Book Review: Kind of Blue - A Political Memoir, by Ken Clarke
I finished the previous book just at the right time for a Christmas present, and here it was. Clarke's autobiography follows a fairly standard pattern for a high-profile political figure, and it's written very much in Clarke's own laid-back style. It's easy to forget how many ministerial and cabinet posts he held between 1979 and 1997.
Some things do stick out. For example, he estimates he graduated from Cambridge in 1963 with an amount of debt equivalent to about £60,000 today, and the bank manager just sighed and extended his overdraft (which Clarke claims took until 1979 to dismiss altogether) so that he could buy appropriate clothes to pursue his legal career. Is this the kind of experience and thinking that drives higher education policy today, I wonder? The finances - for the student and the bank manager - are rather different when less than 10% of people pursue a university education, than about half. Another area that highlights contention is his time at the Department of Health, where he provides a persuasive case for reform of the NHS (it seems to me that the Conservatives will never get a fair hearing on health, just as Labour will never get a fair hearing on defence) and is quite castigating of the BMA, while at the same time fighting off Thatcherite tendencies toward a more American-style health system.
Indeed, Clarke asserts that while he was a Tory "wet", on economic matters he was more in line with Thatcher and free-market thinking - an implication that this may have been the reason for his continued ministerial survival. His views on the civil service vary from department to department; while there were always good individuals, the performance of the Home Office comes in for particular criticism.
The conclusion of the Thatcher period of government occurs about half way through the book, and in the second half the subject of Europe raises itself more continuously. The Major years were squandered by political in-fighting over Maastricht; his view on Blair is that opportunities were missed to make a better case for Europe; the final chapter documents his despair at the 2016 referendum. Interestingly, in an ever-so-laid-back way, Clarke sticks the knife into Major and Lamont for unaffordable promises made in the 1992 election campaign, identifying them as the source of the trouble that led to Black Wednesday, which in turn triggered the implosion of the Conservative party, releasing the far right and Eurosceptic demons in search of scapegoats for Thatcher's Untergang. He also identifies this time as the point at which politicians ceased to lead and instead began to follow public opinion, particularly as presented by the tabloid press. On Cameron he is similarly unimpressed; indeed, once again an election promise (again, made by someone probably not expecting to win outright) led to the current catastrophe. The book includes his accidental bit-part in Theresa May's election campaign; Clarke remains hopeful, but so far her leadership has, in my view, transformed her from enigma to empty.