The Right Hon. Kenneth Clarke visited Nottingham University in early March as part of the School of Politics’ guest speaker series. Ken entered Parliament as MP for Rushcliffe in 1970 and is still there today, in the meantime holding numerous positions in government in his extensive tenure, notably as Chancellor of the Exchequer under John Major following Black Wednesday. He is well known for Europhilic views which have led him into a few scrapes with his party, and has stood to be leader of the Conservative Party on three occasions, losing every time. He is currently the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, and a big fan of Nottingham Forest. After speaking to students, Impact was able to grab five minutes with him for a few questions:
The standard Conservative mantra is that a hung parliament is a disaster – surely the continued survival of the coalition makes that argument seem a bit old hat?
Well I was definitely surprised by the survival and success of the present coalition, and it’s a big tribute to Cameron and Clegg that they formed it as they did. I think we were lucky by the fact that the two men got on so well, but above all it was the result of both of them sensing an acute national crisis – there really was a feeling that a failure to form a credible government would lead to financial and economic collapse and they were driven on by a sense of the national interest. I simply do not believe that we could normally expect that.[pullquote]Nick’s now got to appeal to a different and more substantial body of opinion. Obviously I hope he isn’t particularly successful…[/pullquote]
Would you say that this is the peak of the Liberal Democrats, or is there more to come?
I think it’s obviously very crucial for them, a make or break time. If I was a Liberal Democrat I would have been strongly in favour of the coalition as well, and from a party point of view if I was a Liberal Democrat I would say that they have to prove that they are a party of government. They have hitherto been a party purely of protest, their main appeal has been to whichever bigger party’s supporters are most discontented at any given time, and they are very much a localist, single issue, pavement politics type group across the country. I think Nick’s hope must be that they will grow up into a responsible party of government and I imagine what he will want to do at the next election is go back and say ‘You’ve got to take us seriously now’, that voting Liberal is an option for people who want to affect the government. No doubt he will try to claim that their influence on government is a civilising one. At the moment the short term shock effect of the election on politics has left them the worst affected because about half of their voters – particularly in the south of England – voted for them because they had the best chance of defeating the Conservatives. They vanished like snow off a ditch on a hot day at the moment the coalition was formed.
Nick’s now got to appeal to a different and more substantial body of opinion. Obviously I hope he isn’t particularly successful, as we can’t get away from the fact that they are the small, radical party. And it’s inescapable that the bulk of the present coalition’s policies are Conservative, the leading figures are Conservative apart from Nick and they have taken on board an essentially Conservative agenda in quite a lot of policy areas. From the Liberal point of view it was the big moment – they’ve been trying to get serious people to vote for them for years on the basis that they would have an influence if we had a hung parliament. To then find they were incapable of making their mind up would have been a disaster for them, and they would have been buried in the election that would have taken place within six months.
From your past experience as Chancellor, what impact will upcoming tax rises have on the economy?
I think it’s essential that we deliver an impact on the deficit – if we fail to carry conviction in the financial markets and the way we tackle the deficit, then we’ll undermine confidence in the economy as a whole. I don’t think it’s a choice, I don’t think plan B would be credible. A necessary precondition to getting back to economic normality is to get back to a sustainable level of debt and deficit. Bearing in mind that is going to take the best part of four years and the level of debt is going to continue to rise for the first two or three years of our programme. I think it would undermine all else if suddenly people began to have doubts about what we were going to do. If we don’t put any taxes up at all then the answer is we’ve got to make even bigger reductions in public spending.
Do you think that the coalition should be talking more about Europe, or is it best kept off the table?
There’s remarkably little debate about Europe in this country, and for some years now the three major parties have colluded in not really talking about it much. In defence of the political class I would say it’s because it’s so difficult to have a serious debate about the subject. Four or five newspapers will only report the subject in hysterical terms and are very committed to extreme positions. It is true that it doesn’t get debated very much. Most of the public are not terribly interested in European politics, or it is a low priority compared to domestic concerns for most of the electorate. I think it will remain as somewhat under-debated and misunderstood subject unless and until we’re able to have a more balanced public political debate on the subject.
A pro-European like me who would like to talk about Europe has fallen back into the Tony Blair pattern of usually only doing it when I’m out of the country, because when I see what I’m supposed to have said according to newspapers most bitterly opposed to me I do not recognise it; a ludicrous parody of my views appears and gives rise to a wave of excitement again. That happens to me at justice as well.
You’ve stood to be Conservative leader three times. What happened?
I got beat! My own view is that it was my pro-European views at a time when the Conservative party was consumed by warfare between pro-European and Eurosceptic groups. Had I not been such a well known pro-European I think my chances of winning the leadership would have been much improved. I would have liked to have been leader but I’m not traumatised by it – had my views on Europe not been so notorious, I can’t believe I would have lost all three. Indeed I don’t think I would have lost any of them!