“The Biggest Mess I Have Seen In My Lifetime” Ken Clarke MP talks Brexit, Trump, and the “Formidable” Lady Thatcher

By Leighton Hughes

I was fortunate enough in December to speak with former UK Chancellor (1993 to 1997) Ken Clarke MP. A Member of Parliament since 1970, under 7 different Prime Ministers, he’s held government positions under the Thatcher, Major, and Cameron premierships. His political career almost perfectly matches UK entering and leaving the European Union; an organisation that he is deeply passionate about. We discussed Brexit, David Cameron’s legacy, jazz, and running through fields of wheat.

Firstly, if the UK does leave the Single Market, what is the optimal trade relationship for the UK to have with the EU?

The optimal position is that UK should stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union; the optimal position for trade and investment. There is free access; no customs, no regulatory or tariff barriers. It is the largest, best organised free market in the world. It is by far the most important market for us. So, I haven’t resigned myself to our leaving them.

No one suggested we leave them during the referendum. I have never heard a Eurosceptic particularly attack the economic relationship we had with Europe. Leave were not against the Common Market; but the politics of the Union that they objected to. The PM gives no economic reason for objecting to the Single Market or the Customs Union. Her reason for leaving the Single Market is for control of our border. Her reason for leaving the Customs Union is to pursue UK agreements with the rest of the world rather than the EU ones which we have been working on with our partners over recent years. We have EU agreements with over 60 countries – South Korea, Canada – and these benefit us. The EU gives us better deals.

The referendum never mentioned leaving the Single Market, and Leave said trade will carry on just as before. It was the ‘politics of fear’ to say otherwise. I don’t understand the referendum is seen as the people’s instruction to leave these excellent trading arrangements. Any alternative will be inferior to what we have now, and that will damage our economy, and make our country poorer than it would otherwise have been – through the erection of new tariffs.

What do you think of the Leave view that there can be a long-term benefit from Brexit albeit with a short and medium-term cost?

On trade, there is no advantage whatever in being your own negotiator compared to 1 in almost 30 countries. You won’t get comparative agreements. The world is getting quite protectionist. New agreements will not compensate for the shortfall in trade from lost EU trade. We export more to Holland than India, China and Australia put together. With regards to the United States, they are very keen to open up our agricultural markets. They also want us to keep access to Europe’s financial services. Of course, if we lose our financial services passporting rights, this would be rather a blow to the Wall street banks. We would want them to up open up their services to competition, but we had been making very slow progress under the Obama administration. The ‘Buy America’ policy across the states of the US is also very strong, and is only likely to be emboldened by President Trump. We have a trade surplus with the US, and they won’t have the slightest interest in us expanding that.

You describe yourself as a free market conservative with a social conscience. What does that practically mean? Would you describe Theresa May in the same way?

I am an economic and social liberal. The Conservative Party has been this for the last half century. And yes – I have known Theresa May for 4 years in Cabinet with her. I am a follower of Iain Macleod. I embrace internationalism and free market economics. These changes gave us a modern, successful economy. We pushed these ideas when in the European Union, and these were the conventional policies of the Conservative Party for the past 50 years; the mainstream until 18 months ago. The poll got everyone to change.

How would you reconcile your position with the need to address people’s concerns about immigration, which dominated much of the referendum campaign?

We should tackle separately the hang-ups with immigration. No one has any idea about migration controls for EU nationals. Most of the EU campaigning on this issue was anti-Muslim, anti-wider world; a fear of the people on the beaches of Libya. This is nothing to do with membership of the EU. Like in the US, it was apparently all the fault of the Mexicans, here it is a mix of angry protesting groups of all kinds saying it was all the fault of Brussels. There is a dissatisfaction and a cynical contempt for the old political parties and most of their leadership. This was pushed by those who don’t like the accelerating change, or those who have lost out and been left behind over an otherwise prosperous period. That is what has led to these strange results across Western world.

To address this, we need to change our economy to continue to thrive in a rapidly changing, globalised economy, and ensure that that is spread. The angry resentment against a tiny group of ostentatiously, hugely rich people. Look at high executive pay versus falling living standards of big mass of the population; economic liberals have failed to address this. Through the 2000s there was a perception of ever widening inequality. This is a big, big problem that no one has found an answer to.

Regarding the specific issue of immigration, we need to reform the Home Office and Immigration service so it operates effectively. This is not the doing of Brussels. This not free movement, which is a reciprocal arrangement, involving the least problematic migrants. Instead it is about those fleeing anarchy in Africa and the Middle East; young men who can see a brighter future in Sweden, the UK, and Germany for example. We are not very good at stopping them, not very good at removing them. The Home Office is not effective at monitoring them. Human traffickers from East and West Africa make money from this. We have no idea how many undocumented people are here; it ranges from 400,000 to 1 million. Of course, we must have a civilized response. But we cannot take the world’s poor. We need to satisfy voters here. Nigel Farage made great success of using EU immigration as a symbol of people’s bigger fears; a sort of cultural anxiety. He wasn’t showing EU nationals in his posters; he was showing black and brown people. That is nothing to do with the EU in terms of Somalia, Bangladesh, Syria, Iraq. We have a sovereign border with these countries. Our system has just collapsed on this front.

Could there be further populist rage?

Yes. The political scene is the biggest mess I have seen in my lifetime. That is a consensus among my generation of politicians and journalists. We are in the middle of some turning point. British politics is changing very rapidly. Only with the benefit of hindsight will we know if we go back to more ordered rational policy of Left versus Right led discussion that is genuinely relevant. At the moment, we are in a circus of near collapse of the political system; in the middle of which, we are parochially obsessed with Brexit. It has not even been debated very well. It has been grossly oversimplified. The negotiations we are about to embark on in countless areas are deeply complex. We need serious specialists. Instead it is about who said what at dinner, and did they quarrel with each other.

What do you think David Cameron’s legacy will be?

Well, I can never forgive David for the decision to hold an In/Out referendum. It was vague. It didn’t offer the range of answers that befitted such a decision. I mean I am against referendums in general. It was reckless; frivolous almost. Of course, he never imagined that he would lose it! I only found out by reading the papers. I was told by David it was to calm down the Brexiteers in the run up to the General Election, and – of course – it had the opposite effect! David had no idea what reforms he wanted; it was just a delaying tactic. No one anticipated that this could end with probably the worst domestic policy decision of my lifetime. It could have very bad results with less influence in the modern world. There was also bizarrely low-level campaigning for the such a huge issue. That is David Cameron’s legacy; just as Iraq dominated the legacy of Tony Blair. It would have been ludicrous for him to stay on.

You have said on many occasions that Margaret Thatcher was the best Prime Minister under which you have been an MP. Who was the second best?

John Major did a lot to cement the Thatcher legacy. His defence of the structural and economic changes kept a modern dynamic economy, and in many ways paved the way for Blair. John stopped an Old Socialist Labour winning in 1992, coming into office and undoing everything; all the tough economic decisions were secured. So, I say John Major. David Cameron was a perfectly nice guy. The Coalition was quite good. Ted [Heath]’s only success was taking us into Europe; his economic policy was a complete disaster.

What was it like to work in Thatcher’s cabinet?

Margaret Thatcher’s government always had this question at every decision: what was the right thing to do? It was about the courage of our convictions. Others delivered the detail: [Nigel] Lawson and [Geoffrey] Howe and [Norman] Tebbit, but we all delivered on our objectives. It left a distinct change to British society and the economy of a desirable kind. It was great fun to be in Margaret’s government; so long as you could stand the hassle! Here was a highly unpredictable woman. She liked a row. There was a hell of a row over my health reforms, but she let me get on with it. She was very aggressive, but you could stand up to her, and she was persuadable. She wanted to thrash out policy weakness. She was a formidable person to debate policy with. A strange way of working, but it worked.

Ken Clarke (left) with Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher at the Tory party conference in 1985. Photograph: Brian Harris/Alamy

You are also known by politicos for your love of jazz. Do you have a favourite album?

Absolutely. Though I have not got to Ronnie’s [London’s famous jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s] very much these days – not for a year or two. I still listen to jazz in the car. My taste is very much rooted in my youth; the likes of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus. I couldn’t even tell you some of these new players. I’d go for Mingus’ Town Hall Concert. An extraordinary man Mingus; a strange character. He is very boisterous.

And finally during the 2017 General Election campaign, Theresa May was asked for the naughtiest thing she had ever done. She said “running through fields of wheat.” How would you answer this?

That’s not a question that she should have answered, is it?! It’s mad to answer that question. “Mind your own business” – that’s what I’d say!

Ken Clarke official portrait courtesy of UK Parliament



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