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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: The good and bad sides of Ken Clarke

"Fear no more the heat of the sun." We British have an uneasy relationship with high summer. Some years, it never appears. The next year, it redoubles its efforts. The cold beer runs out; the trains are late because the metal railway lines expand. Everyone complains about the lack of air conditioning. On the Mediterranean, the sun is welcomed by lithe bronzed figures. In London, there are undignified spectactles in public parks, as garments designed solely for private view are given full exposure, accompanied by flesh which is either banal beige or over-boiled lobster. We British are not designed to grace Apollo's chariot.

Except for Ken Clarke. There was a delightful photograph earler in the week. Ken was in the Pavilion at Trent Bridge, dressed for the East Midlands summer rather than the Cote d'Azure one. It is possible that he might have had a couple of pints. It is also true that the greatest of all games does not always keep its spectators in a state of constant excitement. Ken was photographed yawning. This was no demure, hand-over-the-mouth, apologetic yawn. With the mouth thrown wide open, it was a glorious, gaping yawn: a yawn an elephant might have envied. Ken was yawning for England.

In so many ways, he is a quintessentially English figure. One weekend in the early Nineties, when Mr Clarke was Chancellor, he invited his Chief Secretary, Jonathan Aitken, to Dorneywood, the Chancellor's country house. Sunday morning, approaching mid-day: somewhere in the British Empire, the sun must be over the yard-arm - time for a drink. "Fancy a pint, Jonathan?" said Ken. Gillian Clarke was on the case in a flash. "Ken, remember we've got twenty people coming for lunch. I want you boys back here at one o'clock, sharp". Assurances were given; the Ministers set off - to a surprisingly scruffy pub, where the Chancellor's arrival did not raise a stir. "Allo, Ken mate, what're you 'avin?" Two or three pints later, Ken looked at his watch. Jonathan prepared to drink up and leave. Ken: "There's another pub just down the road that's even more me". Jonathan: "Have we time?" Ken: "Course". Another few minutes, an even more unreconstructed pub, even less surprise at the distinguished regular's arrival. "Fancy a game o' darts, Ken?"

It was gone one when they took their leave, back to Dorneywood by forced march, to find twenty distinguished guests making awkward small-talk over thimble glasses of sherry. Ken went around greeting everyone, while trying to avoid a) burping beer at them b) his wife's eye. In an age of over-spun politicians, it is a heartening story. Like the Trent Bridge photo, it seems like a triumphant assertion of proper England against the shallowness and plasticity of metrosexual London.

Alas, this is proof that anecdotes do not tell the whole truth and that the camera can lie. There is Ken Bloke, Ken Middle-England, apparently auditioning for John Bull, with a flagon of beer at one fist and a great joint of beef at the other, calling down damnation on Boney and all the frog-eating wretches on the wrong side of the Channel. In reality, he is the most incorrigible of all the Eurofanatics, le plus Federaste du Federastes, who would have delivered John Bull in chains, into European captivity. There is absolutely nothing effeminate about Ken Clarke. Even so, given half a chance, he would have played Delilah to the British people's Samson.

In recent weeks, a lot of Tories have been calling for a referendum on the EU. In these pages, I have argued that they are wrong to do so. It would be too early and the issues would be unclear. There may well be a right moment to hold a referendum: not yet. But there is scope for honest disagreement among serious-minded Tories. There is also more than scope for anger, after the breach of faith over the Lisbon Treaty. It should be possible for Tories to disagree on the referendum, while respecting one another's positions.

That is not how Ken sees it. He has dismissed the calls for a referendum as "irresponsible". Yet if he had prevailed, Britain would now be in the single currency. What could be more irresponsible than that? In the dispute between Ken and his honourable, patriotic, Eurosceptic critics, there can be only one fair arbitration. They were right and he was wrong. Yet he attempts to brush aside, yawn aside, burp away, their worries about this country's relationship with Europe. So who is being irresponsible? It may be, of course, that he has changed his mind and is now acting as a recruiting sergeant for Ukip. In that case, he is acting responsibly, on his own terms. But if he is trying to explain why voters should trust the government on Europe, this is the wrong man to do so, because no-one will trust him. Why should they?

The Tory party is the national party or it is nothing. It follows that anyone who reaches a high position in a Tory government owes a duty of responsibility to the British people. How has Ken discharged that duty? Year after year, decade after decade, on the most important issue of the day, he has been wrong and wrong again. On Europe, at least from Conservatives, Ken Clarke no longer deserves a hearing. 


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