An experienced and popular Conservative politician, Kenneth Harry Clarke (born 1940) became Great Britain's chancellor of the exchequer in May 1993. Many observers predicted that he was destined to take over leadership of his party.
Kenneth Harry Clarke was born in Nottingham on July 2, 1940. The descendant of coal miners, whose grandfather was an avid Communist, Clarke was raised in modestly upwardly-mobile circumstances. His father was initially a colliery electrician and, after World War II, the owner of a watch repair and jewelry business. An intelligent boy, Clarke was sent to Nottingham High School, where he excelled in academics and won a college scholarship to Caius College, Cambridge.
Clarke's Cambridge career was a great and unlikely success. Despite an undistinguished lineage and an unprepossessing appearance, he was popular and admired for his incisive mind, frankness, sense of humor, and amusing conversation. At Cambridge he focused his interests and found his true vocation—politics. Although he studied law and received a respectable degree, much of his time was spent in non-academic pursuits: he was active in campus Conservative (Tory) politics, serving as chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association in 1961 and, at the national level, as chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students from 1963 to 1965. He also was involved in the famous university debating society, the Cambridge Union, and in 1963 was named its president.
While at Cambridge Clarke met Gillian Edwards, a brilliant graduate student in medieval history, and the two were married in 1964. Like Clarke, unconventional in appearance, Gillian gave up her studies and devoted herself to making a home for Clarke and, later, their two children, a son and a daughter; to needlecraft (she was a national champion quilter); to gardening; and to philanthropy.
Clarke Enters Politics
In 1963 Clarke was admitted to the bar, and he was a practicing barrister from 1963 to 1979. Specializing in criminal cases, he was able to utilize his skills in debate and soon established a flourishing career. His goal, however, was a political career, and he remained active in the Conservative Party. In the general election of 1970 he was elected member of Parliament for Rushcliffe, in Nottingham shire, a seat he held well into the 1990s.
In Parliament Clarke's potential was quickly noticed. He became parliamentary private secretary to the solicitor general in 1971 and was an assistant whip in the Heath government from 1972 to 1974. In 1974 he was named secretary of the Conservative parliamentary health and social security committee, lord commissioner of the treasury, and member of the parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe and was appointed opposition spokesman on social services. Two years later he became opposition spokesman on industry. For the next several years, however, his career stalled, not because of any lack of talent but because he was not a staunch advocate of That cherism and party leader Margaret Thatcher did not care for him personally. As a Tory politician Clarke represented everything Thatcher was not. He was a left-wing or "wet" Tory and a social and religious liberal, proudly provincial in orientation, and pro-European. He criticized his party's obsession with social class while himself exemplifying, like John Major, a new breed of "classless" Tory politician.
Despite her personal views on Clarke, in 1985 Thatcher named Clarke to his first cabinet position, minister for employment. Henceforth his progress was steady. In 1988 he was appointed secretary of state for health. In this capacity he took on the daunting task of reforming the glaringly inefficient management practices of the National Health Service in the face of intense opposition from the medical establishment and a significant portion of the electorate. Rising to the challenge, Clarke became known as the government's "bruiser" and was able to implement much of his reform policy.
During the Tory leadership crisis of November 1990 Clarke played a critical role. Though personally opposed to Thatcher's continued leadership, he believed that the threat posed by her opponent, Michael Heseltine, was a more immediate danger to the solidarity of the party. Accordingly, he at first defended Thatcher. Like most of his colleagues, he thought that she would withdraw from the contest when she realized the gravity of the situation. When she did not do so, he was the first cabinet minister to tell her she should resign and, in the interest of the party, let others—i.e., centrist John Major, the chancellor of the exchequer, and Clarke's old friend and fellow "wet" Tory, foreign secretary Douglas Hurd—have a chance. At length Thatcher did resign, apparently blaming Clarke for "leading the rout from the Cabinet Room." Clarke was then asked by his cabinet colleagues to urge Hurd, whom he supported, to run for the party leadership. Clarke's career was not disrupted, however, when Major, with whom Clarke always had maintained friendly relations, was elected leader and became the new prime minister.
Appointment to Major's Cabinet
Major appointed Clarke secretary for education in his cabinet, and in his two years in the job Clarke initiated important reforms, empowering individual local schools at the expense of the local education authorities, often bastions of the "looney left," and strengthening educational standards. Named home secretary in December 1992, Clarke continued as a reformer, this time taking on the police. He sought to rationalize the byzantine police regulations, finances, and structure, and conducted an inquiry into policy pay and internal management. Here too, despite much criticism, the "bruiser" triumphed.
By mid-1993 Clarke's political position was assured. He had a significant following in the country and in the party. In Parliament he had a reputation for skill and was named "most impressive parliamentarian" in an informal, non-partisan poll of MPs (members of Parliament). He had shown he was able to stand up to the vested interests. Unlike representatives of the faltering right-wing of the Tory Party, the "wet" Tory Clarke exuded confidence and common sense. In the post-Thatcher era of "grey" politicians, Clarke was manifestly not boring. He was, in short, not merely viewed as a "coming man," but the "coming man," and the most likely and logical heir to John Major.
Appointment to Chancellor of the Exchequer
In May 1993, in a bid to bolster his government by sacking the unpopular chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont, Major reshuffled his cabinet and named Clarke as chancellor. Although the appointment came as something of a surprise—Clarke had no substantial experience in economics—the appointment was hailed by most of the party because of Clarke's public credibility and political following. The appointment also was seen as a great opportunity for Clarke: the chancellor is the second most powerful position in the British cabinet, and Clarke, if able to improve Britain's fragile economy, would be in a very strong political position. Much of the press speculated that as chancellor Clarke was poised to replace Major, who was depicted as dull, indecisive, and melancholy. Nonetheless, Clarke consistently supported Major and his leadership. At the Conservative Party conference in October 1993 he defended Major against his critics ("an enemy of John Major is an enemy of the Conservative Party"), and in November 1993 he endorsed Major's much maligned "Back to Basics" policy.
From the time of his appointment as chancellor there was much speculation about the budget Clarke would produce on November 30, 1993. Clarke's 75-minute budget speech, in which he self-assuredly declared he was presenting the "no-nonsense budget … of a responsible government," was generally recognized as a political tour de force. Contrary to expectation, he did not propose massive new taxes. He did, however, propose higher taxes on gasoline, cigarettes, and wine; new taxes on air travel and insurance; and reduced tax breaks for home mortgages. In addition, he called for a 3.5 billion pound reduction in government spending through a freeze on public sector pay and government costs, and changes in unemployment (redubbed "job-seeking") and disability benefits. He predicted that the increased taxes and reduced spending would significantly decrease the public debt. The budget clearly strengthened Clarke's political position. Although it was termed "a vicious attack on the welfare state" by Labour leader John Smith, it was received enthusiastically by the Tories, by the financial markets, and by major economists and analysts at home and abroad.
Chancellor Clarke was able to deal adroitly with the problems confronting him. For example, the agreement in February 1994 with the public sector employees' unions for a 3 percent pay raise, which Clarke initially opposed, was reached after he stipulated that the money for the raise would come either from lay-offs or greater efficiency and would not nullify the provisions of his budget. His position as Major's heir apparent was not an easy one, and he was admittedly an ambitious man, but he carried it out with dignity and loyalty. And, as political analyst John Grigg observed, in the early 1990s Clarke was "young enough to be patient."
At the end of 1994 Clarke proposed to deregulate the government bond "repo" market as part of his 1995 budget proposal, and this was received with great approval. Repos are similar to stock futures in the corporate sector, and the move to open this market was seen as an incentive to foreign investment which in turn would strengthen the pound. By February of that year however the pound was still in a decline, and the Chancellor stubbornly persisted in his refusal to raise interest rates, despite intense pressure from the governor of the Bank of England. Clarke's subsequent endorsement of privatization for public projects did little to enhance his appeal. He held to his course regardless, and the economy continued to wane over the course of that year. Then in the spring of 1996 a serious confrontation with Prime Minister John Major antagonized Clarke to the point of resignation. This time the issue concerned the proposed Euro Dollar, a common currency system for all of Europe. Clarke vehemently opposed the entire concept, and reportedly resigned over the issue of whether or not there should be a public referendum if the other European countries would pass the resolution. John Major assuaged Clarke's ire and convinced him to continue as Chancellor, and the critics had a field day until later that year when none could deny that the British economy had taken a turn for the better despite the Chancellor's idiosyncratic policies. At the end of 1996 Chancellor Clarke finally conceded to an increase in interest rates, most likely to stave off a relapse of the sluggish economy.
With the dawn of the new year, 1997, Kenneth Clarke's political future was hanging in the balance. His controversial budget proposal for 1997 was ballyhooed by critics as politically expedient but otherwise useless. The ongoing flap over acceptance of the Euro Dollar served to antagonize the situation. In a seething editorial in The Economist he was labeled a "closet New Labourite … doing his tactical best to keep the Tories in power." However, in 1997 elections, John Major's Tories failed to hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons and lost the prime minister's office to Labour's Tony Blair.
Further Reading on Kenneth Harry Clarke
Two biographies of Clarke are reportedly in progress in Britain. The single best source of general information on Kenneth Clarke is John Grigg's admiring article "Primed Minister" in the London Times Magazine (October 2, 1993). The more left-wing Guardian's profile of Clarke, by Alex Brunner (September 29, 1993), is less effusive. A portrait of an amiably eccentric Gillian Clarke is provided by Alice Thomson in "Patchwork Provincial Shares Limelight with Cocktail Set," London Times (May 29, 1993). Penny Junor's The Major Enigma (1993) is a sympathetic biography of John Major. Clarke's role in the Tory leadership crisis of November 1990 is discussed in Robert Shepherd's factual and balanced The Power Brokers: The Tory Party and Its Leaders (1991). For an anti-Clarke perspective on the same topic see Alan Clark's Diaries (1993). Journalists have enjoyed speculating on Clarke's possible future as prime minister. Of particular interest is William Rees-Mogg's "Clarke for PM," London Times (May 31, 1993). Clarke's first budget attracted attention even in the United States—see Nicholas Bray's "Britain's Budget Mixes Tax Increases with Promise of Public Spending Cuts," Wall Street Journal (December 1, 1993). Simon Heffer's "The Day of the Job Seeker" in the Spectator (December 4, 1993) is highly critical of Clarke and his budget.
Clarke wrote or coauthored three pamphlets. In 1966 he, with John Lenton and Nicholas Budger, produced "Immigration, Race, and Politics: A Birmingham View." With fellow Conservative MP Elaine Lellett-Bowman he wrote "Britain in Europe—New Hope for the Regions" in 1979, and in 1987 the Conservative Political Centre published his "The Free Market and the Inner Cities." All the pamphlets are indicative of Clarke's political views: a positive attitude and an enthusiastic embracing of the need for an activist government to reform unacceptable conditions.
Additional Biography Sources
The Economist, December 3, 1994; February 18, 1995; May 13, 1995; October 28, 1995; March 16, 1996; April 6, 1996; November 16, 1996; November 30, 1996; November 30, 1996.