Kenneth Clarke admits to being obsessed with politics ever since he was a schoolboy. He kept a scrapbook of political stories he had cut out of his father’s newspaper and he was still at school when he first declared his ambition to become an MP. Before he’d finished his law degree at Cambridge University he was on the Conservative Party’s list of approved candidates, although it took him a few more years to actually make his way into the house: he was 29 when he won his seat of Rushcliffe in the East Midlands.
“I remain an addict. It’s why I haven’t retired. I got immersed in the whole process of government,” the 77-year-old said during a discussion held as part of the UEA International Literary Festival.
Remarkably, Clarke has been an MP for 47 years, making him the Father of the House and with more than two decades as a minister, including spells as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, he is among Britain’s best-known political figures.
Now a backbencher, last year he published his memoirs, Kind of Blue, the title reflecting both his political positions and his enthusiasm for jazz, the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis having released an album of the same name.
Clarke had working-class beginnings, with his father spending time as a mining electrician, although the future minister’s academic prowess earned him a scholarship to a public school in Nottingham.
“In my generation were people who had emerged through that brief episode of meritocracy which the UK had in that post-war world,” he said, adding that most of his cabinet colleagues had, like him, modest backgrounds.
“There’s less meritocracy at the moment than there probably was when I was young.”
Clarke admitted he would have been content to have enjoyed a much shorter spell as an MP and front bencher, saying that people going into politics understand it is not a stable career option. But in his case, as he put it, “things kept going my way” and he remained at the cutting edge for decades.
Perhaps the issue Clarke is linked to more than any other is Europe. His enthusiasm for the European project is often seen as a factor in his failure to win the Conservative leadership – he stood unsuccessfully three times – and he is probably the most high-profile Tory remainer. He insisted, however, that the Conservative Party is not, overall, any more anti-European than Labour, saying instead that it is far right and the far left who tend to be Eurosceptic.
“The European project inspired my generation of Conservative MPs,” he said during the discussion with Professor Christopher Bigsby.
Indeed he said that Margaret Thatcher, whom he served at length in cabinet, was far from being instinctively Eurosceptic.
“I think she got irritated by being patronised by male politicians she met at meetings,” he said.
“It was the economic Europe she was keen on. The single market would not have happened if not for Thatcher’s leadership of her party and of Europe.
“The political stuff she was more wary of. She had odd hang ups about Germans. Helmut [Kohl, the longstanding German chancellor] and she could never get on.”
After leaving office, Clarke said Thatcher “became quite embittered” and he even suggested some of the political mis-steps may have been caused by the early stages of the dementia that was a factor in her death, albeit more than two decades after she left office.
“Her judgement had gone. She had lost her former pretty impeccable judgement,” he said.
It was while serving as health secretary under Thatcher that Clarke introduced the internal market into the NHS, something that remains controversial, although he noted that, “The Blair government followed my policies with enthusiasm”.
Also controversial was Clarke’s decision, while the Conservatives were in opposition, to work as a deputy chairman and director of British American Tobacco. He remains unapologetic.
“That was my Conservative libertarian thing. I do smoke, so I cannot think of anything more hypocritical than saying I can’t be a director of a tobacco company,” he said.
“The law and society allow people to do things that have a risk. So long as you properly inform adults of the health risks, the adult is entitled to make his or her own judgement of whether they’re prepared to take that risk.”
He insisted the ethical standards of BAT – he was chairman of the company’s corporate responsibility board – were “extremely high”.
“It would be morally wrong if you were selling the product and trying to hide … there was a health hazard.”
Surveying the current political scene in Britain and further afield, he sees “complete chaos” with insurgent political movements that are based on “a search for simple answers”. And he described the referendum on Britain’s EU membership as “a dangerous way of running a big issue”.
“All the western democracies are cleaning out their old establishments … There’s no precedent for this … It’s a kind of dissatisfaction with political representative democracy,” he said.
“Politically we’re in a very dangerous world.”
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