An Interview with: Charles Clarke

The year is 2005. Before Brexit, before Trump, before football came home and before the recession brought New Labour’s glory years to an end.
I’m sat in my classroom, having just received a participation certificate and a letter on stamped Commons notepaper acknowledging my entry in then-Home Secretary and my local MP Charles Clarke’s annual Christmas card design competition circulated among local schools.
13 years later, I’m sat with Mr Clarke in the inner sanctum of Carrow Road, the stadium at which the avid Norwich City fan has held a season ticket, he tells me, for two decades now. He’s just been conferred with an honorary doctorate (the same style of certificate given to regular graduates, in case anyone is wondering) from UEA in one of their first graduation ceremonies in the stadium.
Clarke dropped out of the cabinet the year after my spectacular failure in his competition and dropped out of Parliament at the 2010 General Election. I dropped art in year 9.
We might both be forgiven for wondering where it all went wrong.
The career of Clarke very much followed the path of New Labour. Elected as Norwich South MP in Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, things only got better for Clarke who soon ascended the political ranks into the cabinet and Tony Blair’s top table, or at least onto 10 Downing Street’s comfiest sofa.
As New Labour crumbled, Clarke became a backbencher before losing his seat in the 2010 General Election to Liberal democrat Simon Wright as the third party formed a coalition with the Conservatives to force Labour into opposition, where they have stayed ever since.
It’s history now, and on the early promise surrounding New Labour, Clarke reflects: “It was exuberant. There was a massive optimism about the possibilities of change. ” He continues: “And many of those possibilities happened, things like the minimum wage, things like devolution to Scotland, things like human rights being given to people, things like new schools, new hospitals and so on. There was an immense sense of achievement. And that was the atmosphere in ‘97 as we were elected, could we actually do it? And we did do very much of it.”
One of his main initiatives as Home Secretary was considering the introduction of compulsory ID cards for British adults, with which Clarke was inextricably linked in the press. I ask his thoughts on it not becoming law.
“We did get it through, it became law, it happened, and then the first act of Theresa May in 2010 when she was Home Secretary was to abolish it. So we got it through completely, it was beginning to make a contribution, and in fact today with the lack of public confidence in the extent to which we understand who’s migrating to the country and not, an ID card scheme would be a major improvement, and I think it will come back.”
Successes aside, he still wonders what might have been, though. Not afraid to criticise his party leadership past or present, you get the impression that Clarke feels he may well have retained the seat he lost by just a few hundred votes to Wright had things panned out differently in the run up to the 2010 General Election. He threw his support behind Alan Milburn to take the party reigns ahead of Gordon Brown.
Would that have changed anything?
“Well I think we would have won the 2010 General Election for a kick off.”
Outright, or as part of a coalition?
“Well you can never tell on the exact arithmetic. But we would have performed significantly better. And I don’t think the Conservatives and Liberals together would have got an overall majority. Actually I think we would have got an overall majority ourselves because Alan is a moderniser and approached it in that way.”
New Labour’s legacy was positive overall, according to Clarke: “I’d say the New Labour contribution is fantastic, both in the fields I was in: education, also home affairs, policing, law and order and so on but also in health, economic growth and a whole range of other areas.
“Obviously there were areas of controversy, of which the most well-known is probably the Iraq war, and there were also areas where we failed to do what we wanted to do and didn’t move forward as fast as we wanted. But I think the overall record was very good and certainly bears very strong comparison with governments since 2010.”
Clarke confirms to Concrete the reports which circulated in the wake of Blair’s 2006 cabinet reshuffle that he ended up turning down the position of Defence Secretary after his removal from the Home Office following the foreign prisoners scandal.
He elaborates: “[I refused the new post] because I thought getting on top of a new job took a very long time, about a year, and I thought it wasn’t the right thing to do. I think I should have stayed as Home Secretary, but that wasn’t the Prime Minister’s view and of course it was his right to take that view.”
Since then, Clarke has pursued a successful career in academia, with a number of temporary Professorships and lecture series.
Talk turns to his time as a visiting Professor at UEA.
His highlight, he says, was producing “two sets of lectures and books, the first, called The Too Difficult Box, was a set of lectures and a book about the problems that need to be overcome to get political solutions to problems facing the country such as welfare reform, immigration, climate change. And the second was books on political leadership, one on British Labour leaders, and one on British Conservative leaders, with the same issues again. The lectures plus the books were the highlight of that association with the UEA.”
I ask if his political career made him approach the Labour and Conservative leaders’ biographies differently: “Not really, I was trying to analyse, and I did it with a colleague, Toby [James], at the university, on a framework of what were the qualities of leadership that were needed. And in all politics, Labour or Conservative or indeed anyone else, those qualities of leadership are needed. And that’s the way in which we set out the book.”
During his UEA role, Clarke conducted a number of public interviews, which were some of my early introductions to real-world politics as a Sixth Form student. He picks out his discussion with Green Party leader Caroline Lucas, one event I attended, as his personal favourite.
I couldn’t let one of the architects of top-up tuition fees enjoy his day at graduation without asking him about that issue. He clarifies: “I never actually voted for an increase in fees. I established the system at £3,000. I thought it was a good system because I thought it was right that graduates after they’d graduated should make a contribution.
“I think the Conservatives and Liberals [coalition] raising it from £3,000 to £9,000 was a serious mistake because they simply used that to take money out as part of the austerity approach, and I wouldn’t have voted for that change if I’d been in Parliament at that time.”
Clarke is happy to discuss current political issues, including the all-dominating subject of Brexit. He’s a well-known critic of Jeremy Corbyn and the current direction of the Labour Party. I mention comments he made in March 2017 where he said that Labour did not have a distinct enough path as an opposition party against the Conservatives’ Brexit plans, and ask if anything has changed.
His response is blunt: “No. I think Labour could have been much stronger on Brexit, should have been much stronger on Brexit and actually if that were the case I think we’d have been in a much stronger position than we are now.”
For all his political might and academic excellence, Clarke is also, it seems, worth listening to when it comes to football. He was very proud to graduate at Carrow Road, “a fantastic venue, and it was nice to be on the pitch”.
Clarke continued: “I think the club makes a massive contribution to the whole city and the county.” He also made his predictions for the upcoming season: “a real challenge.”
He’s been proved right there. Afterwards, he poses for a quick photo, hands me a plush business card (one side a portrait, the other side his email address) and he’s off to join the gathering of dignitaries and other important people most students have never heard of. In fact, the interview was interrupted by the head of UEA’s Business School coming to introducing himself to Clarke and arranging to meet at the function afterwards. A shrewd political operator and a popular social one too, Mr Clarke’s new path into academia has already borne fruits in political theory. Who’s to say it can’t be just as successful as his career at the forefront of one of Britain’s foremost popular political movements of recent times?
Perhaps academia suits both of us better than Christmas card design.

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Tony Allen

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November 2021
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