Charles Clarke

By Beckett, Francis | New Statesman (1996), June 18, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Charles Clarke

Beckett, Francis, New Statesman (1996)

He was once portrayed as dictatorial, obsessed, almost demented. But Blair's new appointment could prove inspired

Future Labour historians may look back on the appointment of Charles Clarke as party chairman, in the post-election reshuffle, as the cleverest thing Tony Blair did to Labour's constitution. Party leaders since Ramsay MacDonald have fretted about whose turn it might be to take the chair in election year. Clem Attlee's nightmare came true. He entered the 1945 election with the leftwinger Harold Laski in the chair and, after a series of "red scare" stories, Attlee sent Laski a note: "A period of silence from you would be welcome."

No previous Labour leader has felt strong enough simply to appoint his own chairman. It's a remarkable coup, which looks like being relatively bloodless - though there will be protests at the autumn party conference, which will be told to pass anile change making it constitutional.

The real cleverness lies in the man Blair chose. A new Labour smoothie would have provoked a serious row. Clarke, however, is famously off-message. He is enthusiastic about hypothecation - levying a tax specifically for, say, schools, or hospitals-an idea that was supposed to have died with John Smith. He is against charging tuition fees to students, preferring a graduate tax.

He is large and stout, with a straggly beard and crumpled suits, in a Cabinet of sharp suits, svelte figures and smooth faces. He drinks hearty quantities of red wine in a Cabinet of genteel sippers, and is famous for straight talking (or boorish rudeness, depending on your point of view). When I rang him to discuss this profile - we go back years - I think I fell out with him, and not for the first time.

I had asked whether it was true that the iron entered his soul when he was chief of staff to Neil Kinnock; that those tense, confrontational and ultimately embittering nine years etched themselves as darkly on his personality as they did on that of his leader. "I think it's a rather shallow description," he responded. "You'll have to write what you like." And he ended the conversation so rapidly that I wondered if he had just hung up on me.

Clarke, now 50, has always sounded as though he was born to rule. The son of a top civil servant, Sir Richard Clarke KCB, he went to the north London public school Highgate, where he was head boy, and to Cambridge, where he was president of the union. He became treasurer of the National Union of Students in 1974, and president the next year. It's an extraordinary job: a young man or woman of 25 or so leads a large organisation with a sizeable turnover and dozens of staff, to say nothing of volatile politics.

His cheerful, public school, boys' own manner earned him the nickname "Biggles". I was the press officer and, on his way to his office, he had to pass mine. He would look round the door, a song in his heart almost bursting from his cheerful, chubby face, and say: "It's a great day for the race." "What race?" I'd ask. "The human race," he'd reply triumphantly, and up the stairs he'd go, bumpity bump.

Staff found that, if they did something he liked, he'd give fulsome praise; and if they made a mistake, he'd put it behind him as fast as possible. I once took him some press statements and told him they'd been drafted by a junior member of staff. He instantly bounced downstairs to her desk, so that she could see him enthuse about her work. Later in life, perhaps, he started to think that sort of thing was a waste of time -- but we'll come to that.

His deputy - loyal, even though Clarke had beaten him to the job - was Alastair Stewart, later an ITN newsreader. He was disappointed when Stewart chose a career in television. He thought it far too frivolous for so fine a man. Politics, to Clarke, is a very serious business. Journalism isn't.

In 1981, Clarke became research assistant for Labour's education spokesman, Neil Kinnock.

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