Political history is littered with towering figures who never quite made it to the very top of politics. In Britain there are giants of past political eras who make the politicians of 2016 look like pygmies. On the Labour side one need only think of the likes of Denis Healey, Barbara Castle and their SDP renegades Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. For the Tories Michael Heseltine ranks high. So too, does Ken Clarke, who is the subject of this article and has just released his memoirs 'Kind of Blue.'
With the unedifying spectacle of «trousergate» shedding a light on how petty, thin skinned and juvenile the current Tory Prime Minister is (as well as her aides such as the former football journalist Fiona Hill and the Tory MP Nicky Morgan) one yearns for the days of substantive «big beast» intellectual heavy weight politicians with real gravitas such as the former Chancellor Ken Clarke. I recall having a conversation many years ago with a former Deputy Director of the Conservative Party's «Research» Department (which in fact is not exactly a research department more of a propaganda outfit) who described Mrs. May as a «lightweight». The spectacle of the Prime Minister spending nearly 1000 pounds on a pair of leather trousers, which for all the money involved looked rather tacky, and then another Tory MP, the former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, making remarks about it was bad enough. Mrs. May to then show such a thin skin and dis-invite Ms. Morgan from a meeting was playground politics at its worst and reveals worrying insecurities in the Prime Minister over such frivolous matters. As too was the manner in which it was carried out by her equally lightweight, insecure and obnoxious Joint Chief of Staff Fiona Hill.
The spectacle of three women politicians acting like cats over a pair of trousers has sadly reinforced all the worst stereotypes about female politicians. It has also reinforced the vacuum of gravitas at the top of British politics. In many ways British Government would be so better off if it was led by a political figure such as Ken Clarke. I first met Ken Clarke when I was debating on the same team as him alongside the former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind at the Cambridge Union back in January 2007. We were debating a motion regarding the use of force in world affairs and we were up against the former diplomat Craig Murray and Mick Jagger's ex-wife Bianca. We won the debate. I was extremely impressed with Ken Clarke, and indeed Malcolm Rifkind. I found Mr. Clarke to be an extremely warm, down to earth and charismatic politician with a great manner and temperament. No airs, no graces, no pretentious nonsense. And also a brilliant debater and clearly an intellectually substantive individual with deep knowledge and a super brain.
Ken Clarke first entered the House of Commons in 1970. He has always been in the centre ground of British politics, a moderate «One Nation» Tory committed to market economics but not enthralled with the more extreme and wilder aspects of free-market Thatcherism. He has also been a passionate and committed pro-European, believing strongly in the cause of European unity and of Britain leading in the European Union. He has had the strength of his convictions and has always stood by them, even when it would have been expedient for his own political advancement to jettison them. On foreign affairs he is a sensible, pragmatic, realist who has never embraced the wacko doctrine of neoconservatism. Indeed, he was one of only a handful of Tory MPs to vigorously oppose the Iraq War. It is this deep common sense and rejection of ideology in favour of pragmatism which sets him apart from some many of his more extreme Tory colleagues.
Clarke enjoyed a stellar Cabinet career serving as Margaret Thatcher's Health Secretary and Education Secretary and then John Major's Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. After the Tory wipe-out in the General Election of 1997 at the hands of Tony Blair's New Labour Party, which resulted in a massive Labour landslide with an astonishing majority of 179 in the House of Commons, Ken Clarke put himself forward for the leadership of the Tory Party. Sadly and stupidly the Conservatives were blinded by their prejudice and hostility regarding all things European including Clarke's support for Britain joining the European single currency, the Euro. Instead of going with the «big beast» of the Conservative Party with a huge amount of political and Government experience and an endearing personality personified in his love of jazz and hush puppy shoes, the Tories opted for the 39 year old William Hague. Hague's only Cabinet position before he became leader of the Tory Party was Secretary of State for Wales. He had only been an MP for 8 years or so. He also was the ultimate caricature of the Tory boy having given an excruciatingly cringe-worthy speech at the Tory Party conference of 1977
He was also not extremely adept at public relations deciding the best way to present himself to the public after his election was to go to Alton Towers wearing a baseball cap with his surname emblazoned on it. Hague would go on to run an extremely Europhobic and homophobic regime. He took anti-Europeanism and xenophobia to new levels. Hague made opposition to all things European including further European integration and the Euro the single issue of his General Election campaign of 2001. He also unleashed a campaign of demonising asylum seekers and refugees and campaigned to keep Section 28, an extremely nasty and bigoted piece of homophobic legislation introduced by the Conservative Government in 1986 and rightly repealed by the Blair Government. Hague made an infamous and truly vile speech in the run up to the 2001 General Election in which he said Britain had become a «foreign land». Hague's leadership of the Tory Party which reached its ugly climax in 2001 was a forerunner for the campaign that Donald Trump would run.
The Tories went down to another crushing defeat under Hague and Tony Blair was re-elected with another huge majority of 166 in the Commons. The Conservatives were then offered once more a great choice in the form of Ken Clarke. But yet again they rejected him in favour of the deeply objectionable Iain Duncan Smith. The less said about that appalling individual the better. As John Stuart Mill once remarked: «Not all conservatives are stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives». Duncan Smith was one of the most disastrous leaders of the Tory Party in its history, lasting only 2 years. Under his leadership the Tories supported Tony Blair over Iraq while Ken Clarke opposed it passionately. If the Conservatives had elected Clarke over Duncan Smith in 2001 and opposed the Iraq War they could very well have won in 2005 defeating Tony Blair. And then again they rejected Clarke in 2005 after another massive defeat at the hands of Tony Blair's Labour Party and went instead for David Cameron who was unable to deliver them a full majority in the 2010 General Election despite the economy being in its deepest recession since the Second World War and facing a deeply unpopular Labour leader in the form of Gordon Brown. Clarke went on to become a elder statesman in the administration of David Cameron and became Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, fitting for a Cambridge trained Queen's Counsel barrister.
Ken Clarke has once again shown his political strength and conviction by being the only Conservative MP to oppose the Government's timetable for triggering Article 50 for withdrawal from the EU in a recent Commons vote on Britain's doomed expedition out of the European Union. It is a tragedy for the country that it has no leadership equivalent to a Ken Clarke to guide it through these precarious and tumultuous times. Theresa May, like her successor David Cameron, is clearly out of her depth. If Ken Clarke had of been prime Minister in 2003 Britain would never have gone to war in Iraq. If Ken Clarke had been prime Minister in 2016 there would never have been this nightmare of referendum of Brexit in the first place. So, Ken Clarke will go down in British political history as one of the greatest Tory Prime Ministers that never was.