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Ken Clarke interview: ‘Talking clock’ politicians, the ‘neurotic’ Europe debate, and Labour’s ‘childlike’ energy plan

Ken Clarke is not only the biggest name in Nottingham politics, but one of the most well-known Westminster characters of the past fifty years. Rare is the government department where the ‘One Nation’ Tory has not made a mark. Having served most notably as Chancellor of the Exchequer 1993-1997, Clarke is now Minister without Portfolio. He spoke to Impact prior to a recent debate on campus.

Do you enjoy visiting universities and talking to students?

I try to do a political meeting at Nottingham University at least once a year. The best meeting I had at the last general election was here. Student audiences tend to be more political, and tend to be, though not always, more informed.

“Student audiences tend to be more political and…more informed”

You’ve served Rushcliffe for 43 years. What’s the best thing about being a Nottingham MP?

You’re bound to start by pointing out how long I’ve been doing it! I got elected in 1970, when Ted Heath beat Harold Wilson, and I’ve been in Parliament ever since. In 1997 it would have required the same swing that got (Michael) Portillo out in Ealing to get me out in Rushcliffe. That was the one and only time where I was a little concerned as I knew how bad the polls were.

I happen to be a Nottingham man. I fought Mansfield twice, for experience, when I was a very young barrister. After that, I was looking for a seat which I had a decent chance of winning. I was very lucky to be adopted in Rushcliffe at a ridiculously young age in 1966. I must have been 26 years of age and got elected when I was still 29.

You recently announced that you’ll be standing again?

That’s right. Obviously I’m a fanatic Parliamentarian, a bit of a political anorak. I’m still in the Cabinet, so I very much enjoy the privilege of being in the middle of the national debate and involved in quite a lot of decision making. I toyed with the idea of retiring and thought I’d just be reading the newspapers and barracking the television when political programmes came on.

What does your Minister without Portfolio role involve?

It’s a totally mysterious title. I’m in the Cabinet Office and I actually do a whole variety of things. The biggest thing I do is as the British lead on the proposed EU-US trade agreement, which would make an enormous difference. Although it’s negotiated by the (European) Commission, the British government is its most active supporter and I spend my time pressing what Britain thinks should be done and what we want out of this deal. That’s taken me to Brussels and Washington quite a bit.

As a pro-EU Tory, do you find your party’s Euroscepticism frustrating?

It’s become a neurotic and hysterical debate with people quite manically nationalist in a way which was not true when we first joined. It’s particularly bad at the moment because we’ve had a very deep recession and when times are hard it’s quite easy to persuade people to blame foreigners and foreign entanglements.

We’ve benefitted enormously from the European Union. The single market is by far the most important basis for our economy and attracts a lot of inward investment into the UK. It’s the biggest political and economic union in the world, and I still profoundly believe it would be complete folly to leave. The splendid isolation of Lord Salisbury is not actually very suitable in the 21st century.

“It’s ultra right-wing nationalists who lead the Eurosceptic cause”

When I used to debate it as a young man full of enthusiasm for the European cause, I found that the right-wing nationalists opposing me were outnumbered by the left-wing socialists. It was the Left who were really against the EU. They believed in a command economy and they worked out that the EU was based on free market economics. Now there aren’t many left-wing opponents; it’s ultra right-wing nationalists who lead the Eurosceptic cause.

As a former Chancellor, how do you see the current economic situation?

My successor (Gordon Brown) was the most catastrophic Chancellor since the war. I’m very supportive of George Osborne, probably his closest ally in government. He’s pursued a very courageous course which is beginning to work. It’s absolutely essential that we tackle the problem of deficit and debt, but we’ve also tried a lot of supply side and public sector reforms.

At the moment, like most people in my party, I’m quietly satisfied that things are getting so much better. But they haven’t got better enough yet. Most ordinary people haven’t seen any benefits from the recovery. When we do finally emerge from the crisis, we need a different economy to the one we had; more modern, hi-tech and competitive when we’ve got new competitors from Asia and elsewhere.

Speaking of ‘ordinary people’, Ed Miliband has made a big deal of the ‘cost of living’. Has his energy price freeze plan ‘struck a chord’?

It was well chosen as a populist gesture. People read that the economy is doing better in the newspapers but their own living standards remain seriously pressed. So he suddenly came up with this rather childlike notion of taking the most difficult price increase going on at the moment and simply declaring that he would stop it!

“(Ed Miliband) came up with this rather childlike notion”

The cost of generating energy keeps fluctuating wildly. If he makes them all lose money they’ll stop investing here. We need new investment in generating more capacity of a greener kind, and if you think the companies could be squeezed a bit more, then it’s the competition system you need to look at, not making daft speeches saying it’ll be a lot cheaper if you vote for me.

What we can’t have is the Labour Party saying what their price of electricity will be and the Conservatives naming another price, and the Liberal Democrats no doubt having a price somewhere in between the two!

What did you make of John Major’s call for a windfall tax on profits?

John has become a great personal friend of mine and politically we’re still not that far apart, but I don’t actually agree with his idea of a windfall tax. I do recall that John didn’t agree with windfall taxes either when Tony Blair proposed them when we were in office together. The problem with imposing any kind of tax on the energy companies is that it is the customers who will end up paying it.

Many commentators suggest the Conservatives have recently shifted to the Right. What has happened to the ‘modernisation project’?

I think what David (Cameron) says gets interpreted as going to the Right. He’s made concessions to the Right, primarily the referendum on the European Union. We are making more noise about immigration because we are steadily developing policies which are beginning to get down the uncontrolled level of immigration which we inherited.

Otherwise our public service and welfare reforms are perfectly enlightened. We’re putting a lot of emphasis on what we can do to improve opportunities for disadvantaged people if they’re prepared to work hard for success. That’s all still part of Cameron’s modernisation project.

Do you think your disagreements with many Conservatives over Europe and justice issues have contributed to your popularity?

I’ve not always been popular, but you gain authority as you get older. I hope I haven’t quite drifted to becoming a ‘national treasure’, I dread that moment.

“There’s no point being in politics if the opinions you’re giving are written by some PR man”

My views were perfectly orthodox in the Conservative Party when I joined. I give reasonable One Nation Tory views and there’s still a lot of support for those. I also am not one of these ‘talking clock’ politicians. I don’t take much notice about the advice on what slogans I should use. There’s no point being in politics if the opinions you’re giving are written by some PR man.

Can the Conservatives can win the next general election?

I think they can. We need to be 8% ahead in the popular vote to get a majority in the House of Commons, so an winning a majority will require giant strides. The chances of us being the biggest single party are extremely good, but the chances of either of the main parties getting a majority are distinctively dodgy. All over the Western world democratic politics has changed. The populist right and the populist left makes it even more difficult for mainstream parties. This Coalition has worked extremely well, but I’d rather we didn’t have to have another one.

Robert Smith

@robertdgsmith

Photo: Conservatives (Flickr)

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