As a member of the Houses of Parliament since 1970, at first glance it seems as if Ken Clarke has done almost every job in government. One of Britain’s most successful Chancellors of the Exchequer, he is widely credited with having helped to establish the British economic boom that saw New Labour through the first term of its government. Clarke has also held ministerial positions in the departments of Health, Education and Trade and Industry, and has run for the leadership of the Conservative Party three times. The President of the Tory Reform Group, Clarke is widely considered to be a strong centrist voice in the party, having constantly advocated Britain’s place in Europe throughout his career. Coming over from Oxford to his Westminster office, I was aware that I would be visiting a man who has been at the heart of British politics for longer than almost anyone else.
In conversation, we quickly moved to one of this week’s key stories: how would divisions in the cabinet over Britain’s position in Europe play out ahead of the referendum set for this June? Clarke was cautious, noting that “the media are not really interested in the political issues, rather presenting their own spin on them. Having done a fair few interviews, most of the interviewers are mainly interested in trying to get stories about, ‘What do you think of the declaration made by Boris?’ or whatever it is, or trying to create conflict. They’re more interested in talking in terms of personalities than the issues. Politics has become far too mixed up with celebrity culture nowadays.” In the light of this media speculation, Clarke seemed keen to impress on me that “there’s a conscious effort being made not to fall out.”
Clarke has lived and breathed the Europe campaign for a long time now, and he spoke of his experience of the debate. “Europe was a very big issue when I was in politics at the Cambridge Union and Cambridge Conservatives in the early 60s. So, it would have astonished me if you were to have told me then that more than 50 years after I started as a Conservative, I would still be engaged in the same slightly neurotic argument about our relationship with the European Union.”
Clarke has seen the European debate change over time and thought it important to place the current debate in a wider context. “In the 60s and 70s, the hard left were more important and they were very anti [Europe]. The right wing of the Conservative Party were slightly different from today’s right, who are American Republican-type right wing. In those days, they were imperial right wing, people who opposed our entry in the first place and the people who fought the 1975 election as Conservative Eurosceptics. They were largely people who regretted the way we had given up the Empire. They were angry that we had and thought our role in the world depended on our leading the Empire, although they were reluctantly prepared to concede that it was now called the Commonwealth, and did not want to get us politically into bed with the people we’d fought during the war.” Back in the 1975 referendum, “the bulk of the no vote were the hard left, who saw it as a capitalist plot and resented the rules of the European Community because you couldn’t run a command economy. We’ve still got a few of those, but there aren’t many left.”
In contrast to earlier debates, Clarke remarked how “the Labour Party has been excluded from this debate at the moment. It isn’t taking much part in the debate: Eurosceptics are right wing people these days.” Even here, though, “modern Eurosceptics are slightly different. They go on about ‘sovereignty’ all the time, but what they really want to do is remain the closest ally of the Americans, which they think that they can combine with disentanglement. The great weakness of the Eurosceptics, actually, is the disagreement between each other on exactly what they are proposing, the destination that they’re proposing.”
As we went further into his analysis of the current referendum campaigns, Clarke reiterated the consistency of his position from earlier debates. “The idea of total collapse one way or another is total nonsense. But I think we would hugely reduce our attractiveness as a place for investment as a modern globalized economy, because we won’t have the same access to the European Market. We won’t for a few years know exactly what sort of access we can negotiate. I just think it will just put us in a much weaker position. Most people talk of a competitive economy: we’ve got a long way to go, even now”.
Clarke’s view on the importance of Britain’s place in Europe is clearly underlined by his understanding of the economic benefits it brings to Britain. “The only thing I am really worried about is the short-term distraction of having the referendum. I don’t take much notice of the flutterings of the exchange rate of the pound, but obviously people are being put off investing here. People are not going to invest in major projects in Britain in large numbers while there is uncertainty. What I hope there won’t be is a flight of capital.”
Moving on from Europe, our interview shows how far concern for the economic stability of the country still weighs over the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. For him, this ultimately means a reappraisal of the way in which we handle education. It is obvious to Clarke that “we need a more balanced economy, but most importantly we need a high-tech economy which is both goods and services, providing the kind of commodities that will provide growth potential in the world economy in the next few decades. We need to make sure that we not only modernise our economic base, but we arrange a skills training system which can provide the sorts of people who can possibly thrive in these circumstances. It requires a process of change which is always difficult, but we’ll have to manage because the public, on the whole, are resistant to change in any of their circumstances.” For Clarke, it is imperative that “if we are going to remain one of the leading economic powers in the world, with one of the higher levels of prosperity, we need to have an education system that is better than Singapore, or China. Our level of educational attainment and performance should rival the best in the world.”
Interestingly, coming from a former minister who has served under the grammar school-educated Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, Clarke sees a clear link between issues with the education sector and a breakdown in social mobility. “I think my contemporaries and I were a product of a very brief moment of social mobility that the British indulged with. It was the result of Butler’s 1944 Act, grammar schools. Margaret was very conscious of the desirability of social mobility and her cabinet was just full of 11-plus boys. What has happened since that time is that the academic opportunities for people of poorer backgrounds have been reduced. I’m not an advocate of going back to the old Butler system of the 11-plus, but there’s no doubt that the real problem is the limited opportunities for people from those parts of cities which are deprived”.
Clarke has a genuine belief in the value of education as a vital tool for what he sees as an essential Conservative belief in the people’s right to opportunity. “Whether or not the Prime Minister’s an Etonian doesn’t seem to matter very much. The equality of opportunity and social mobility, however, matters a great deal and I am greatly concerned. I am mainly concerned by the lack of opportunities many people suffer from, either because they’re born in less privileged circumstances, or because they come from an area where the education service is simply not good enough.” Throughout the interview, I get only a glimpse of how Clarke’s judgments were informed by years of experience. At every point it seems essential to reference his past in the party. It is his experience of three separate attempts at the party leadership that particularly shines through in his analysis. “My experience of the leadership of the Conservative party, and there’s no one who’s run for it more times than I have, is that it’s always won by someone nobody really thought of until a few weeks before. I regard all the present media speculation and decoding particular candidates crazy; it will have no bearing whatsoever.”
Looking back on the interview, the poignancy of this point for Clarke’s career strikes me. A man who could so easily have been a very popular leader of the Conservative Party, or even Prime Minister, never quite made it. Ken Clarke impresses me with his commitment to Europe, education, and social mobility. That this platform didn’t get him to the very top says a lot about the modern Conservative Party.