A conversational recollection of life

Adam Somerset reviews Ken Clarke’s ‘Kind of Blue’.

Ken Clarke

Kind of Blue


515 pp

“Government has to be accountable to Parliament”. The voice on the one o’clock radio news of 13th October has an immediate familiarity. It is a voice that seems to have been part of Westminster’s fabric for ever. Which of course it has. Ken Clarke’s political life has spanned fifty years. His conviction that Britain’s fate is to be conjoined with Europe is rooted in his earliest observations. Politics was an obsession from school days. Macmillan’s disentangling from Empire left an enfeebled and unreformed Britain for which the revivifying stimulus of the then Community was the only antidote. In the Autumn of 2016 his is one of the voices from behind the front bench, more cogent and articulate than the ostensible Opposition that the Cabinet members face. “Government that is not accountable” continues the radio interview “does not make good government.”

If the Clarke voice and the Clarke presence are familiar there are two factors. The chance of his birth date meant that he missed national service by a matter of months. There was no brake on the pell-mell advance through Cambridge, legal qualification and Parliament by age thirty. Secondly, the sheer breeziness of personality made him a reliable regular for media appearances. “Newsnight” and “Question Time” contributions are to be counted in the hundreds. By the time of his surprise second coming, high office with the Coalition, a different ethos is in place. The post-Campbell Number Ten has become the master-choreographer of news management. Clarke is too much of an old dog to need to pay attention; his opinions on radio and television continue undiminished.

“Kind of Blue” is not a political memoir of the first rank in the manner of Healey or Major. For a start it has not been written directly. Ever forthright, Clarke reveals the method  in the first paragraph of his foreword. “This memoir was largely dictated into a tape recorder, usually over a late-night brandy and cigar, as a conversational recollection  of life spent actively engaged in politics and government with some asides on my personal life.” The personal life is scant and dryly recounted. There is the occasional  wry tale of mandatory security staff being obliged to follow their Minister in foreign parts on bird-watching escapades. But then Clarke says straight “My family and I value our privacy”. To add a minor note from personal testimony the Clarke family home was in a road adjacent to that of my oldest school friend. Absent for the bulk of the year the Minister would be around for the usual activities of a suburban Christmas. What you saw on television, said my friend’s parent, was pretty much what you got at a seasonal gathering.   

The twenty-six chapters are each named after a melody from jazz. Thus the chapter on being Health Secretary is headed “Fever” (Peggy Lee 1958), that on being Home Secretary “You’re Under Arrest” (Miles Davis 1985).  Clarke does not do ideology or the sweep of high history. “I have always believed that the sanest route to prosperity and social equality is to combine free-market economics with a strong sense of fairness” is as far as it goes. He was, he says, tempted by the social democracy of Jenkins and Crosland but the younger Tory ministers were more appealingly forward-looking. The rest of it is just the doing, Clarke having spent more time on the winning side than not. 

“A Kind of Blue” is prone to moments of blandness. Contesting the leadership ought to be high drama but the book’s accounts are barely more than the public record. More revealing are episodes from office. There is small detail on the out-of-office chairing of Alliance-Unichem and British American Tobacco, other than that the latter is filled with splendid men. On the other hand the challenge of managing vast ministries is not underplayed. All management is about the use of assets to best purpose. Those who manage the assets by contrast want nothing to change and deploy every argument, privately and via media and leaks, to maintain the status quo.

That at least is in the Clarke telling. Thus, when the most successful rapid capital-to-capital transport link in the world is proposed the policy from the Immigration Service is undeviating. Government must construct a special platform at Folkstone so that every incoming Eurostar passenger leave the train for processing before being allowed to reboard and proceed to London. Labour opposes the creation of the National Express company, as Clarke tells it, because cheaper fares might divert passenger traffic from rail. In Peckham the Minister at Trade and Industry visits an expensively outfitted training centre for young people. Its impression being “casual  and disorganised” he  enquires as to the record of getting the young into employment  “Oh, we’re not into jobs here” says the trainer blithely.       

The editing is light. On several occasions a double subject is followed by a plural verb. Alastair Campbell was political editor of the Mirror rather than its overall editor. The granite-faced men who oversaw the crossings into the former East Berlin were named “Vopos” not “Volpos.” Numerically the word  “friend” is the most common usually in the context of “good friend” to the extent that it becomes irksome.

But then it is probably true.  The gamut is eclectic, running from Ecclestone to Merkel and Juncker. Even antagonism melts. Robin Cook in opposition was “the only one with whom I was unable to establish any friendly personal relationship.” But he too “became something of a friend  in later years.” Rodney Bickerstaffe was a fierce opponent as head of NUPE but inevitably “I was actually on very friendly terms.” The sustained antagonists are few. Rupert Murdoch is one, termed “deeply unsympathetic politically.” Of Ahmed Chalabi, one time military coalition choice for the leadership of Iraq: “I thought he was a rogue and a crook.”

But then friendship probably does matter. Organisations are social. Clarke records the diminishing of Cabinet government. Its high point in quality and seriousness is under Mrs Thatcher. “Contrary to later popular belief” he writes, she “ ran a genuinely collective government” even though she tells him “There is always one man who talks too much in Cabinet. It used to be Robert Carr, and now it’s you.”  But he sees the roots of today’s distemper in relationships of thirty years’ ago. Kohl and Thatcher just did not get each other.    

“A Kind of Blue” is also a course through history. At age nine Clarke makes a scrapbook of the 1950 election. Before that the future Chancellor had been aware of Cripps. Shinwell he regarded as personally responsible for the fuel shortages and power cuts over the deep-freeze winter of ’47. On a first visit to the Commons he sees a Churchill of great age on the government front bench. The Cambridge undergraduates are all behind Iain McCleod in his role of Secretary of State for the Colonies. The Party in the country loathes him and its government’s dissolution of Empire.  In 1972 he makes a visit to Northern with fellow MPs Barney Hayhoe and Chris Tugendhat. The men of Ulster are flabbergasted to find that Clarke has neither knowledge nor interest as to the religion of his colleagues.

Moving into the present century the former Chancellor has no respect for the Brownian shoving of public expenditure into incompetently executed PFI schemes Cabinet in the Coalition lasts just ninety minutes and the room is lined with press and political advisers. Cameron and Osborne are in the habit of referring to Blair as “the Master.” When Robin Cook suggested that the independence of the Bank of England be an item for collective discussion the Leader’s response had been “What has it do with them?”  The issue of calling a referendum on the EU was likewise never deemed worthy for Cabinet discussion.  

Adam Somerset is a Welsh Critic.

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