Mile End Institute

In Conversation with Ken Clarke

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31 October 2016

Time: 6:30am - 8:00pm
Venue: Skeel Lecture Theatre, Queen Mary University of London


The veteran Europhile Conservative said the Brexit vote had been swung by voters for whom politics has failed.

Politicians have never figured out what to do about those left behind by globalisation and the modernised economy, he added.

“We haven’t quite worked out what to do to help people for whom the process of change has been less favourable - globalisation hasn’t done them any good.”

“The middle-aged and older, white, working class, blue collar factory worker with a skill of which he was proud; the world has not treated him very well. People like me have never really quite worked out how to mitigate it. It’s no good saying we’ve had years of quite remarkable economic growth because there was no economic growth as far as he and his family were concerned.”

He added: “He lives in a rather clapped out town because the bottom’s been knocked out of the economy in what was once a proud and prosperous place. He can’t see anyone doing much for it and he can’t see anybody doing much for him and his family either.”

Clarke said American-style campaigning had contributed significantly to the corrosion of public trust in politics.

“The political experts on both sides feed each other with the same bogus stuff: you have to repeat these slogans over and over again, you need message discipline, and you get all these talking clock style junior ministers. That puts more and more people off.”

He said that authenticity is key to restoring trust in politics and praised Angela Merkel as the only consequential European leader in recent times. He argued that the politics of spin and the increasing focus on political marketing “requires a successor”.

“It needs someone to emerge who can rise above that: arguing the merits of policies without being boring and actually appeal to the public without arousing cynicism and suspicion,” said Clarke.

Clarke said that politics is now dominated by a voracious and scandal-obsessed media, deepening the contempt in which politicians are held by the public.

He said the Remain side lost the EU referendum partly because of complacency from David Cameron and his political team.

“We all have our weaknesses and one of his [Cameron] is that he gambles a bit. He believes that he’ll be able to handle it, and the idea that Nigel Farage might beat him in a referendum never crossed his mind. I think he thought the odds were very heavily in his favour. He was thinking about the run up to the last election when he just wanted to calm these people down, but of course it didn’t calm them down, they’d never been more excited in their lives,” said Clarke.

He concluded that his greatest political mistake came during the John Major government, when he and Michael Heseltine “allowed the idea of a referendum on Europe to enter back into British politics” with the promise of a referendum on the single currency.

The veteran Europhile Conservative reflected on the change in political culture over his five decades as an MP, criticising the recent focus on message discipline and spin.

He discussed his regret at the outcome of the EU referendum, admitting it was a mistake for John Major's government to promise a referendum on the single currency - a promise which ultimately led to this year's referendum.

He called for clarity about what the government's proposition for EU withdrawal will be, saying that none of the 'three Brexiteers' responsible for negotiations appears to agree with one another.