This book is like a fine old wine. It is to be savoured. Whenever I finish reading a really good book, I get a sense of grief when I read the final page. And so it has been with Ken Clarke’s memoirs. To be paid an advance of £400,000 was quite something. No one was more shocked than Ken Clarke himself. I cannot possibly see how the publishers will make the money back, even though I am sure it will sell well. It ought to given that at the time of writing Amazon are selling it for £6.99. The recommended price is £25.
Ken Clarke didn’t actually write this book, he dictated it into a dictaphone. It was then transcribed and edited. Whoever edited it did a fine job as the whole book is authentically Ken. His voice rings through every paragraph, sentence and word. He’s a man who is clearly content in life and has enjoyed more or less every minute of his long and successful political career. He’d clearly like to have been prime minister but the fact that he never got to be doesn’t eat away at him in the way that I suspect it does with Michael Heseltine.
This is not a score-settling book, but Ken Clarke doesn’t hold back in his criticism of his contemporaries where he feels it is warranted. David Cameron will certainly find the chapter on the EU referendum a difficult read, for example.
Perhaps the main strength of this book is that it is consistent. Some memoirs have chapters that are far more interesting than others. In this memoir every chapter has a quality to it. I can’t think of a chapter which I was wishing to end. He even makes being a junior transport minister interesting.
For me the highlights of the book, and where I learnt more than I knew before, were his reminiscences from his periods as a cabinet minister in the Thatcher, Major and Cameron governments. His relationship with Margaret Thatcher was certainly robust and there was an obvious mutual respect. He wasn’t afraid to have a row with her, when necessary and she clearly saw him as a minister who could drive through controversial reforms. His passages about the NHS and why it needed reforming were particularly enlightening. In some ways that word ‘reformer’ sums up his political career. Not for him the status quo. He didn’t mind attacking vested interests and sometimes even relished it. Although he enraged the health service unions and teacher, his natural bonhomie enabled him to achieve things which other, less human politicians, might not have been able to do.
Although he mentions his love of birdwatching a lot, as well as his love for jazz, he never really lets the reader in to those parts of his life. He talks a lot about his wife Gillian but it would have been nice to have had the door opened a little bit wider, rather than just repeat ad nauseum that she was a great support to him. We rather took that for granted.
That is about the only criticism I have for this book. At 500 pages, it is already quite long, so maybe there wasn’t room for much more personal stuff.
Historians will view Ken Clarke as one of the key politicians of the last forty years. He could have been an even bigger player had he been willing to compromise on his devoutly pro-european views. In many ways, it is to his credit that he steadfastly refused to. There are too many weathervanes in British politics. Ken Clarke remains a signpost.
This is one political memoir which will have a reach beyond the political geeks of this world. But political geeks will enjoy it too. It is resplendent with amusing anecdotes and it leaves the reader wanting more.
‘Kind of Blue’ by Ken Clarke is published in hardback by Macmillan at £25