But Ken Clarke has it in abundanceby / December 13, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
After all the chin-stroking about the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump, there’s only one conclusion on which everyone can agree. Rage against politicians is at an all-time high. But why? Ipsos MORI’s “Veracity Index” gives us a valuable clue. It rates trust in different professions, and politicians come out bottom of the pile. A mere 15 per cent of Brits believe what they say—that’s six points down on their appalling score last year. Voters think those they elect are liars.
Mainstream politicians are acutely aware of this—and desperate to change it. Centrist Labour MPs and moderate Tories alike watch on in baffled envy, as they see Jeremy Corbyn to the left and Nigel Farage on the right inspire their own ends of the spectrum. Most of them haven’t inspired anybody in years. Whether they rely on spin doctors or not, their cautious talk comes out sounding like pre-cooked “lines to take.” The public closes its ears, and the great virtue of our age—authenticity—becomes the preserve of people who take such strident positions that nobody can accuse them of failing to speak their mind.
Ken Clarke is the last living link with the era when moderate voices would speak with their guards down. Like his fellow former chancellor—the late great Denis Healey—he has a knack of making his generally reasonable opinions sound offensive. Spend half an hour with the man who has represented Rushcliffe for 46 years, and you walk away with no doubt that this is a man who tells you exactly how he sees it. It’s too fashionable a word for him, but he brims with authenticity.
His CV says it all. He’s held two great offices of state, eight Cabinet posts, but never got to the top. Why not? He could have won the party leadership at least twice—1997 and 2001—and, at a push, perhaps also in 2005. He didn’t because he stuck to his guns as the Tories took a Europhobic turn. He was among the most prominent referendum “Remainers,” and he’s not changed his mind since—or stopped expressing it. When the government and opposition stitched up a deal in December—whereby Theresa May agreed to give MPs a Brexit plan, and Labour swallowed her timetable—Clarke was the only Conservative to vote against the motion, which cruised through the House with a majority 373.
Sitting in his office, beneath a picture of Winston Churchill, he obstinately refuses to toe the party line. Regarding the path for Brexit, he says, “No two members of the government agree with each other.” Are Brexiteers like Liam Fox qualified to negotiate Britain’s future? “Well, no!” Why not? “Their vision” rests on “mythical folly… I know of no way in which you can leave totally free and unfettered access to the biggest single market in the world… without making yourself poorer.”
If the Supreme Court eventually rules that parliament will get a binding vote on the trigger for Brexit, Clarke will have more scope to make trouble. Where most MPs insist they will ultimately acquiesce in Brexit, Clarke is blunt in saying he will do no such thing. “I have been campaigning for 50 years as I believe it to be in Britain’s national interest to be a member of the European Union… I’d be the biggest hypocrite if I cast a vote in favour of leaving.” What about the mandate from June, which intimidates most “Remainer” MPs? “I’ve always made it clear I regard referendums as a ridiculous addition to a constitution… I will continue to follow the principles of Edmund Burke’s address to the electors of Bristol, in that I owe my constituents my judgement and will vote in accordance.”
The great irony is that many electors—however they voted in June—might say “Amen to that,” simply because it’s so refreshing to hear a politician who serves up his opinions without humbug.
Quibbling with May’s totemic March 2017 timetable for triggering Brexit is fast becoming a Westminster taboo, but for Clarke it is a “misguided” race. The requisite haggling can’t be done fast enough to fit in with that, and so “quite obviously we need a transitional agreement.” He even implies—contrary to all party etiquette, and all conventional wisdom—that the Conservatives might not thrive, if May called a snap election in the spring. “I could not begin to guess what the outcome would be… My current hunch… is that the liberals will win a huge number of seats in the south and that the Labour Party would be practically wiped out in the north.” Could the Tories lose their majority? “Nobody knows… if Ukip had managed to turn itself back into the kind of political party which doesn’t make me laugh when I look at it… I think they are more likely to gain a lot of seats than the Conservatives right now.”
Loose political talk does sometimes come at a cost. In July, not realising that he was hooked up to a mic, Clarke was caught in conversation with former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, calling May “a bloody difficult woman.” Outrage ensued. Is he sorry? Sort of: he concedes he was an “idiot.” This is far from the only time when Clarke has caused offence; in 2011, while making the case for liberal sentencing reforms, he talked about “serious rape,” implying that some instances were less so.
The cuddly Ken image is also stained by his directorship of British American Tobacco, from 1998-2008. Action on Smoking and Health accused him of “flogging fags to the third world.” Straight talking hardly excuses that. But the damage to his stock has been limited because he himself is an openly enthusiastic smoker. Like him or loathe him, he is what he is. His new memoir Kind of Blue, named in Miles Davis’s honour, reinforces his reputation as a whiskey-swilling, cigar-smoking jazz buff who just happens to be in politics.
No image excuses the many blots on the long career. But ultimately, if the choice we face is: someone who’s honest, but a bit rough around the edges, or someone who’s neither, the former is preferable. Rather the occasional blunder than hypocrisy. How sad that in 2020—as Britain drops out of Europe, and Trump seeks a second term—Clarke will stand down. Then, more than ever, we’ll need voices who can win trust by making moderate opinions sound shocking.