EU referendum: Ken Clarke reflects on a life spent pondering Europe

James Nickerson
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Vince Cable And Kenneth Clarke Give Evidence To The Leveson Inquiry
Clarke says the logic of the European Union is much stronger now than when we first joined it as a young man (Source: Getty)

Ken Clarke has not written the final chapter of his memoirs. It will be written, he says, after 23 June, so he can look back on the referendum on the European Union.

After all, Europe is a thorny issue that has engulfed his political life, often put him at odds with his party and arguably got him branded as a “wet” during Margaret Thatcher’s reign.

With just over a week until the historic referendum, Clarke sits in an armchair in his Westminster office, surrounded by ornaments from his personal and political trips around the world, as if testament to his internationalist view.

“I am perfectly clear,” he tells me. “All other things being equal, future generations of British people will be less well off if we leave the EU than they would have been if we stay inside. On the economic case [Leave] don’t have an answer really.”

Clarke agrees with bodies such as the IMF, Treasury and Bank of England but is sceptical about the precise use of figures. However, he lambasts Michael Gove who dismissed an array of opinion that said there would be an economic shock from Brexit by saying: “We’ve all had enough of experts.”

Clarke says candidly: “Well I wouldn’t run a whelk stall on that basis let alone modern government in a sophisticated country.”

“It’d be crazy. The present government of Venezuela is the only one I know following that kind of approach.”

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But he laments more than anything that the campaign has seen too much emphasis on personality. He would rather see it focus on the issues at hand.

Even on those issues, he’s been disappointed the by the Leave campaign for focussing on immigration, Turkey’s hypothetical accession to the EU and claiming foreign criminals cannot be deported because of Britain’s EU membership. He calls it “disgraceful”, though accepts that Leave have won many votes from the immigration argument through “exciting fears”.

But Clarke does seem unwilling to accept that levels of net migration from the EU could be seen as a problem.

While David Cameron still hopes to reduce net migration, Clarke says: “My actual case on immigration is that the migrant problem is not a problem about EU citizens coming to work here - I don’t think Italian construction workers, French hedge fund managers, German academics or Romanian nurses, are a problem.

“That’s just part of being a successful 21st century economy - we benefit from recruiting them, they’re working, they don't make excessive demands on our system.”

Instead, he sees the issue as unlimited people coming from the migrant crisis stemming from conflict and war in Africa and the Middle East. To this, he says there is a moral, political and social problem, but one that is solved in the EU, and not by doing “a kind of Donald Trump and saying we’ll leave the other Europeans to sort it out but we’re going to fortify the channel to stop them coming here.”

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He also scoffs at the Leave campaign message of the UK losing sovereignty to the EU. “Sovereignty to do what? It’s a very nice 19th century concept.”

“But you pool sovereignty every time a modern country joins an international institutions that make for today’s rule based system. You surrender sovereignty by joining the UN, NATO, EU, WTO, World Health Organisation.”

He comes across as much the historian as the politician, telling me that he should have studied history at Cambridge and adding the modern nation state is derived from the post-Napoleonic era, questioning how many more centuries it can last.

“The more the 21st century goes on, the more gets a smaller place, our problems will get more acute, all countries are interdependent, we live in a global visit and the economy is in a globalised economy, so the logic of the European Union is much stronger now than when we first joined it as a young man,” he ponders.

Choosing politics over history as a young man, his profession led him to oversee virtually every major cabinet department and serve under three Prime Ministers, including John Major when he negotiated Maastricht.

The early 1990s made him all too aware of the damage the European debate can on his party - while pointing out the 1975 EEC referendum led to “Red on Red” attacks that left Labour out of power for 27 years - and doesn’t want it to be repeated now.

“But I'm afraid the nature of the national campaign and the ridiculous length of time it has taken have done a lot of damage. Individual attacks have frayed things. There has been incautious behaviour,” he says, adding that it will take some time for the Conservatives to heal and unite after the referendum.

That may depend on the outcome. Until then, he is preparing to put pen to paper on that final chapter, lauding the achievements of the EU and hoping for a more sophisticated last week of debate.

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