Ken Clarke is running late. Backstage at the Cambridge Literary Festival, where the former chancellor is due to speak shortly, his publicist is keeping a watchful eye on the door. Just as watches start to be glanced at, the famously loose-tongued Tory arrives and takes a seat, proclaiming that we have loads of time. He seems relaxed, his suit is loose and slightly creased, and his greying hair flops over his somewhat florid face. His eyes look puffy and slightly tired – the only obvious sign that at 76, retirement is not far off.
Despite his laconic demeanour, the former chancellor says he oscillates between being “angry and depressed at the appalling state politics in the UK has descended into”. After 46 years as an MP for the Nottinghamshire constituency of Rushcliffe, he will not stand for re-election in 2020. His decision was announced in mid-June, just before the Brexit vote. Europe has in many ways defined his long career. He feels sharply the irony that the cause that drew him into politics was the 1961 campaign by Harold Macmillan’s government for Britain to gain access to the European Economic Community, as it was then. Now, he will be bidding farewell to Parliament while the country prepares to exit the European Union. “The only consolation I have is that the UK has derived enormous benefits for being in the EU. . . I hope future generations don’t suffer too much with it coming to an end.”
Clarke is here to promote his memoir, A Kind of Blue, for which he received £430,000 – a record for a British politician who has not served as prime minister. The apt title reflects his own status as a Tory maverick as well as his love of jazz hero Miles Davis. He seems to enjoy the attention that book promotion brings – joking with the former Labour home secretary Charles Clarke, who happens also to be speaking at the festival.
Beneath his good humour lies a deep unease about the rise of populist, far-right forces that are rampaging through western liberal democracies from the US to France. “It’s resistance to change, resistance to the modern world and a desire for simple solutions to very complicated political problems,” he says. “The manner in which the political debate is publicised has changed, the mass media is hysterical and competitive and social media is taking over with short soundbites. It has thrown politics into complete confusion.”
Although he cites coverage of the New Statesman’s recent interview with Tony Blair as an example of media hysteria, he is positive about Blair’s intervention: “My understanding [of the interview] was that Tony only wants to play a part in trying to reform centre-left politics, and that’s a good thing . . . I want to see the sensible social democrats win the argument in the Labour party.”
Aware this might sound surprising, given that Labour are his political opponents, he justifies it by stressing the need for a credible opposition capable of putting pressure on the government. Jeremy Corbyn might make him “nostalgic for my youth when there were lots of Sixties lefties”, but it is clear he holds his leadership at least partly responsible for the “total collapse” of the Labour party, which has seen it lose “almost all of its traditional blue-collar base in the north and north midlands to reactionary, prejudiced, right-wing views”.
He is equally scathing of Corbyn’s praising of the late Fidel Castro as a “champion of social justice”, after news of the communist dictator’s death broke late on Friday night. “[Castro] is a historical throwback to a form of simplistic ultra left-wing orthodoxy . . . He achieved some things in health and education but combined it with an extraordinary degree of cruelty and a denial of human rights.”
Clarke still has one political hero left, though: the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who recently declared she would run again for a fourth term in 2017. He describes her as the only politician succeeding in keeping the traditon of western liberal demcoracy alive. “She is head and shoulders the best politician the western world has produced in the last 10 to 20 years,” he says. If successful, the Christian Democrat would equal the record of her mentor, former chancellor Helmut Kohl, and provide some much-needed stability to European politics.
Less of a hero to him is Theresa May, who he famously referred to as a “bloody difficult woman” in July during an off-camera conversation with Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, which Sky News recorded. The clip caused a sensation. “I brought great joy to the nation,” he says, chuckling. “My son rang me up laughing his head off, and said it was the first time in my life I’d gone viral on YouTube.”
Today, however, he expresses some sympathy for the tortuous political situation the Prime Minister finds herself in, saying she must have been “startled by the speed” at which she suddenly ascended to the role. He is prepared to give her time to prove that, “she has the remarkable political gifts which will be needed to get the politics of the UK back to some sort of sanity”.
Later, during his talk in the historic debating chamber of the Cambridge Union, a more sentimental side slips out. His wife, Gillian, died 18 months ago. His book is dedicated to her. He rarely discusses his grief, preferring to keep that side of his life private. But when asked to recall his fondest memory of his student days at Cambridge University, he says simply meeting her. “Let me give a corny answer, it is going across to a girl at a [disco], picking her up, getting on quite well and staying married to her for over 50 years,” he says, his voice slightly trailing off, before he recovers, shakes his head, and pours his energy back into politics once more.