Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

Cuddly Uncle Ken…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Ken Clarke has been a fixture in the UK Parliament since 1970, so the entire period in which I’ve been politically aware. He has stood down at this election, having been thrown out of the Conservative Party of which he has been a member all these years over his support for remaining in the EU. Not that he will care, I imagine – the personality I’ve spent so long with in this 24 hour audiobook is one who will always believe he is right and everyone else is wrong, and will happily sail off into the sunset with his sense of his innate superiority undented.

Long familiarity with a politician can breed a kind of affection, especially when he remains in parliament long after his ministerial days are over. There is a tradition in the UK, not so much of elder statesmen, but of cuddly uncles – men who pepper their speeches with rambling accounts of how things used to be back in the days of Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher, like the old relative in the corner at family gatherings who will insist on talking about the war. (I’m not being unconsciously sexist here – it really is a male thing since we haven’t had enough long-serving women MPs for there to be many female octogenarians shuffling around the corridors of power yet… give it another couple of decades.) For older people, like me, who remember Wilson and Thatcher, this gives a curious sense of stability and continuity. Younger people, I imagine, simply roll their eyes and switch off. Over the last couple of decades, Clarke has become one of those cuddly uncles, known for his love of jazz, his cigar-smoking bon viveur personality, his jovial demeanour, and his endearingly crumpled appearance…

…which explains why I’d managed to sort of forget that he was responsible for overseeing some of the most Thatcherite policies of the Thatcher era! As a cabinet minister in those days he served as Health Secretary as the first tentative steps were taken to make the NHS more “efficient” (i.e., cheaper) by introducing the ‘internal market’ – a way of making hospitals compete against each other for patients; for ‘contracting out’ ancillary services – a way of making cleaners, canteen staff and so on work longer for less money and fewer employment rights; and for making GPs ‘fundholders’, taking decisions on where patients should be treated on the basis of budgets rather than quality of care. Then, having destroyed standards and morale in the NHS, he spent a couple of years trying to wreck – I mean, improve – education, in much the same way.

Trigger warning: Thatcher and her merry men. Ken is the one in the middle at the back. The other three are Ken Baker, Malcolm Rifkind and, at the front, Nigel Lawson.

So “successful” was he in these roles that Thatcher’s successor, John Major, promoted him to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer. How you rate him in this role really depends on your political leanings. The economy improved under his oversight, but the disparity between rich and poor grew. Unemployment went down, but it could be argued that it was Thatcher’s policies that had made it rise to such alarming rates in the first place. Interest rates, driven through the roof by the government’s mishandling of the whole question of the ERM and the single European currency, came back down to bearable levels. All of this gave him a reputation for competence and I won’t argue with that except to say that every chancellor’s reputation rests to some degree on the competence or otherwise of his predecessor and successor. Clarke succeeded to a shambles – it would have been hard for him to make things worse.

The book is well written, full of anecdotes and personality sketches that stop it from being a dry read about policies. I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Clarke himself and he has an attractive speaking voice, making it a pleasant listening experience. But although I listened very hard, I can’t remember him once in the whole 24 hours ever expressing any concern for the weaker or more vulnerable members of our society. I got the distinct impression that to Clarke politics is an intellectual game, with victory being judged by statistics and honours rather than by outcomes for actual people. Even his much vaunted support for the EU, which in recent years has made many Remainers feel that he’s much cuddlier than most Conservatives, really seems to be about the free flow of workers providing a limitless pool of cheap labour from the poorer countries in Europe with which to boost profits for the rich while depressing the pay and conditions of those Brits already at the bottom of the economic ladder.

As is often the case with political memoirs, Clarke only really talks about the events in which he was directly involved, which is understandable but often gives a rather patchy view of a period. For instance, there’s barely a mention of the Falklands War, which played a huge role in why the Thatcher government was re-elected. He does talk about the miners’ strike, but again on a purely political level. There is no doubt that the rights and wrongs of the strike are debatable, but most people, I think, have some sympathy for the suffering that the mining communities went through during and after the strike. I didn’t catch a whiff of that from Clarke – to him, it was solely a question of economics and political power.

Image: BBC

I often find my view of a politician changes when I read their memoirs, which is why I do it. Usually I come out feeling that I may disagree with them politically but that I’ve gained an appreciation of their good intentions. In this case the reverse happened. I rather liked Cuddly Uncle Ken before I listened to this, but now I see him as smug and self-satisfied, a man who throughout his life has been far more interested in his own comfort and reputation than in trying to improve the lives of the people he serves. I was sorry to see him thrown out of his party after a lifetime in it, but now… well, somehow I don’t much care. He says himself frequently that he’s not the type of person who lets anything bother him. I would have liked him to be bothered by inequality, child poverty, the marginalised and the forgotten. Is that too much to ask of a politician? As a book, though, I do recommend it as a well written memoir that casts light on the politics of the last fifty years.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

28 thoughts on “Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

  1. A really balanced review, FF. I’m not sure I could spend that long listening to Tory reminisces but I had wondered if I should read this, as like you, I thought Cuddly Ken was ok. Clearly I shouldn’t have thawed in my view!

    • I expect he’d still be quite entertaining to spend an hour in a bar with, but I don’t know that I’d pick him to take my worries to. Pity! But it made me feel less sorry about seeing him getting slung out of the party, so there’s that… 😉

  2. Really great review and it sounds like an interesting memoir. I don’t think I have ever read or listened to a politician’s memoir – definitely not in the time that I’ve been keeping track of what I read – but I’ve read a lot of lengthy articles by MPs I disagree with, or in-depth interviews, and they often have a similar effect of helping me to see the person’s good intentions. It’s disappointing (but really interesting) that this memoir had the opposite effect!

    Although I feel like I have a general overview of the policies pursued by the Thatcher government, I wasn’t born until the tail end of her premiership and had no idea which individual ministers were responsible for which policies. I might give this a listen to try and get more of an understanding of the time – though the lack of compassion and empathy you highlight makes it a lot less appealing!

    • Thank you! I’ve read a lot of political memoirs over the years and they do help me, I think, to avoid getting stuck in the “bubble” of only listening to people who share my opinions. In fact, quite often the ones from people on my “side” annoy me more than the opposition!

      If you can bear the thought, I’d recommend Thatcher’s own memoir of her time in office – The Downing Street Years. I thought it was one of the best memoirs I’ve read that really gave me an insight into what she’d been aiming for – it didn’t make me like her, but it made me dislike her less. And because she was involved in all aspects it’s a much more complete account than any of the ones I’ve read by one of her ministers, who all tend to omit the bits they weren’t directly involved in.

  3. I do like your considered and nuanced commentary, FF, and I admire your persistence and commitment in exploring differing points of view – this does open up the possibility for much richer discussions and world views. (And that isn’t to say that I don’t also enjoy your entertaining responses when you’ve had enough too 😉)

    • Thank you! I must admit I make a determined effort to understand where the “other side” is coming from – I think the hyper-tribalism in politics these days is extremely dangerous to democracy. And sometimes I even change my mind… 😱

  4. Personally, I am not impressed that a politician, especially one with significant limitations, has taken the title of a sublime Miles Davis album for his own book 😕

  5. I am so torn by Ken Clarke, because I hate his politics, but I always think I’d love to go to the pub and have a pint with him. He has talked an awful lot of sense in the midst of the Brexit debacle, but his part in Thatcher’s government can be hard to reconcile.

    • I’m afraid even his views on the EU annoyed me in the end, because it was so obvious it was cheap labour and opportunities for him to swan around Europe staying in swanky places that were the real attractions for him. I still think he’d be an entertaining companion for drinks in the bar though… 😉

  6. I was going to say much the same as Cathy above, but I’m not much impressed by any politician that immediately comes to mind. The feeling is they’re all in it for their own gains and don’t care much about the ordinary folk. Maybe some younger ones start off with good intentions…

    • The current batch are not overwhelmingly inspiring, are they? 😂 I’ll defend Gordon Brown though – I always thought he was genuinely in it to do his best for the disadvantaged, and he did lift hundreds of thousands of kids out of poverty. Just a pity he had the charisma of a rotting fish… 😉

  7. I’ve always quite liked Ken Clarke and his rather fluffy charm, though I would disagree with pretty much all of his political beliefs. It’s interesting he strikes you as arrogant and somewhat dehumanised in this memoir. Maybe the fluff is all an act? I might still listen to it sometime out of curiosity though.

    • I think he’s just blissfully unconcerned about other people – I didn’t feel he was actively nasty, just uncaring. I felt he thinks that a world that allows him to swan around the world, staying in swanky places, drinking good wine and smoking good cigars, must be a pretty good world, so why change it? I guess it becomes hard to look outside your own privilege, maybe, but he could have made more of an effort…

  8. This is a really thoughtful and balanced review, FictionFan. It is interesting to read people’s memoirs, isn’t it, and see how they change (or don’t change) one’s view of the author. Regardless of one’s feeling about Clarke, his politics or his decisions, it’s interesting to get that perspective. And I like your ‘cuddly uncle’ description, too…

    • Thank you! I do like to read political memoirs to give me a different viewpoint of events I lived through, and there’s no doubt the Thatcher era was interesting, whichever side of the political divide one was on. Oddly, a couple of the “cuddly uncles” memoirs have strangled my affection for them – must be more cautious about who I cuddle in future… 😂

  9. Despite my aversion to reading about politics (It’s bad enough having to live with it in real life), your final paragraph makes a fine statement. Too bad the reverse happened in this case. While not related to your topic of politics at all, reading Leonard by William Shatner left me with a totally different opinion of Shatner than I previously had. Fortunately my good opinion of Nimoy remained intact. 🖖

    • I’m very cautious about reading memoirs of stars or authors I like because so often I end up not liking them after all! And if I don’t like them, it affects my enjoyment of their books/films. I love William Shatner – another cuddly uncle figure in fact – but it’s only because I know nothing about him. With politicians I don’t mind so much if I end up liking them less, because that seems normal… 😂

      • I guess I should have clarified that I didn’t have the best opinion of Shatner before reading the book. Now I’m definitely a fan. (but Spock/Nimoy still rules!)

  10. I’m not much for reading memoir, as you’ll recall, FF. Put any five people at the scene of anything important, and you’ll get five different accounts of what really happened. And who’s to say whether what was told — and what was omitted — leave a balanced, accurate, telling? Still, kudos for wading through this one.

    Not to change the subject or anything, but did you happen to see Sixty Minutes last night? They did an outstanding feature on Rafa, including darling photos of him as a child and beautiful shots of the island he lives on. I think I’d like living in Spain, with all those handsome dark-haired men, ha!

    • Yes, indeed! But that’s why I like to read several different accounts and then make up my own mind. I really don’t think you begin to get a true picture of any period till at least a hundred years later though, when all the people who were personally involved are long dead.

      Oh, what a pity – no, we don’t get Sixty Minutes over here, or at least not on a channel I get. I’ll maybe see if it turns up on youtube at some point. Yes, the island he lives on is a major holiday destination from Britain, though I’ve never been myself – Spain is far too hot for me – but it is beautiful! Haha – Spaniards for the looks, Italians for the machismo, and Frenchmen for the sexy accents… see, I’m truly a European at heart… 😉

  11. And don’t forget his brown Hush puppies – although he says they’re not Hush Puppies, no doubt they’re much more expensive! I think I’ll give this one a miss. I feel exactly the same as you do and am obviously around the same age. I’m always furious when they drag out Norman Lamont as a financial analyst on TV. He was absolutely useless as a chancellor, completely clueless about everything.

    • Haha, yes, how could I have forgotten to mention his Hush Puppies! I know – it seems if you’re a useless politician you only have to live for a long time in order to become an expert. If only they’d all been as good at their jobs as they think they were, we’d be living in a paradise…

  12. Sounds like an interesting book I will never read! I can’t say I’ve been closely following Canadian politics for that long but I can’t think that we have equivalent politicians who sort of hang around and start to seem harmless and old.

    • As an outsider looking in, Canadian politics always seems to be full of much younger people than ours. We do have young MPs of course, but the ancient ones seem to hang around for ever. Mind you, we’re not as bad as the Americans who seem to think you’re too young for any of the important jobs unless you’re at least 80! 😉

      PS I’m liking Mr Trudeau’s new beard very much… 😂 (So shallow…)

      • I think having a younger PM has made a slight difference in that regard. Chretien was PM for years and years when I was growing up and he seemed absolutely ancient to me. In reality he was probably about 60!

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