Coffee House

Ken Clarke the pragmatist suspends his pugilism over EU

18 June 2013

2:29 PM

18 June 2013

2:29 PM

It’s said that Ken Clarke would cross a motorway to pick a fight with a political opponent. His aggression is one reason why he thrived (eventually) under Mrs Thatcher: ambulance drivers, teaching unions and local government were all given a bunch of fives when Clarke reached Cabinet in the late ‘80s. Chris Patten (in the course of saying that he would go into the jungle with Clarke) told the late Hugo Young that ‘the key to Clarke is that he is anti-establishment – any establishment’. Yet pugilism is but one side of Clarke. He is not, by temperament or conviction, an ideologue. What matters is what works. And it worked for him. His reputation as a flexible and effective administrator was such that he was tipped to succeed Thatcher before he decided to be the ‘token peasant’ in Douglas Hurd’s coalition of grandees, which formed to unite the party after the defenestration but was soon vanquished.

Why, then, has a pragmatist taken such an uncompromising stance on the EU? It has done him no good where the Conservative Party is concerned. Indeed, Clarke has often challenged the party’s established view, and its establishment figures. Lady Thatcher told a rapt fringe meeting at the acrimonious 1999 conference: ‘In my lifetime all our problems have come from mainland Europe.’ To which Clarke later remarked: ‘All our problems? Well, it’s a point of view, isn’t it?’ A week later, he shared a stage with Tony Blair at the Britain in Europe launch event. 14 years on, some Tories still regard this as treachery. Not that Clarke did much to placate them: his support of the Lisbon Treaty made him the most frequent rebel against Cameron between October 2005 and January 2009, when he was recalled to the shadow cabinet.


Clarke’s article in the Telegraph today contains the flashes of chutzpah and cheek that we expect from him; but, while the substance of his argument is familiar, he has kept his boxing gloves in the locker this time. He does not cajole; instead, he seeks to persuade. The argument follows thus: nation states, notably America, have made clear that they would prefer to deal with Britain in Europe. As we cannot achieve the most advantageous trade deals bilaterally, we must remain in the EU and work to make it more British. Thatcher (as she was in government, not as she became in forced retirement) would have realised this; you, the Conservative Party and the ‘right wing press’, must realise this too. In short, get behind the Prime Minister because I have no doubt that he can do it for Britain.

The essential phrase in Clarke’s article is: ‘But, in the end, we are a practical race.’ It is telling that, while Clarke makes the case for reform of the EU’s economic and regulatory structures, he does not mention sovereignty. We might like to see sovereignty repatriated, but is that a realistic ambition? I suspect that the pugilist would say: dream on.

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Show comments
  • Smithersjones2013

    The argument follows thus: nation states, notably America, have made
    clear that they would prefer to deal with Britain in Europe.

    Well when the USA are members of a Pan American Political Organisation and have to dance to the tune of bureaucrats say based in Montivideo or Caracas or even Havana then perhaps we’ll give a toss what the American’s think but until such time (and I’m not holding my breath) I suggest they keep their nose out of our sovereignty considerations!

    As for Clarke we should indeed be practical and put the senile old fool out to grass somewhere where he will do no further harm. He’s beginning to sound like a stuck record…..

  • Freeborn John

    If Ken Clarke’s pro-Eu argument was true then non-Eu state like Iceland wouldn’t be able to conclude bilateral trade deals with major players like China.

    However, as per the link above Iceland just did exactly that. So Ken Clarke’s lead argument for British membership of the EU is null and void.

  • Freeborn John

    Except that as the recent free trade deals between Both Sitzend a Neayn there’d anChina on the other show, it is perfectly possible to secure better trade deals outside the EU than within it. Ken Clarke’s arguments do not stand up in the real world where those European countries not in the EU typically sign free trade agreements with 3rd countries from Mexico to Chile to South Korea in advance of the EU.

  • McClane

    “Chris Patten (in the course of saying that he would go into the jungle
    with Clarke) told the late Hugo Young that ‘the key to Clarke is that he
    is anti-establishment – any establishment’”

    Look at Chris Patten now. Totally pro-establishment at the BBC where he’s defending the waste of billions of £s.

    And Ken Clarke. Well past his shelf life.

    The only jungle either would go into these days, separately or together, is one which guaranteed them a decent glass of red with a lunch paid for by the tax-payer.

  • Augustus

    According to the FT, an EU audit now finds that 1bn euros in aid to Egypt has vanished. The EU auditors are apparently mystified as to what’s happened to that money, which seems to have vanished into a big black hole.The money was intended for health care, social welfare and transport, but the Court has never seen any accounts regarding that. And yet in January this year Van Rompuy announced that the EU was going to send a further 5bn euros to Egypt “to help promote the democratic transition”. That is the kind of scandalous hulk of corruption the EU has become.

  • Bill Brinsmead

    Ken Clarke has held major offices of state with distinction – Treasury, Home Office, Trade & Industry, Health, Justice and Education & Science. Pugnacious without being
    offensive, likeable and courageous. Always popular with Party members at the Annual Conference.

    A great servant to the Conservative Party.

    • 2trueblue

      But not to the electorate, which is what he was elected to do.

      • In2minds

        “But not to the electorate……..”

        In that respect Clarke is a lot like Peter Mandelson, loved within the
        Westminster bubble but loathed without. Clarke’s reputation as a good administrator or his popularity at large is a myth.

        • 2trueblue

          Who really cares about the ‘Westminster bubble”? The reality is that when we send our MPs to Westminster some forget who sent them there and what is expected of them. Clarke is a self interested, egotistical individual, Mandleson is, well similar. but there the similarity ends.

  • Austin Barry

    “The essential phrase in Clarke’s article is: ‘But, in the end, we are a practical race.’ ”

    Thanks to the Con/Lab/LibDem conspiracy of the last 30 years we are a dying, deracinated race.

  • Denis_Cooper

    Having read reports of Cameron’s claims about the projected benefits of the planned EU-US trade deal, I reckon that its significance for the UK economy is being greatly exaggerated and in fact it wouldn’t matter that much if we weren’t part of it.

  • MirthaTidville

    So 2 out of 4 current stories are about Clarke.. When will you learn he is a busted flush, with nothing interesting or even thoughtful to say. Its high time he was pensioned off and saved the rest of civilisation the need to hear his `wise words of wisdom` that we could all very well do without

    • telemachus

      Folks said that about Winston in 1938

      • Andy

        You need to learn more about 1930s politics. It is not quite as you seem to think.

      • chudsmania

        Says a Chamberlain fan. We’ve had you sussed for ages.

  • Tory HQ

    Clarke is certainly an establishment man, but it is not the local establishment of the UK, which he clearly loathes. It is the establishment of the European Union which he serves, and does so with great energy, and the establishment of the Bilderberg Group, a top table that he delights in sitting at, even though elsewhere he might be considered a ‘token peasant’. Indeed this is his ambition, to so undermine the British establishment that he gets his own back for being a peasant by destroying the political aristocracy and replacing it with a mediocraty that the electorate despises.

  • Adrian Drummond

    “notably America, have made clear that they would prefer to deal with Britain in Europe. ”

    The US has made it clear that it is in their interests – not ours – that we remain in the EU. That is the bigger point that Clarke conveniently overlooks.

    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      Agreed. The thought that the USA would not conclude a trade deal with the UK if it’s businesses were clamouring to sell to us is laughable.

      • telemachus

        Laughable I agree
        But true

        • JackyTreehorn

          You agree that it is laughable for the USA not to conclude a trade deal with the UK if their businesses were clamouring to sell to us. Why do you think it would be true? Is this the same kind of thinking that laughingly states that the Europeans would make it hard for Britain to trade in Europe if we are not in the EU, even though they sell more to us than we to them?
          The left have never got the hang of market forces have they.

          • HookesLaw

            Is it a surprise that a group of over 300 million should sell more to us than we, a nation of 60 million, sell to them?
            How does the trade balance per capita work out?

            But does any of that have any meaning? If we were not in the EU we would be in the EEA/EFTA and still be part of the single market and single market rules and costs so in fact being out of the EU would make very little difference to us or our trade.
            Meantime the EU would continue to exist and make the rules and trade deals which we would then have to live by.

            • JackyTreehorn

              Your first point about the size of populations is …well pointless.

              They will not like the thought that they will lose trade with us and in the consequence jobs if they try to block British goods.
              Also if it makes no difference to trade if we are in or out, is a very good reason to be out as we won’t be paying £53m a day for the pleasure of being a member
              Meanwhile we can trade by the rules that the EU set when selling to the EU but adapt to other markets without the EU costs making some products unprofitable.

          • telemachus

            London is the world’s financial centre
            Where do you think the world financial centre would move to if there were no “in” to the EU for London
            Frankfurt would clean up

            • JackyTreehorn

              We have heard it all before. London was the worlds financial centre before our membership and who knows how long the European public will put up with a failed customs union that is costing them jobs and erodes their standard of living before they decide enough is enough. I think the backward thinking of the eurofanatics is coming to an end. Of course the political elite have a vested interest in the status quo but I can never understand people outside that clique, perhaps they are just against the people who are against the euro project.

              • Andy

                Well said. The wholething is turning into a Fascist nightmare. The sooner we leave the better.

            • chudsmania

              Nope. Think FTT. Frankfurt , in the financial world is a minnow compared to London. As a bridge from the rest of the world to Europe , London would clean up . I would ask you to do the maths but you wouldnt like the answer.

            • ButcombeMan

              Exactly the same argument was made if we did not join the Euro. It is false, and the UK cannot now be frightened into staying in Europe, it is too late for that.

              My personal view now, is that if the Uk has a slightly lower standard of living outside Europe rather than in it, that may be a price worth paying, so odious to me is, “ever closer union”.

              Clarke does not mention that sovereignty issue, because he is on a loser straight away. His kind of Tories had their chance to create a Europe the UK could stay in, they failed, we now see they were always going to fail, even if they, do not. They are history.