"Why did America send a man to the moon?"


Kenneth Clarke, former minister of almost everything, sees Brexit, populism and Trump with sadness, but has hopes for Angela Merkel and the EU keeping it together.

Kenneth Clarke, 76, has served in high political positions over the past four decades. Known as “Big Beast” he served as Chancellor and Home secretary. His claim to fame is his pronounced pro-European stance. He was fiercely against Brexit and now tries to influence the debate towards a soft Brexit by keeping Britain within the Single Market. His tongue is sharp as ever.

Profil: 2016 was the year for right wing populists. Britains Brexit made Nigel Farage and the Brexiters triumph. Donald Trump won in America. Why can traditional politicians not win anymore?

Ken Clarke: Nigel Farage like Donald Trump in America are quite right to say that they get the same kind of votes. It is a very angry vote by disappointed people against politicians and foreigners. They vote against complications of modern life and the pace of change. This has lead to this rather extraordinary outcome. All the traditional parties have lost their traditional base. This particular vote is the consequence of the crash of 2008, which we still have not sorted out. Given that all the Western democracies have this problem, we need to ask: How far is this going to go? Is it spreading across the continent? These results will be extremely encouraging for Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and all those like minded far right politicians in Europe. As I don’t approve of any of those populists, particularly those that have a tinge of racism and xenophobia around them, I am rather worried.

Profil: Austria might elect a right extreme candidate for president on December 4th.

Clarke: That’s terrible. As a mainstream centre-right politician I have never seen anything quite like this.

Profil: You have been the political establishment in the United Kingdom for half a century. Do you blame your own Tory-Party for not being able to respond to people’s worries?

Clarke: I blame politicians but also the media to a certain extent. Nobody ever stops and thinks anymore, it is as if we hysterically campaign 24 hours seven days a week. The new media have lead to a wave of adolescent cynicism, which is way out of proportion and feeds the general discrediting of the political establishment. What we need is a successful government lead by somebody with a positive appeal to today’s electorate. We have not got one at the moment in the Western world.

Profil: How about Angela Merkel?

Clarke: Angela Merkel is head and shoulders above any other Western political leader. She is the one person who has until recently stopped the surge of right wing populists in Germany. The controversy of last year’ refugee crisis is coming to an end. Her motives for her stand on refugees were admirable, humanitarian and based on ethical judgments. Unfortunately politically it damaged her. Since then “Alternative für Deutschland” has been gaining strength. I hope Merkel can contain them.

Profil: Your own prime minister Theresa May is similar in style to Angela Merkel. But almost six months after the EU-referendum there is still no plan for Britain how to proceed with Brexit.

Clarke: No, there is no plan. When we had the referendum nobody had any plans for Brexit. It was not discussed. The only debate was whether we should leave the EU. There was absolutely no debate what we should do if we left and whether we left. I don’t think any two Brexiter campaigners would have agreed with each other if they had asked themselves the question at the time. Nobody had any thought about it.

Profil: Now the Brexiters sit in government and still cannot decide about anything together.

Clarke: These Brexiters don’t get on very well with each other and they cannot agree on anything. Theresa had to form a pretty broad based government. But we would do very well if we get a policy for Brexit in the coming six months time that they could all agree on. What I trust is that the rational members of the government are trying to put serious work in to start developing the policy. They need to take as long as it needs to prepare the best possible package of proposals to minimize the damage both to ours and to the other European economies. I personally still hope they will come up with a solution, which keeps us in the Single Market and the Customs Union. I don’t think our economy is in a very healthy state, I am really worried for the outlook of the next year or two. We are quite likely to have a recession. Brexit could put a tin lid on it. I should maybe not use a colloquial phrase for an oversea’s newspaper, so let me rephrase: If we make a mess of Brexit, it could be the final blow to the economy.

Profil: The EU leaders think only a hard Brexit is an option in order to scare off other leavers.

Clarke: The phrases hard and soft Brexit do not have a very consistent meaning. Do you mean by “hard Brexit” that we would somehow just leave all our trading relationships with the rest of the European Union? That would be calamitous for large parts of the continental economy as well as ours. Nobody sensible would want to do that. If on the other hand we devise something that keeps us in the Costums Union, which would avoid most of the damage, we would limit the damage. This depends whether the British can put some plausible suggestions for dealing with their problems on the table: Immigration and European Court are the biggest issues.

Profil: Not only the European leaders are pushing for hard Brexit, the British government sounds like this, too, doesn’t it?

Clarke: I don’t think our ministers actually realized that by cutting immigration they had to leave the single market. When the government made these rather spontaneous statements, the ministers were rather new in the job. When the pound devalued by 15 percent in the first place I suspected it took them by surprise. It brought them back to the drawing board. I see no point in pulling away from all Britain had and causing a currency crisis. If you get a sensible proposition the other EU leaders will engage with it, because of the economic damage to them when you have to put in trade barriers between Europe and us, France and Germany will be damaged as well.

Profil: Criticism against Theresa May has become a lot louder I recent weeks, is she not decisive enough?

Clarke: It is a huge test for Theresa May. She is the right person to be in charge. It is not her fault that she has taken over such a shambles. She is a tough no-nonsense woman.

Profil: I believe you called her a “bloody difficult woman” last time you spoke about her…

Clarke: That is true. The turn of events deeply disappoints me. My own view of Britain and its role in the world has been repudiated. The irony is that my career began with our entering the European community and it will end with us leaving. One thing is to be said for that. I cannot complain that it is boring in my last parliament. In fact it is mad. It is confusing and interesting. I still try to make a modest contribution to the debate in the hope it tries to help us to move to some rational outcome, which I believe to in the interest of my children and grandchildren.

Profil: Will you vote against triggering Article 50 if this is put before parliament next spring?

Clarke: I will. For 50 years I have been pro-European and I will be the biggest hypocrite unhung if I voted in favour of Britain leaving the European Union. I can also argue as one of the tiny number of British politicians opposing the idea of having a referendum and who never promised to be bound by it. My own constitency voted 60 to 40 in favour of Remain. So I think I am entitled to be the one person sticking up for the 16 million British people who did not want to leave the European Union. I expect that I will be in a minority and I don’t know why the government is making such a fuss about article 50 because they will win the vote without a doubt.

Profil: Why is everyone accepting the result of the EU-Referendum with such complacency? Why not hold another one when the results of negotiations are clear?

Clarke: I hope I will never live to see another referendum. Referenda are a deeply ridiculous way trying to run a modern sophisticated country. The EU-referendum was a silly broad-brush question, which had wrapped up in it a hundred other important questions which nobody even talked about during the campaign. And it was all attacked as “scare mongering” when someone did try to analyze what it would actually mean to leave the EU. And we even had the neo-fascist remark that “we all had enough of experts”. I hope whoever said that does not adopt that approach when he next requires surgery. If you put together modern politics with globalized economy you need someone with at least a touch of expertise to advise on what actually is gong on. This is not antidemocratic and elitist to say so.

Profil: Do you fear the European Union will break apart?

Clarke: I don’t think the EU is going to come apart. Of course it is bureaucratic and complicated, but if you have an agreement between 28 different nation states, all with their own separate political pressures and agendas then you are bound to have a complex organisation, complicated rules, slow progress in solving anything. You have 28 countries bound together by treaty enforced by a court and it has been remarkably successful.

Profil: You are the last European.

Clarke: If the European Union would start breaking up, then all of us would see a decline in our political influence, we would be more exposed to the dangers oft he modern world with less ability to do anything about it. And of course we, and especially our children, would all be poorer.


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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz