Skip to Content

Blogs Coffee House

Farewell Ken Clarke, last of the Tory Big Beasts

14 July 2014

7:24 PM

14 July 2014

7:24 PM

But for Europe, eh? It is a mark of how thoroughly the European issue has poisoned Tory waters that many party activists – and MPs – will be celebrating the end of Ken Clarke’s ministerial career tonight. Not before time, many of them will doubtless froth.

Well, maybe. But it bears remembering that the Tories who hated Clarke the most tend, more often than not, to be the Tories the public hates most. The kind of Conservatives good at losing elections and rather less good at winning them.

That does not mean Clarke was always right or that his judgement was necessarily routinely sound. Nevertheless it is something to be kept in mind. Would the Conservatives have been better or worse off these past 20 years with more or with fewer politicians like Ken Clarke? I think the answer to that is obvious, though I do not expect everyone to agree.

But what a career it has been. Forty four years an MP. Successively, Paymaster General, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State for Health, Secretary of State for Education, Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice and, finally and a little sadly, Minister without Portfolio.

They don’t make careers like that very often or even, perhaps, any more. Only churls can deny that. There are fewer Big Beasts in the Westminster jungle these days and it may just be that Clarke is just about the last of them. An ancient, dying breed.

Good riddance, daft Tories will scoff. He was a wet once and then there was the Europe thing. A traitor in Tory clothing, to some. Never to be forgiven for telling the Lady her time was up; never to be forgiven for his enthusiasm for the European idea.

But he was right about the blessed Margaret and a broader Tory party might find it easier to forgive him his apparent European heresies. I know that’s impossible for the monomaniacs who think Europe the biggest – even only – issue of our time but – and this is an awkward truth – most people aren’t that kind of monomaniac. Most people, in fact, look at the euro-obsessed wing of the Tory party and think it’s still amply populated by cranks and nutcases.

Sometimes this is unfair but Ken Clarke’s wing of the Tory party did less to put, and then keep, the party in opposition than did those who hated him most.

In any case, Europe, it has always seemed to me, should be an issue upon which people could and should respectfully disagree. It ought not to be a kind of litmus test for conservative purity. Because a party that insists upon too many such tests soon risks becoming a clique, not a party at all.

Only odd people could look at Clarke and conclude he was ever anything other than a conservative and a Tory. (There are, of course, plenty of odd people.)

Still, in an age in which the public wonders about all these bright young (or youngish) things who seem so smart yet sometimes also seem to know so little about life as it is actually lived there’s some value to having someone like Ken Clarke around. And not just because of the institutional memory gained from thirty years at the forefront of political life (though that’s important too).

Sure, Clarke was an MP from the age of 30 but people responded to him because they knew that though they might differ on any number of issues he was recognisably a human kind of being. He had bottom. And a hinterland. The jazz and the ale and the cricket and the hush puppies and the slovenly, even lazy, appearance all actually mattered. Because they were real. It gave Clarke a precious commodity: the ability to be listened to.

Not that he was a cuddly bear. On the contrary, Clarke was a happy warrior. At health and at education he was a knuckleduster-wearing tribune of reform. It was a long time ago, so perhaps people have forgotten how much the left hated him.

He was a good, still under-rated, Chancellor too. Let’s just say that comparisons with his immediate predecessor and his successor do not leave Clarke looking bad.

Could he have led the Tory party? In a different time, perhaps. Could he have led it successfully in his own time? Probably not. The European gulf had become too wide to be bridged. It would have been a disaster though, it is worth pointing out, only a different kind of disaster to those that befell the Tories anyway. How, in any case, could you lead a party that thought IDS a grand idea?

The last years were poor things as Clarke was sidelined by his younger colleagues. Whatever his shortcomings he might have avoided some of the mis-steps made by his successor as Lord Chancellor.

Sometimes, however, you get the sense that some parts of the Tory party these days think there’s something weak or feeble about Conservatism that comes with a human – even humane – face. They are wrong about that, however. Decency is a useful, valuable commodity.  It helps you earn respect and respect helps get you a hearing.

That need not be confused with a sense of intellectual frailty or a limp approach to urgent policy questions. Sometimes I think that some Tories still make this mistake too. If being liked, or at least respected by the public, is not enough it is at least a useful start.

Whatever. Ken Clarke’s race is run now but by any reasonable standards he has enjoyed a remarkable career of a sort that is no longer, it seems, fashionable. He has done his party and, more importantly, his country some service and it is a career that deserves to be remembered if only because it seems a type that we will not see too often again.


Show comments