The Greasy Pole Column from the October 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
Anyone who feels a need to penetrate the Conservative mind should steel themselves to read the letters page of the Daily Telegraph, which is now in the throes of what might be called a debate about the respective appeals of the candidates for the party leadership. A most treasured recent example was a missive, apparently intended to wind up the discussion: “My mother told me never to trust a man who wore suede shoes. Does this advice still hold good?” It would not have needed a particularly sharp mind among the Tory activists to work out that this referred to Kenneth Clarke, who is infamous for, among other things (of which more later), wearing Hush Puppies in preference to the politicians’ required footwear of sober, lace-up black shoes. Asked about this highly sensitive matter some years ago, Clarke responded in characteristic style: “The shoes are an act of defiance, because people began to be rude about them and if anything I began wearing suede shoes more often because I was getting advised to stop wearing them”. He did not say whether he had also received advice to stop smoking large cigars and to do something about his rumpled clothes and his reputation, which he assiduously cultivates, as an arrogant and insensitive political thug.
Clarke was at Cambridge with a clutch of aspirant Tory politicians who developed into bitter rivals – Selwyn Gummer, Leon Brittan, Norman Lamont (who Clarke replaced, in the high spot of his career to date, as Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Michael Howard, who now stands between Clarke and the Tory leadership. Before getting into Parliament for Rushcliffe, Clarke fought two elections in the hopeless constituency of Mansfield. In keeping with his self-promoted image as someone who enjoyed a fight, after the first election he promised the Mansfied Tories that he would stay on to contest the seat again. The fact that he was more or less honour bound to do this did not prevent him casting about for another, safer seat. He tried for Edgbaston but the local party preferred Jill Knight; Clarke kept his two-timing a secret and posed as a man whose word was his bond.
When he got into the Commons he commenced an unusually smooth journey up the greasy pole, through minor jobs in the 1980s in the Department of Health, Minister for Employment, Secretary of State for Health, then for Education. He was promoted to Home Secretary in 1992 and, at his peak after the fall of Norman Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1993 until the Tories were beaten in the 1997 election. At that time the British economy was emerging from the slump which had seen something like three million unemployed. Clarke’s coincident period at the Treasury enabled him to claim to have designed the alleged economic recovery. This is a common ruse among Chancellors of the Exchequer: in a boom they claim the credit for the easier times while in a slump they blame pressures which were out of their control.
During all this time Clarke’s aggressive and dismissive manner ensured that the enemies a politician normally accrues would in his case have a particular edge to their enmity. While he was at the Department of Health he riled the doctors with his plans to impose new contracts of employment on them; faced with their resistance he described them as “in the last resort a pretty ruthless lobby”. In 1982 he dismissed the nurses’ objections to NHS staff cuts with the sneer that “They are a trade union and they don’t like the idea of their membership going down at all” (which is true about the Conservatives and any other capitalist party). He infuriated the ambulance crews (as well as substantial numbers of the voters) with his response to their claim for a rise in excess of the 6.5 per cent on offer: “The vast majority of ambulance staff are professional drivers, a worthwhile job – but not exceptional at all” (so who would anyone knocked down on the road prefer to see coming to help them – an ambulance crew or Kenneth Clarke?). This arrogance was too much for even the normally supportive Daily Express: “Whatever happened to caring Ken? Instead of the matey, jolly fellow once known to colleagues and public we now have a truculent, bad-tempered bully”. Thatcher was no more help to her beleaguered minister; at Prime Minister’s Question Time she pointedly avoided agreeing with Clarke about the ambulance crews.
The teachers were another group to fall victim to Clarke’s aggression. The changes in schooling introduced by Kenneth Baker in 1998, which had resulted in schools being swamped with minutely detailed instructions on what they should teach, how they should teach it and how they should report on it, had provoked years of hostility between them and the government. To call the situation chaotic hardly did it justice. Clarke arrived at the Department of Education to restore some sort of order, which he started to do in a manner customary to someone described by Thatcher when she moved him to Education, as “an energetic and persuasive bruiser, very useful in a brawl or an election”. But Clarke’s lack of finesse undid him; in a magazine interview, subsequently picked up by the Daily Mirror, he said that private schools provided a higher standard of education than state schools. Reminded of this comment in a Commons debate by Jack Straw, Clarke intervened with the opinion that the Mirror was a newspaper “read by morons”. The Mirror’s response was immediate and crushing. “That’s two fingers to 8,230,000 voters, Minister” it bellowed and the day after that it ran a telephone poll to establish how its readers rated their Minister of Education – was he a prat or a moron? “Kenneth Clarke was voted a total PRAT last night as 59,000 Daily Mirror readers took part in one of the most fiercely fought elections for years” it crowed, with an unflattering photograph of Clarke as a bully who smoked too much and, at 16st. 9lbs, was unhealthily obese.
Michael Heseltine said of Clarke: “He is what he is. You get what you see. And people like that.” But what people do not “like” is a politician who rubbishes genuine problems or who regards truth as something to be fashioned in accordance with their needs at any time. In 1980 the American pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly launched a new wonder drug – Opren – on the market, claiming that among a clutch of beneficial effects it could reduce arthritis pain. In fact Opren had serious side effects such as liver jaundice, kidney damage and excessive sensitivity to sunlight. There were 76 deaths attributed to the drug, which was later suspended by the Committee on Safety of Medicines. At the time Clarke was Minister for Health. His reaction to the suffering caused by Opren was to sneer that it was “no more than the patients becoming lobstered”. After their crushing defeat in 1997, the Tory party set about electing a new leader. Clarke knew that his views on many issues, especially Europe, would not endear him to the party faithful. (The Daily Telegraph damned him as “the candidate of the past”). In an effort to attract the votes of the right wing, anti-Europe membership Clarke cobbled up a partnership with the weird Eurosceptic John Redwood – a U-turn too cynical for even the most hardened Tory MP. Now he is again bending what he calls his principles, saying that Europe is not now on the agenda and that his enthusiasm for it is “no longer as constant as the North Star”.
Politicians, like salespeople, come in many shapes and styles. Some are reticent and conciliatory. Others are brash, brutal and noisy. Nobody should be impressed by Kenneth Clarke’s pose as the man for the people – matey, frank, reliable and human, if engagingly boozy. He has shown himself to be as calculating and dishonest as all the others. There is no more to be hoped for from him, the candidate of the past, than there is from those of the future.