The New Statesman Interview - Charles Clarke

Once Neil Kinnock's right-hand man, he is now a rising star who rages against the cynicism of the br

Charles Clarke, once Neil Kinnock's right-hand man, now widely tipped for promotion into the Blair Cabinet, looks like a bruiser. He is a big man who tends to loom over whomever he is speaking to, and his scowl is famous. No one has dared to tell him to shave off his beard, he doesn't carry a pager and he has not bothered with a government car. Now, although he hates being described as a bruiser - "I'm not rude and offensive to people in private life" - he is on the warpath again. His target? The BBC.

Clarke's case is a serious one, as ever. He believes that a corrosive cynicism is destroying British public life and that broadcasting journalists have a lot to answer for. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after the pasting that Neil Kinnock received, Clarke is still extremely wary of the press, describing the media as "not just reporters . . . but major players in the political game".

It is, however, the broadcasters he is particularly concerned about: "I think there's a certain fostering of cynicism among some of the broadcasting media, which I find very distressing." Clarke singles out a couple of current bete noires from the BBC: "I'd even say this of Andrew Marr [the BBC's political editor and my husband] . . . I certainly think it of John Humphrys [of the Today programme]. Particularly John Humphrys. I think he goes about propagating the view that politicians are cynical and are basically not to be trusted, are self-seeking and all the rest of it, which I believe genuinely not to be true - not just of my friends in government, but of Conservative politicians, too."

Clarke will not be put off his stride: "Politicians are mostly people who are trying to wrestle with quite difficult problems, and maybe get it wrong at various points, but I think the cynicism about politics and about the political process that programmes such as Today engender is bad."

But is cynicism not, I ask him, really the fault of a government that promised more than it has delivered? Clarke admits that Labour may have been "guilty of hyping up expectations", the result of a "belief among Labour politicians that more could be achieved more rapidly than could actually be done". Yet he is insistent that it's not the politicians who are fickle: it is simply that there is a lag between the expectation and the delivery, something that the government is finding to its cost.

Clarke has spent much of his adult life struggling with a hostile media. He is one of a cadre of Kinnockites - "outstanding people", in his phrase - the battle-scarred veterans of Labour's hard years who have risen and risen under Tony Blair. Peter Mandelson is another obvious name, as is John Reid, now the Scottish Secretary, and Patricia Hewitt, Kinnock's former press secretary and the other minister widely tipped for Cabinet promotion. It is odd, given how much Labour has changed in a decade, how those who dominated the early 1990s, are still very much to the fore today. Or so I think. But Clarke, now minister of state at the Home Office, sees a seamless progress from the Kinnock days. Well, almost seamless: "Neil as a leader and Tony as a leader - I skip lightly over John Smith as a leader - are in a common line of modernising Labour."

Clarke puts the continuing success of the Kinnockites down to their experience of the trials and tribulations of modernising. "They had to understand the difficulties of modernising Labour politics, and that meant that, when we had a chance of a modernising Labour government, they were in a strong position to deal with it."

Certainly, if thinking the unthinkable was a prerequisite of the modernisers, Clarke has lost none of that. He is a plain speaker. He casually attacks a famous Treasury sacred cow, hypothecation, or earmarked taxes. Clarke reveals that the Labour Party very nearly adopted the idea of a hypothecated health tax before that fateful election in 1992. Now he believes hypothecation is the only way to secure public support for higher taxes: "I don't think we will win back public support for higher taxation unless we can absolutely convince people that the money's going where they think it should go, and it's being well spent - and we've still got a lot to do."

Clarke thinks hypothecation could have helped prevent the fuel crisis: "I think if fuel taxation were hypothecated towards public transport, it would be a better way of operating." This will cause some raised eyebrows in the Treasury; but then, Clarke acknowledges, laughing, no one who supports hypothecated taxes will end up as a Treasury minister.

He is equally prepared to speak his mind about the Liberal Democrats. Everybody knows that Tony Blair would like a closer relationship, and that he half-promised them seats in a Labour Cabinet. But Clarke has hit them hard in the past, and wastes no time in doing so again: "The possibility of any more long-term relationship between the Lib Dems and Labour depends upon the Lib Dems getting rid of their cynical oppositionist opportunism. That's their choice. Do they want to be part of the realignment of the centre left, or do they want to be just slaggers-off and oppositionists?" And what of Charles Kennedy? Clarke doesn't hesitate: "At the moment, if you look at the way he conducts himself, I'd say it is opportunistic and oppositionist, rather than constructive."

Ouch. This is not a man you would want as an enemy. Having been about a bit, Clarke is a relentless fighter, someone who admits that, after the Kinnock years, he remains even now "psychologically pessimistic". He warned against complacency in the run-up to the 1997 election, and is doing so again now. "I think it's not at all a straightforward and clear-cut election . . . I think it's going to be a much harder fought election than people think."

Clarke's reasoning goes like this: although Labour no longer has the problem that people don't believe it is capable of government, the Tories are not the bogeymen they once were. So, this time around, Clarke does not expect a repeat of the cross-voting that took place to get rid of the Conservatives in 1997. He is also concerned that Labour's infighting could cost the party votes. "It's certainly been damaging," he agrees, and urges his colleagues, or their supporters at least, to cool it. "I do think it would be better for the health of the Labour government if some of the - presumably - colleagues of some of the big boys and girls around government didn't talk so much to the media about some of the other boys and girls around government."

Now Clarke is a big boy himself - and he needs to be, given his responsibility for the crime portfolio. Despite Blair's famed rhetoric about "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", violent crime is rising. In part, says Clarke, falling back on a well-worn argument, it is because Labour has encouraged the recording of some types of violent crime, such as domestic violence. But he does accept an increase in two other types of violent crime: attacks by young people on other young people, often involving the theft of a mobile phone; and alcohol-fuelled violence, often around the pubs and clubs.

These increases are behind the measures introduced in the Queen's Speech: the crackdown on "yobbish" behaviour and the powers to close down troublesome pubs and clubs. Clarke strongly supports the anti-bullying measures being promoted by David Blunkett: "Anti-bullying is very, very important." He wants a much stronger partnership between schools and the police.

Partnership is the buzzword at the Home Office these days. Clarke stresses that crime prevention is the responsibility not just of the police. Although more police are needed - and he promises they are on the way - he champions the "extended police family". This turns out to be local authority workers, private security guards, bouncers at nightclubs. Some of the latter have been known crooks themselves, hence the government's bill to regulate the private security industry: "There are about twice as many people who work in the private security industry as work in policing - to rely on them is wrong, but we are developing better partnerships."

He points out that in Manchester, for example, there are no fewer than 130,000 people milling around at 2am when the pubs and clubs disgorge their clients. A successful partnership between security guards, club bouncers and the police has been essential.

It's all very Third Way, very public-private partnership. Would the old Charles Clarke, of the Kinnock days, be content with what this government is doing? Not just on policing, but on other aspects of crime-fighting, such as imposing curfews on young people or that highly controversial attempt to limit trial by jury for minor offences? Clarke insists that he is very comfortable with himself: "I don't think that the civil liberties of a youth to make life miserable for everyone living on the estate around him are superior to the civil liberties of an individual to live in peace on that estate."

However, Clarke has never been, as he readily tells me, "a particular civil libertarian myself". He defends the Mode of Trial Bill, which limits jury trials, as being nothing like as dramatic as its opponents are suggesting. "I don't see it as a fundamental erosion of civil liberties in any way whatsoever." There are a number of cases, Clarke insists, where there is no right to trial by jury, and a number where there is an absolute right. This new bill is for those in the middle, where he sees it as right for the court to decide - as in many other European countries. As to his opponents: "The thing that offends me is that they don't appear to acknowledge at all that there is an issue on the other side of the equation."

So there we are: tough on crime and tough on the opponents of his anti-crime measures; a political bruiser, built like a bouncer, taking on the bullies and thugs; an anti-Liberal moderniser; a rising star who is deeply pessimistic. Clarke is a complicated, unusual man. But if I were Blair, I'd just be glad he was on my side. And if I were John Humphrys, I'd keep the door on a chain come sundown.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.