him together with Norman Strauss to form one of the most effective policy duos in the run up to 1979.

Whether Sherman could have insisted on a position in Whitehall in 1979 is unclear, but thereafter his influence was on the wane, his memoranda regarded as too dismissive of very real political difficulties; and the appointment of Hugh Thomas as chairman of the CPS in 1979 sealed his fate. Thomas found Sherman impossible. By 1983 the two were not on speaking terms. But it was Sherman's habit of publicly criticising the Government in much the same vein as his private memoranda that alienated Mrs Thatcher's staff. An article in The Observer on Stop-Go Monetarism in November 1982, damning the monetary squeeze as nothing more than a Macmillanite 'stop' because it was not accompanied by public sector reform, aroused particular wrath in Downing Street. Mrs Thatcher's chief of staff thought Sherman's position untenable. Thomas's decision to subordinate the CPS to the Government in October 1983 precipitated the final break. Sherman protested that it would put an end to the role of the CPS as a trailblazer, and he was forced to go on a year's sabbatical leave prior to final departure. Sherman recalled a "virulent" letter from Thomas effectively dismissing him and the compromise may have been down to Mrs Thatcher's reluctance to see him go. Surprisingly Sherman did not hold the decision against Thomas personally, choosing instead to criticise "changed attitudes among Conservative leaders towards ideas, once back in office", adding a blunt rider, "the effects on the CPS of de-Shermanisation are painfully evident in the brain death inflicted."

Briefly he became a visiting fellow at the LSE 1983-5, but by the beginning of Margaret Thatcher's third term with its belated recognition that Sherman had been right on the need for public sector reform, he no longer held any position and had also lost his platform in the leader columns of the Telegraph, dismissed by Max Hastings on his first day as Editor. He continued to write, his more substantial publications including a reappraisal of Arab Nationalism and, more predictably, Capitalism and Liberty.

In 1993 he became an adviser to the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and in his cause condemned many of his former allies for their illusions about the Balkans and their belief that Karadzic was a war criminal. Although he gave up his position in 1994, he retained a close interest in the Balkans, and accepted the position of Chairman of the Lord Byron Foundation for Balkan Studies in Arizona in 1995. He published a memoir, Paradoxes of Power: Reflections on the Thatcher Interlude, in 2005, using it as a vehicle to emphasise his view that most of the ground she had won had been given up by successor governments. She had often been emasculated, in his view, by the Whitehall establishment and no one else had been able to resist the gradual slide back towards corporatism and an over-powerful state. His last years brought him a happy second marriage, but also the leukaemia, which caused his death.