Book review: A Kind Of Blue
Ken Clarke’s memoirs are true to his personality and beliefs –and you can hear his voice coming through.
When Ken Clarke retires as an MP at the next election, Parliament will have lost one of its few remaining links with the turbulent politics of the 1970s.
The extracts from his autobiography and many of the reviews concentrated on specific episodes in his life and his comments and assessment of Thatcher, Cameron and May. But Ken’s autobiography is more than that and is revealing about him as a politician and what he achieved as a minister. He never kept a diary, there were a few contemporaneous notes on events which he thought were significant, but as he engagingly reveals, this memoir was dictated into a recorder late at night accompanied by a brandy and a cigar.
Not everyone will agree with Ken’s portrayal of himself or his political life, but above all else Kind of Blue reflects his personality and beliefs – indeed, because he dictated his memoirs you can hear his voice coming through.
Ken Clarke, according to many, joins that long list of “big beast” politicians who make up that fascinating group of the best Prime Ministers we never had, along with Rob Butler, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Michael Heseltine.
Apart from ability, and in some cases, a talent for intrigue, all failed to win over the majority of their parliamentary colleagues or their Party at large. In the case of Ken it was to stridently maintain his commitment to the UK remaining a full member of the EU when it had gone out of fashion with a Eurosceptic Tory Party and Tory press. It is fascinating to read about Ken’s family and childhood which he endearingly relates was happily lower middle class and he never saw any need to exaggerate that when it became more a rite of passage in the last decade. He had loving and supportive parents and a personality that was cheery and optimistic but with a streak of stubbornness. His natural ability, capacity for hard work and attendance at a grammar school became a passage to Cambridge.
And Ken Clarke never lost his connection to the Midlands which gave him a valuable provincial outlook. He claims that from the age of nine he wanted to be an MP and the newspaper of choice at home was the Daily Mail. Outside study and later work was an interest in medieval church architecture, cricket, football, jazz and later bird watching and formula one motor racing. He developed a taste for good wines, brandy, beer and of course cigars.
At Cambridge he participated in politics, became part of what was later seen as the Tory Cambridge mafia – Norman Fowler, Norman Lamont, Michael Howard, and met and married Gillian the love of his life.
Ken’s political beliefs were based on free market economies combined with a social conscience, and support of a foreign policy that accepted the realities of the new post war world. That included a commitment to what became the EU.
After Cambridge as a barrister he learnt to juggle the law with politics, and a robust constitution served him well as did a capacity to absorb a complex brief. He fought one hopeless seat before being elected at twenty-nine in 1970 for his constituency of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire. His intake of 1970 was more careerist than earlier generations but Parliament was still important. Heath made him a government whip and then under Thatcher he was a shadow minister and then a junior transport minister in government.
His relations with Margaret Thatcher were never close, but they had respect for each other – he admired her bravery and determination particularly to reform the public services, and she liked his combative nature and the fact he was prepared to take on vested interests. What emerges in Kind of Blue is Ken’s enjoyment of robust debate in itself and as a way of refining arguments and seeking a decision. Like a golden thread throughout this book is his advocacy of Cabinet government and his sadness that after 1987 Thatcher’s exercise of this declined and the same occurred after 2015 with the Cameron government.
One of the great ironies of Ken’s reputation with the Thatcherite old guard in the Parliamentary Party and media is that he was one of her most effective ministers in employment, trade and above all heath, education and at the Home Office. I find it amusing to hear today colleagues who were junior ministers under Thatcher extolling a tough line on public services but who at the time flinched when faced with opposition.
Ken makes the point Thatcher never cut mainstream public services but made savings and corrected the balance with the private sector through privatising subsidised nationalised industries.
Theresa May’s ministers, especially Jeremy Hunt, Justine Greening and Amber Rudd could do well to read Ken’s chapters on how he took on the unions who were more concerned at protecting their privileges than the customer or tax payer – the BMA, the NUT and the Police Federation just to pick a sample.
And Ken is proud of his reforms and what he achieved. Criticism is made of civil servants who acquiesced in the union vested interests but equally he praises those who helped him – no blanket condemnation of experts – please note Michael Gove.
Throughout his ministerial career, including under Major and Cameron, Ken was a proactive minister and was prepared to delegate. His stubbornness and refusal to be restrained by any No 10 media grid undoubtedly led to Prime Ministerial frustration combined with his phobia of mobile phones.
His account of the resignation of Thatcher certainly undermines the myth that he led a plot. He was loyal to Major and when he became Chancellor he helped to steady the economy. He never expected after 1997 to return to government as a minister which Cameron facilitated in 2010. By that stage he had unsuccessfully fought a series of leadership campaigns – his commitment to the EU being the stumbling block.
Ken Clarke was undoubtedly a big beast and something of a bruiser. Self confident and happy in himself with a wide number of interests, mentally and physically robust, and supported by his wife Gillian who sacrificed much for his ministerial career. Kind of Blue is a good read, a self-aware autobiography, a history of the Conservative Party and its exercise of power over half a century.
Ken is rightly proud of many of his achievements and makes no apology for consuming wine and cigars at inappropriate and politically incorrect moments.
When he finally left government he reflects that it was at a time of political populism with policy driven by media headlines and soundbites and he condemns Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on the UK‘s membership of the EU, the “worst political mistake made by any British Prime Minister in my life time”. Others would disagree, but Ken is not only entitled to his opinion, he is used to forcefully expressing it.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP Broadland