Ken Clarke interview: "Referendums have never settled anything"

Posted On: 
29th October 2015

After decades on the frontline of politics, Ken Clarke is enjoying life as a ‘cavalier backbencher’. But as the EU debate steps up a gear, the former ‘Big Beast’ is ready to get to work 

Ken Clarke is sick of having to bang on about Europe. He has spent decades as the de facto spokesperson for his party’s dwindling pro-EU wing, and the case for Britain’s membership is one the former Chancellor and Home Secretary – a man once described as the ‘last surviving’ Conservative europhile – has always relished making.

But as he reflects on his final few years in Westminster – this parliament, he says, will be his last – he is beginning to think he will never escape British politics’ “crackpot obsession” with the Continent.

“I never imagined that 50 years after I started in politics I'd still be engaged in the same arguments about Britain and Europe as I was when I started. It struck me as pretty zany in the 1970s and it strikes me as pretty zany now. But here I am, still advocating my views,” he tells
The House.

“I don’t share what I regard as this ridiculous obsession. But because I’m pro-European I get tagged as a 'europhile' as if I'm not interested in anything else. For years the
Telegraphwouldn’t mention my name without calling me a europhile, or a 'federalist', which I never have been. ‘Federalist Ken Clarke.’ Even if I was talking about the weather."

For a politician who first entered government in 1972, who’s served in the Cabinet of three prime ministers, and who’s held two great offices of state, the continued association with this one topic must rankle. But in the week that David Cameron has intensified his attacks on those calling for a ‘Brexit’, it feels as if the referendum campaign is about to step up a gear. And if the arguments must be rehearsed again, Clarke won’t be keeping quiet.  

Some fellow Conservative pro-Europeans, he feels, have been too reluctant to make a loud case for Britain’s membership, “partly because of pressures from their constituencies”, but also out of a desire for party unity. “The eurosceptics are the rebellious group so of course they’ve made more noise about it,” he says. “For so long the Conservative party was making itself appear rather peculiar to the British public with this neurotic civil war it was having on an issue that wasn’t regarded as very important by large numbers of the public. Pro-Europeans don’t want to rock the boat and start entertaining those that just want to be entertained by opening up a Europe argument.”

But the pro-EU camp’s ‘agree to disagree’ policy is going to have to come to end. “We’ve got to find some way of campaigning and accepting the fact that the right-wing press in this country will be vehemently anti-European. You won’t get any support there. So you’ve got to find new ways of presenting yourself.”

The man the press dubbed the “Big Beast” has always spoken candidly about the eurosceptics and “right-wing head bangers” on the opposite wing of his party. But with the referendum now approaching he strikes a more conciliatory tone. “It’s a corny old line, but some of my best friends are eurosceptics. We don’t fall out personally over these things,” he says, adding that while the Labour party “are about to have another of their wars”, the Conservatives will “endeavour to keep on rather better personal terms”. “There are several Conservatives with whom I vehemently disagree on Britain's membership of Europe but it doesn’t lead to any personal strain between us. The party tries to hold together.”

Does he think that can withstand the heat of an In/Out referendum? “Yes, unless people have lost all common sense.”

But if he thinks a damaging split can be avoided, Clarke is less confident that the vote will actually settle the European issue for the long term. “Referendums have never settled anything. Unless they're backed by a powerful dictator in the case of Mussolini or Napoleon,” he says. “The Scot Nats, having lost their referendum, are plainly contriving to have another one and saying the public were deceived by the party leaders."

Does he fear the same thing will happen on Europe in the event of an ‘In’ vote? "I don't know you'll have to ask the eurosceptics," is his diplomatic reply. "I've taken part in a referendum in which the eurosceptics were soundly beaten, and within 12 months they were ignoring it and demanding we leave the EU, and when you asked what about the referendum – which they had demanded – they said ‘oh well the public had been deceived, the public had got it wrong’. And they have ever since.”

If his party does not come together around some sort of consensus after the vote, he continues, it could find itself cast back into the sort of infighting that dogged its opposition years. “If we start going back to euro-wars again then all the work that David Cameron has done to get us back into office will be completely thwarted because we’ll get thrown out again. It was the euro-wars that kept us out of office for over a decade.”

With a leadership election set to follow within a year or two of the referendum, the party’s hopes of avoiding an endless ‘euro-war’ will be complicated further. Potential contenders are already planning their paths to glory, and there has been speculation that Boris Johnson and Theresa May may consider taking a gamble and calling for a ‘Brexit’, perhaps with one eye on the sizeable eurosceptic vote. Downing Street sources briefed at conference that the Home Secretary, in particular, was 'gearing up' to run on an anti-EU ticket.

But Clarke warns that any attempt to use the referendum as a leadership springboard would be a huge mistake. “The trouble with referendums, particularly nowadays in this instant mass media age, is that they are likely to be bashed about by all kinds of news of the day, personalities, leadership bids. Well I hope it's not,” he says.

“I’d be horrified if any of the people likely to be contenders started saying they were campaigning for ‘No’. It would be totally irresponsible for a leadership candidate to campaign for Out, simply for tactical advantage in a leadership election. Anybody who showed so little regard for the national interest should not be regarded as a serious contender.”

He continues: “That’s what’s wrong with referendums. This referendum will determine Britain’s role in the world and what our economic base is in the globalised economy for the next 20, 30, 50 years. It really is of crucial importance for the wellbeing of future generations.

“I think the public are more sensible than most of their politicians and journalists. So I think the public will actually in the end be persuaded to make a serious vote on how exactly does Britain maximise its power and its prosperity in the 21st century. And I don’t think people will vote according to which particular character is making a strong bid for the leadership."

Clarke, who ran for the leadership three times between 1997 and 2005, has long believed that it was his approach to Europe that cost him the top job. He warns that if the party continues to place such high importance on the issue it will find itself forever thrust back into fratricide. “If we choose our next leader on the basis of their views on Europe, then we’re continuing the same insanity that put us out of office throughout the 2000s. In the choice of a leader there are many more important things than where you put them on this ridiculous scale on Europeanism.”

While he missed out on Number Ten, Clarke’s career has taken him to almost every other major department in British politics. The Treasury, the Home Office, education, health, justice; few ministers have held such a wide range of posts. What ambitions remain for this parliament? "I’m going to be a cavalier, maverick backbencher,” he jokes. "I'm as obsessed with politics as I ever was. I enjoy parliament. And the advantage of not having a portfolio is you don’t have to spend all your time on one subject.”

Clarke has been a strong public backer of George Osborne’s plans to cut tax credits, and believes the changes are vital to move away from what he calls a “low pay, low productivity” economy to a “properly rebalanced, modern economy which will enable our children and grandchildren to earn their living properly in a highly competitive, globalised economy”.

He describes the House of Lords’ vote to delay the cuts as “totally unconstitutional”. “The idea that the House of Lords can vote for £4bn of extra government expenditure, when the Commons has actually already approved the measures, is ridiculous. Any parliamentarian since 1911 would regard it as laughable,” he says, accusing Labour and Lib Dem peers of engaging in the sort of ‘populism’ he believes is increasingly dominating Westminster politics.

“When you’re trying to get out of a crisis you need to take some difficult measures and if populists in the House of Lords can just vote it down every time, then I think it’s probably time to have reform. I do think this requires some tough and difficult decisions. We’re in an era when short term populism would be particularly disastrous.”

Reflecting on how politics has changed over his parliamentary career, it’s this re-emergence of populism – and the frenzied, celebrity-focused “24-hour mass media” which has accompanied its rise – which troubles Clarke the most. “I don’t want to be too pompous, but the political debate is being taken over by a celebrity culture, personality issues and instant events; we never have problems we only have
crises. And every crisis is the centre of hysteria for about three days. Then it’s over and there’s another hysterical crisis the next week,” he says.

“The electorate in most democracies has become increasingly cynical and contemptuous of traditional politicians. It’s very easy to be tempted that there should be simple answers and scapegoats for all the problems we face. People are voting against ‘those politicians in Washington’, ‘those politicians in London’, ‘those politicians in Paris’. And they like simplistic solutions, in which someone is to blame. If you want to vote UKIP it’s all the fault of Brussels and foreigners and immigrants. If you want to vote for the SNP it’s all he fault of the English. If you want to vote for the Greens it’s all the fault of bankers. You could go through all the Western world, from Donald Trump to Madame Le Pen to Mr Tsipras to Gerry Adams in the Republic of Ireland.”

It’s this same “hysterical simplicity”, he continues, which is behind the growing intolerance of opposing views, particularly on the left. “We’ve had it before. The left used to be extremely intolerant. There were years in the 1980s when you couldn’t go to a university if you were a Conservative. There would be a demo and it would be broken up. I twice had to be rescued by police for daring to go and try to address a Conservative meeting,” he says, stifling a laugh as he remembers one visit to Leeds University where he had to negotiate with the student union’s “hard left leadership” before he could speak. “They eventually allowed me to address quite a large meeting, as long as I paused after every two or three sentences so that a representative of the workers and students could stand up in the audience and correct what I’d just said, in case any of the audience were misled by my right wing propaganda.”

“The 1980s were pretty bad. We don’t want to see a return to that,” he adds. “But the combination is very worrying, and makes it all the more important to strengthen the only serious proposition on offer, which is the choice between either the centre right or the centre left party which is composed of serious politicians trying to put forward competing platforms to deal with the issues that matter.”

He may have retreated to the backbenches, but as he approaches the end of five decades in parliament making the case for moderate, centre-right Conservatism, Ken Clarke is not ready to stop banging on just yet. 


“In my experience of Conservative leadership elections they’re always won by some candidate that nobody had thought of until the last three or four weeks. I don’t remember anybody who started campaigning for the leadership a year or two before the vacancy getting anywhere near it.”


“All politicians make mistakes. You’re a very good politician if you get four out of five major decisions right. One just hopes that the ones you get wrong are not very serious. I don’t think he should apologise. But I remain convinced that the decision to invade Iraq was one of the worst foreign policy decisions of the century.”


“Any American president is going to be utterly dismayed if the British, their close allies, cease to be leading members of the European Union. I think we ought to take notice of the fact that both the Americans and the Chinese can’t understand why we’re contemplating leaving the EU. Both would take much less interest in us if we do.”