Thoughts from a Big Beast

Thoughts from a Big Beast

On Monday evening, Ken Clarke, described by Intelligence² as a Big Beast of British politics, was being interviewed by John Humphreys, though even Humphreys was scarcely able to get a word in, as Ken opined, entertainingly and at length, on Brexit, Boris, elections and a life in politics.

The following comments he made are worth noting as relevant, not just to the election, but to politics thereafter:-

Communicating with voters

The challenge now for politicians was how to talk to voters, persuade them, reach out to them intelligently, particularly in an age of social media and fragmented groups with people only listening to those they agreed with rather than those who challenged them. The old-fashioned ways: speeches, town hall meetings, long interviews were no longer enough. New ways were needed and this was one of the most important things for the next generation to develop. He did not think anyone had yet found the right voice, an effective way of doing this. But if it did not happen, then the siren voices of populists promising glib analyses and easy answers would dominate.

The Benefits of FPTP

This forced parties to become wide coalitions and present to the electorate a broad package of measures, a programme for government, based on compromise and priorities. But he liked it because it also forced voters to make a choice about a programme for government rather than simply focus on a single issue or obsession. Rather than have lots of small parties unable to agree or unwilling to compromise, all arguing for their own preference (much like the pointless 7-way election debates), voters would be forced to choose and to prioritise. He thought that both main parties were now a somewhat bizarre version of themselves but thought, perhaps optimistically,  that they would be able to pull back to the art of compromise and pragmatism, to being a truer version of themselves.

The Benefits of Unpopularity

In answer to a question on the steps needed to combat climate change, he made two points. First, while it was now high on the agenda, the talk was still of setting targets and changing dates by when steps would be taken and not on the actual steps which needed to be taken. Second, those steps (and as an example, he named raising two taxes he had introduced as Chancellor) would be individually extremely unpopular. If parties only ever worried about short-term popularity, what went down well with focus groups and opinion polls, nothing would ever get done. That was why sensible governments worked out what their priorities were, did them as soon as they were elected, explained what they were about and why, made sure they worked properly, eased off the closer it came to an election and awaited the judgment of voters on the whole after a 4/5 year term rather than obsessing about the immediate ratings. If the measures had been properly explained and worked, then voters would be more willing to accept them; if they didn’t work you were stuffed anyway. But to achieve effective change you needed to be willing to endure unpopularity. That, of course, presupposed that parties knew what they wanted to do and had a plan for getting there.

The Importance of a Good Opposition

An opposition which was an alternative government was essential to our system, not simply because it was needed but because, if it was properly challenged and scrutinised, it forced the government to raise its game. Labour was not such an opposition and he felt that Corbyn would never be PM, even if he tried “for a thousand years”. But Labour would be “out of sight” if it had a good leader. In the same way, he had no problem with interviewers being probing and asking tough questions. A good interview forced the interviewee to engage with his audience (rather than repeat slogans “developed by erks in No 10”) and explain things well, probably better than if he was just lobbed easy questions.

Spreading the Wealth

The 2008 financial crisis was at least as much responsible for Brexit as any particular issues people had with the EU itself. Finance Ministers (like him) believed in the 1990’s that they had sorted out how best to manage economies. Everything was becoming more globalised and co-operative; the levers they had seemed to be working. What they didn’t notice (or pay enough attention to) was that this was benefiting 40% of the population and that parts of the country and its people were not benefiting but were nonetheless enduring significant change and disruption. The dissatisfactions this had caused had expressed themselves in many ways (Trump, Brexit, Salvini).  The answers so far given: it’s all the fault of the favoured scapegoat were not an answer. But a sensible pragmatic answer and solutions were needed.

My take (FWIW): This issue – who gets the benefits, who bears the costs and are both fairly shared – is, and always has been, the pre-eminent question in politics. It will, however it may be presented as issues related to Brexit and FTAs and nationalisation and austerity, continue to be so after December 12th.  And it will be quite a challenge for whatever government emerges after the election. It was notable that Clarke admitted that his generation of politicians had been perhaps too smug and confident about what they were doing and had not noticed what was happening under their noses. But all of the above issues (and they are only some of what was discussed) matter, particularly the issue of how politicians and voters find a new common means of communicating with each other. If understanding and persuasion are absent, how can politics work effectively?

Clarke said that it was Macmillan’s decision to apply to join the EU which finally persuaded him he was a Conservative. He would now describe himself to a canvasser as a “doubtful Conservative”, one who wanted a sensible plan – not just fine words – for what Britain’s relationship with the EU would be. He was wryly aware of the symmetry in his long political career.

Whether you agree with him or not on the European question, it is a great pity that his voice will no longer be heard in the Commons.


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