Imagine a world without space hoppers, the internet and Post-it Notes. It would not be remiss of me to say that the world has changed since Ken Clarke first stood for the Conservative Party at the 1964 general election. Britain was not yet in Europe, and a fluffy haired baby by the name of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was throwing his toys out of his pram somewhere other than the House of Commons. Clarke ultimately failed in his attempt to take the Labour stronghold of Mansfield in 1964 and 1966, however Clarke’s third time proved to be the charm when Clarke became MP for Rushcliffe at the 1970 general election.
Five decades later, Clarke finds himself as Father of the House with, arguably, one of the most illustrious political careers in modern British politics. Although much is uncertain in politics at the moment, one thing is for sure, the veteran Tory will be far more likely to be sitting back with his iconic brown suede shoes kicked off, his top shirt button loosened, and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue lilting in the background than sitting in the Commons after the next, ever looming, general election. One may have wondered if Clarke was unable to curtail his Westminster addiction, having broken his promise to stand down at the previous general election. Instead, a now slightly older Boris Johnson has made the decision for him, with Clarke further announcing that he wouldn’t attempt to stand as an independent.
Looking back at Clarke’s career, there does seem to be a rather beautiful symmetry that aligns his time in the Commons with the UK’s membership of the European Union.
When he first darkened the door of the Palace of Westminster in 1970, the nation was somewhat divided on the small matter of Europe. In the 1960s and ‘70s, it was about ‘Brenter’; Brexit’s formidable, younger nemesis. Unfortunately, no one was calling it that then. The UK had applied to join the European Economic Community twice before, but the French President, Charles de Gaulle, vetoed both requests. Somehow, de Gaulle believed that Britain harboured a “deep-seated hostility” to any European project (I wonder how he got that idea). Again, three was the magic number, and in 1973, the UK was a part of the club as soon as France had a new president not willing to use his veto power.
However, the fun did not stop there. In 1974, Labour were now in charge. They believed it would be a good idea to hold the UK’s first ever referendum on EC membership. The role of doing this was to generally appease the Euroscepticism that split their party. The cabinet was split, Labour MPs were split, and members had voted 2:1 in favour of withdrawal at the party conference. Unlike any other more recent event that might possibly mirror this, the vote for continued membership won quite significantly by 67.2% in favour.
Clarke ultimately came to prominence in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the late 1980s. Ironically, the cigar and beer loving MP became Secretary of State for Health in 1988, having served a number of junior ministerial posts prior to this.
Two years later, in 1990, Clarke was appointed Secretary of State for Education and Science. The Thatcher government that he served, was rapidly unravelling. The poll tax was proving overwhelmingly unpopular; prominent ministers and political allies of Thatcher were distancing themselves from her; and funnily enough, a small matter of Europe seemed to be dividing the Conservative Party. Clarke was widely regarded as being one of the ‘men in grey suits’ that advised Thatcher to resign.
Clarke quickly emerged as a central figure within John Major’s government, staying in his role as Education Secretary for a further two years, and then becoming Home Secretary in 1992 after the Conservative’s general election win. After ‘Black Wednesday’, Norman Lamont’s resignation and Britain’s exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Clarke was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. Clarke’s career was going so well that he took advantage of the rule allowing him to have a scotch whilst delivering the Budget.
The Conservative Party and Major were out of office in 1997, thus Clarke put his hat in the ring to become leader. Whilst proving popular with the public and members, Tory MPs favoured William Hague, and Clarke took his seat behind him on the backbenches. The position of leader opened up again in 2001. The Europhile lost out to Eurosceptic, Ian Duncan Smith this time, again proving most popular with the public though. Not everything works out on the third time, however. Although again dominating the public polls, Clarke lost out on the leadership to David Cameron in 2005.
When the coalition government came to power in 2010, Clarke was appointed Justice Secretary and then as a minister without portfolio, before calling it quits on his time on the front bench.
Clarke’s pro-EU stance has undoubtedly held him back over his political career. Originally wearing a ‘Yes to Europe’ badge as a student, Clarke then found himself ousted from his party decades later for voting in favour of preventing a no-deal Brexit.
You may believe it to be a good thing or you may not, but Ken Clarke is one of the last of those traditional MPs. Reasoned, rational, and relatively calm in times of panic, Clarke will surely be missed over the next period of political transition. Looking back over his career, it’s almost as if Clarke’s been the Forrest Gump of modern British politics – often finding himself in the frame of historic events. From being in the parliament that took Britain into Europe; to advising Thatcher to step down; then being the Chancellor that helped repair the damage of ‘Black Wednesday’; to being the only Tory MP to vote against invoking Article 50; and finally being in the parliament that might just take Britain out of the European Union.
Whether you’re in favour of Brexit or not, it is difficult not to respect Clarke for maintaining the principles that have guided his entire political career when others have abandoned them in favour of power. After the referendum in 2016, the Father of the House jovially exclaimed that “I admire my colleagues who can suddenly become enthusiastic Brexiteers having seen the light on the road to Damascus on the day when the votes were cast. I am afraid that light has been denied me”.
Written by Christian Oliver