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Ben Rogers: Ken's big idea is... Ken

Portraitbenrogers_1Ben was the Conservative Party Candidate in the City of Durham in the 2005 General Election. He is a writer and international human rights activist. He is the co-author of a foreign policy paper, New Ground: Engaging People with the Conservative Party through a bold, principled and imaginative foreign policy, available online at  If you would like to contribute a post for Platform please email your suggestion to [email protected].

If the qualifications for the leader of a political party are supreme self-confidence, bloke-ish affability, a slightly ruffled sweaty appearance, an appealing disregard for spin, a reputation as a “big beast” and a bruiser in politics, hush puppies, a cigar and a pint of beer in the pub, then there is absolutely no question about it: Ken Clarke has to be the next leader of the Conservative Party. But if politics is about more than just “personality”, then I have some problems with Ken. If we believe the party needs to look to the future, not relive the past, and if even having just one new “idea” might come in handy, and if communicating policies through human stories rather than age-old statistics is desirable, then Ken has not convinced me that he is the answer.

Almost everybody likes Ken. The press tell us that the voters overwhelmingly want us to choose him as our leader. Labour and the Lib Dems fear him more than any other leadership candidate. With such accolades, I went to hear him speak at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) wanting to like him. I came away sorely disappointed.

For a start, even Ken’s strengths failed to shine on the night I saw him. He read his speech; there was no oratorical inspiration; he looked and sounded like a crumpled has-been.

Crucially, I was on the look-out for some kind of new idea. It didn’t need to be a “Big Idea”. It didn’t need to be original. Just some suggestion of a recognition that the party needs to think differently – something to excite and engage. What I heard instead was a re-hash of ‘70s and ‘80s politics.

He devoted the first half of his speech to a detailed critique of Tony Blair. But he was telling us what we all knew. While Blair-bashing may be entertaining for the party faithful, in the setting of the CSJ it seemed inappropriate. Even his few jokes about Blair weren’t funny, they were rather flat. What I wanted to hear was not what was wrong, but what he thought he could do to put things right. To quote Frank Dobson’s record as health secretary when we are now several Health Secretaries later and into Labour’s third term seemed old-hat. To litter every few sentences with “Margaret never did …,” or “Margaret used to ….”, or worse “When I was Secretary of State …” seemed irrelevant. And when he quoted Jim Callaghan I almost snoozed off my seat.

It wasn’t that I found anything in his speech disagreeable. It was just that there was nothing new. There was no intellectual rigour, no excitement, no sense of the future. I agreed with him when he said that before we engage in radical reform of the public services, we need to win back the trust of the people – and that we have “no licence from the voters to shake up public services because many people still suspect that we just want to privatize them”. Well we have no licence from the voters because we lost the election. What we need to do is, on the one hand, show that we can be trusted with the public services, but on the other hand show that we have solutions to the problems that currently exist. He focused on the former, on an agenda of almost no change.

I have problems with Ken on three other fronts, all which relate to foreign policy. First, of course there is Europe and I won’t rehash here the age-old arguments we are all familiar with. Second, there is Iraq. However terrible the situation in Iraq is today, I disagree with Ken’s view that the war was a mistake. Mistakes were certainly made in its conduct, and we should have had a plan for post-war Iraq before we took action. But I still believe that we were right to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Not only is Ken at odds with most of his party on this issue, he would do incredible damage to our relations with the United States if he is elected. Already it appears that Conservative-Republican relations, which should naturally be strong, have cooled. To have a blatantly anti-war leader would endanger the relationship completely.

Third, there is Ken’s role as deputy chairman of British American Tobacco (BAT). I have no objection to tobacco companies per se, nor to Ken’s right to make money. However, BAT was a major investor in Burma, a country ruled by one of the world’s most brutal – and illegal – military dictatorships. Ken defended BAT’s investments in public, and became a target for demonstrators himself. It strikes me that was a serious error of judgment. Protestors stood outside BAT headquarters in 2003 wearing Ken Clarke masks. Eventually, BAT pulled out from Burma, but only as a result of public pressure.

I am deeply involved in Burma’s struggle for human rights and democracy. I travel twice a year to the ethnic groups in the jungles of eastern Burma, the Karen, Karenni and Shan, to document human rights violations. What is happening there amounts to crimes against humanity and genocide. Widespread rape, forced labour, torture, killings, destruction of villages and crops are the crimes of the Burma Army which rules the land. Burma has the largest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world. The military regime is illegal. It held elections in 1990, which were overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But the regime refused to accept the results, imprisoned the victors and intensified its grip on power. Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest for most of 10 years. The idea that we could elect as leader of my party a man who did business with the Generals who terrorise Burma is particularly hard for me to stomach. In addition, I fear it could rebound on him and embarrass the party.

On top of all this, I was shocked by Ken’s dismissive answer to a question on the environment at the CSJ. Instead of recognizing the importance of environmental issues, and the work we need to do to win trust on this front, he emphasized the need to reassure business that we were still their friends and had not become a bunch of sandal-wearing hippies. I am paraphrasing there, but it more or less sums up what he said. And I think such failure to think afresh is dangerous.

No candidate in the leadership contest is perfect. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and Ken has his strengths of course. But if we do not elect a leader who can enthuse people with a vision, we will not make headway. If we do not look to the future instead of trying to recapture the past, we will fail. Short-term voter appeal will not win us a long-term revival. There must be more to politics than a cigar, hush-puppies and a pint of beer. I looked for an idea from Ken. Instead, I found, that in his campaign the idea is Ken. Like a French king, he conveyed his belief that “l’etat, s’est moi”. That’s not enough.


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