Reaction Reviews: Kind Of Blue by Ken Clarke

Ken comes across as an attractive character, but also as a man who made up his mind early and never then changed it

BY Bruce Anderson   /  5 November 2016

Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir. Ken Clarke, Macmillan, 2016

This is a strange book. On the one hand, it is an interesting political document; on the other hand, it is surprisingly shallow. For four decades, Mr Clarke participated in great events. Yet he managed to do this without ever giving those matters deep thought. He comes across as an attractive character with many political skills, but also as a man who made up his mind early and never then changed it, about anything. These were tumultuous years. But it is as if that all passed Ken Clarke by. The tone of this volume is one of unruffled Anglo-Saxon pragmatism.

Yet that is a paradox, as is Mr Clarke’s political personality. To a superficial observer, he would come across as a quintessential Englishman: happy in his own skin, determined to ensure that however grave his responsibilities, there was always time for fun, full of good cheer. This is a sensible attitude for a politician to take, for it helps to ensure a sense of proportion. It also impresses the voting public. In an age of sound-bites, image consultants and pervasive verbal plasticity, Ken Clarke always came across as real. He smoked small cigars. He enjoyed a drink. He usually refused to carry a mobile phone. In Ken’s time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, more than one journalist received the same phone call: ‘I believe that you are about to have lunch with the Chancellor?’ ‘Ye-ess.’ ‘This is his office. Could you ask him to give us a call when he has a moment?’ Wonderful, human, endearing: a John Bull character, and be damned to the Frog-eating wretches on the wrong side of the Channel – surely this was a man on the way to 10 Downing Street?

There was, however, a problem. Ken was not John Bull. He was Jacques Taureau. He was on the Frog-eaters’ side. From the beginning of his political career to its now, alas, final phase, Ken has been a federalist, unswervingly approving of everything European: genially yet implacably dismissive of those millions of his fellow-countrymen who refuse to share his enthusiasm. To be fair to him, he scorned concealment or compromise. If he had been willing to bend a little, fudge a little, accept that when there is a divisive controversy, it might be useful to park it in the long grass – then he could have been leader and Prime Minister. But stooping to conquer was not in his nature.

Many of his fellow Conservatives recognised this and concluded that he was dangerous. They  were right. The years after 1997 was the era of maximum danger. The Tory party had been flattened by Tony Blair’s steam-roller. If he had possessed one-tenth of Margaret Thatcher’s political courage, he might have succeeded in taking Britain into the single currency. Had he tried, Ken Clarke would have been a formidable ally from the backbenches. If he had been the so-called Leader of the Opposition, we could well have ended up with an abolished pound and a hopelessly-split Tory party. I once told Ken that for a decade after 1997, every wise Tory had one overriding aim: to ensure that he did not become our Leader. Oddly enough, he disagreed. I adhere to my view.

One might have assumed that this book would have contained an apologia pro Europa sua. But Ken just takes everything for granted. Most thoughtful Euro-sceptics of my acquaintance can understand federalism, even though they reject it. Ken makes no attempt to think his way into his opponents’ positions. Indeed, he uses the word Euro-sceptic to cover every shade of non-federalist Tory opinion. It is as if he regards Europe as too important for thought.

In the 1960s, the young Kenneth Clarke was a foot-soldier in the second most important Tory Intellectual revolution of the Twentieth Century. Until that time, the Tory party had been associated with nostalgia for Empire and social conservatism. A group of youngsters, many of them associated with the Bow Group, others graduates of Cambridge, concluded that the party’s future lay in liberalism, social and economic. They wanted to combine free-market economics and progressive social policies. They were also passionate Europeans. In terms of high office, Geoffrey Howe and Ken Clarke were the two most important revolutionaries, but at least as regards Europe, their efforts were frustrated by the more important Tory revolution: Thatcherism.

Unlike many of Margaret Thatcher’s other Tory critics, Ken Clarke was usually well-disposed to the Old Girl. After her fall, he wrote her a moving letter. As he cheerfully acknowledges, it helped that he had the hide of a pachyderm. Unlike Geoffrey Howe or Michael Heseltine, he never let their disputes become personal. In response, she on the whole respected him. But most of the long-stay residents of her Cabinet modified their views under her influence. Ken is a striking exception.           

This book does not only cover Europe. There are some alarming passages dealing with his time as Education Secretary. In those days, Left-wing educationalists had almost brought their Gramscian long march to a successful conclusion. The battle to reverse all that has still not been won. 

So anyone interested in politics will find plenty of interesting material in these pages, as well as the unaddressed questions. The Chancellor has an official country residence, Dorneywood. When Ken was Chancellor, he once invited his Chief Secretary, Jonathan Aitken, to stay for the weekend. At about 11.30 on Sunday morning, Ken said ‘Fancy a pint?’ His wife Gillian promptly intervened. ‘Remember, Ken, we’ve got a dozen people coming for lunch. I want you back at 1.00 sharp.’ He told her not to worry. The two men set off, to a surprisingly scruffy pub for that area of the Home Counties. The Chancellor’s arrival caused no excitement. ‘Allo Ken mate: fancy a game of darts?’ A couple of pints later, Ken looked at his watch. Jonathan prepared to leave, which they did, in another direction. ‘There’s another pub down the road that’s even more me.’ ‘Have we time?’ ‘Ye-ah.’ An even scruffier pub, more darts, general jollity, two or three more pints – and only then did the two miscreants return to Dorneywood by forced march. It was 1.30 before Ken was greeting his guests while trying not to burp beery fumes over them – and avoid his wife’s wrathful eye.

That is so Ken and so English. So how could such a jolly Englishman want to ensnare his country in a federal Europe? If you read this book for an answer, you will be none the wiser.