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26 June 2000

Beware the Scottish Conservatives

New Statesman Scotland - Peter Clarke asks why Tory officials will not say who sent the poi

By Peter Clarke

To many who fancy themselves as pundits and pollsters, the curious breed of non-political figures who run the Conservative Party may not seem formidable, and some even describe them as dumplings. It is not true . . . I have had a duel with the dumplings for 14 years. So far, they have trounced me. But I fight on. I demand a recount and the right to give my account. What follows is a true story of extraordinary Tory duplicity and cruelty.

“Clear your desk. We want you and your effects out of here within the hour. We are not looking to see you in the building ever again.” Getting the sack is never a happy event. I was not to learn why my employers, Gordon White and James Hanson, decided to dismiss me until I had fought and won a libel action six years later.

I met Lord White sitting in his Rolls-Royce in a street behind Harrods. “Sex with children, eh? Not a good idea. We had to get rid of you.” Although I had defeated the charge – that I favoured making sex with children lawful – on two occasions, I had never been told why Lord Hanson and Lord White had sacked me so abruptly.

“Who told you I favoured sex with children?” I asked, feeling giddy with a mixture of anger and fatigue. “It was a team at Central Office. They tipped us off that you were an embarrassment waiting to happen and we should be rid of you sharply.”

It is a truism of politics that your enemies are in your own party, while your opponents are relatively friendly. What makes the cruelty and injustice of Conservative Central Office more exasperating is that it is propelled more by stupidity than malice.

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A body of poison-pen letters distributed in 1986, while I was the Tory candidate in East Lothian, contained a diverse number of allegations, but the venom was in the suggestion that I was campaigning publicly in Scotland to have sex with children made lawful.

I was unwise. I regarded the attribution as merely silly and barely worthy of attention. It was vexing, but who could be daft enough to believe I would be seeking votes on a “Vote for me, your incest candidate” platform? If I were a paedophile, I would hardly be using it as a manifesto commitment.

I reckoned without the bottomless gullibility of both the local East Lothian Conservative Association and the party’s civil servants. The recipients of the poison-pen letters worked themselves into a frenzy of hostility. They demanded that my local party chairman report my misdemeanours to Central Office and that the party discipline me or repudiate me for my scandalous views.

If I were a paedophile or seeking to make sex with children legal, then I needed some counselling or therapy. I did not need to forfeit my employment on the basis of entirely loopy allegations.

Central Office moves in a circle. You are guilty, therefore we have no obligation to tell you why you are being punished. As the party secretariat’s deliberations are conducted “in confidence”, I was not to be told what the calumnies were, let alone be quizzed on whether I had been misunderstood or misquoted – or was it another Peter Clarke?

When the Independent wrote that I had resigned the East Lothian candidacy because of my calls for incest to be made lawful, the party’s vice-chairman, Sir Tom Arnold, insisted that I had to prosecute a libel action against the newspaper or I could never be a candidate again. I told him I still did not know why my employment with Hanson plc had been removed, and then with further employers, too. I persisted in asking East Lothian office-bearers, Edinburgh party bosses and anybody in Smith Square, the epicentre of Tory foolishness, what my offence was. I could not be told, as the party’s “National Union” decisions were a matter of utmost secrecy.

So something that could have been resolved by a couple of phone calls with only a modest level of diligence turned into a feast for lawyers.

I remortgaged my home, I eventually sold it, I sold off my furniture and books and ended up borrowing from Sir Teddy Taylor MP, or rather from his wife, who had just received a small inheritance. As my resources could not match those of the Independent, I was on the point of surrendering the case when Sir James Goldsmith offered to act as a guarantor. After years of an unequal struggle, the paper and I were fighting as financial equals. I defeated the Independent. The jury awarded me £20,000. It was no compensation.

A public reversal tests friendships. I found that most of those whom I had regarded as chums or colleagues dropped me cold. Jock Bruce-Gardyne sacked me as special adviser at the Treasury. Nicholas Ridley sacked me from his staff at the Department of the Environment. I found I was trapped at job interviews. If I said, “You should understand that I’m locked in a libel case against the Independent, and the allegation is incest, or rather seeking for it to be made lawful rather than my practising it”, the interviewers would express sympathy, but recoil from any offer of a job. If I ducked it and omitted any reference to my legal albatross, they found out quickly and I looked very deceitful. I could not win any employment until I had defeated the unyielding Independent.

Although I persisted in seeking help from the party in both London and Edinburgh, I only once got a gesture of kindness. The chief of staff in Edinburgh said he had looked at my file and could see an injustice had been done. He showed me a party minute confirming that I was winning selections but that officials were able to intervene to block my adoption.

I wrote to the then Scottish party chairman, Michael (now Lord) Forsyth, saying I had proof that I was being wronged. His response was to sack his lieutenant for the treachery of showing me the vote-rigging.

I realised that Conservative Associations are populated by obedient amateurs. Not once in the cycle of bungling did any Tory ever challenge the officials. Was it true I was into incest? Was it likely? Was there any proof? What was my explanation? Conservatives are compliant sheep. Nobody further dissented from my punishment. The child-sex link was so contrived that it took me time to grasp what my accusers were animated about. In 1986, I had had a call from Brian Monteith, now an MSP, then the leader of the Tory students, saying he had crafted a “Scottish Manifesto” but had not got the cash for the printers. Could I help? The manifesto was a good cocktail of free-market ideas with notions such as selling off the coal mines and railways – radical then but platitudinous now.

In among this was a reference to the Scottish Law Commission’s move to make the Scottish legal definition of incest the same as in England and Wales. It had not previously been lawful to marry your mother-in-law or father-in-law. It was an innocent amendment that parliament nodded through. There was no hint of sex with children. Out of this, which I neither wrote nor saw, I lost my life’s chances.

With my public vindication in the courts, Sir Tom Arnold then ruled that there were further allegations against me that still demanded my suspension. What were they? He couldn’t possibly say.

Only three political friends stayed loyal. One, in view of his subsequent torture and humiliation, touches me even more deeply. Neil Hamilton was the spirit of kindness and solidarity. Enoch Powell showed himself lucid and perceptive. He said that I was naive to think the party would show mercy or intelligence, but that, if I persisted in telling the truth, the law would defeat the collective heartlessness of Smith Square.

Keith Joseph proved a faithful friend, too. He insisted that the party could not punish me further without telling me what my transgressions were. What a catalogue of folly the party supplied. I had written articles critical of Margaret Thatcher. They proved to be written by another Peter Clarke, a lecturer at Cambridge. I had adulterous relations with three women MPs. Keith Joseph sought an explanation of how my adultery barred me from parliament, while theirs did not. He got no answer.

Fourteen years after this painful story began, the Conservative Party still feels unable to write me a plain explanation of the humiliation of me and my family.

The author(s) of the malicious letters was known to party officials in Edinburgh, but they developed synchronised amnesia once I had won my libel case.

The Scottish Conservative Party is an opaque organisation at the best of times, but their behaviour over this case would have baffled even Lewis Carroll. They say I know perfectly well why I cannot be a candidate and why I have to carry a £600,000 debt for legal fees. Neither I nor my lawyers can find out why.They now say that the “silly things” I said have slipped from memory. I ask who accused me. That, too, is a secret.

I entreated Malcolm Rifkind to find out why I was being punished. He could not establish what my error was. Yes, he ascertained, I had said many silly things. I had not. They believed the poison-pen letters.

I am destitute. Beware the Scottish Conservatives.