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Monday, 28 February, 2000, 14:04 GMT
Old Labour's silent witness

BBC News Online's Nyta Mann interviews Home Office Minister, MP for Norwich North and former head of Neil Kinnock's private office, Charles Clarke.

Prime Minister Tony Blair reshuffled and promoted Charles Clarke from the Department of Education to the Home Office last summer.

He arrived there as recommendations in the report of the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence were starting to be translated into action within the police - the service that occupies most of Clarke's ministerial time.

A year after the Lawrence report, questions have been raised as to whether that action aimed at tackling institutional racism is moving fast enough. A survey last week showed, for example, that one in three police forces have still failed to recruit a single extra black or Asian officer.

"It's not a complete lack of progress. It's that progress isn't as fast as it needs to be, that is the key problem," says Clarke. There remains "a hell of a long way to go" to change police attitudes, he acknowledges.

No sympathy for police 'whining'

In terms of resistance from within the police, he has met "less than I expected". Most that he has met has been at the rank and file level. "The Police Federation as an organisation is strongly committed to change," says Clarke.


Sir William Macpherson: Police should stop "whining and complaining"
"But of course the more one goes out among the individual police officers up and down the country, the more that people wonder what's the point of it, what's it all about and so on."

Does he agree with Sir William Macpherson - chair of the Lawrence inquiry - who called on the police to stop "whining and complaining" about the report and get on with implementing its recommendations? Does Clarke even accept there has been plenty of whining?

"Only in the sense that I think there is a large chunk of the public sector - which certainly includes police but also includes teachers, doctors and so on - who say 'We don't want the changes, give us a bit more money then we'll be all right'," he says.

"I fundamentally reject that state of mind."

But the need for all public services to adapt to a rapidly changing world leaves him "completely unsympathetic to those who whinge against the process of change, and to that extent I agree with what Macpherson said."

'Joerg Haider's no Tony Blair'

The Home Office has come in for criticism for government rhetoric and policy towards asylum-seekers and immigration.

The accusation is that strong language designed to fend off Tory charges of allowing the UK to be seen as a "soft touch" for asylum seekers has helped lay the ground for inflammatory tabloid headlines on the subject.


Joerg Haider: "A smear" to draw any comparisons with Blair
To cap it all, Joerg Haider, leader of the extreme-right Freedom Party which recently joined the coalition governing Austria, insists on repeatedly drawing parallels between himself and New Labour.

Most recently Haider urged his critics across Europe to compare and contrast his own party's asylum and immigration polices with those of the UK government. People would see for themselves, he said, that his were less strict than Tony Blair's.

Clarke has no time for such talk. "If Adolf Hitler had said he was really rather like Stanley Baldwin, and that he liked living in the country and going up mountains and going with his tweeds and doing painting and all the rest of it, people would rightly have said it was outrageous to suggest that Baldwin was in some sense like Adolf Hitler ... I think it's really disgraceful."

A bit embarrassing, though? "I don't think it's embarrassing in the slightest and I think it's shameful actually, if you want to know, that the media in Britain is trying to draw [a comparison] like that," Clarke declares.

One particular news report that exercised him appeared in the Guardian newspaper. It included a photomontage "which put the two faces of Joerg Haider and Tony Blair together. I think it's a total, absolute outrage and I think it's shocking that it should be done. It demeans journalism ... It's a smear."

Commentators and left-wing critics of New Labour have, however, detected a similarity of language between New Labour and Haider. It lies largely in the expressions of wishing to rise above ideology and dogma, and to move beyond left and right.

But Clarke dismisses any comparison whatsoever: "I feel absolutely outraged about it. I think it's wrong."

'I'm not New Labour'


Neil Kinnock: For years Clarke was the Labour leader's henchman
Clarke himself has always carefully refrained from identifying himself as New Labour. "I'm not a New Labour person, particularly," he says. "I always call myself modernising old Labour."

In a previous life, when Neil Kinnock was Labour leader, Clarke was one of his close circle of most trusted advisers. By virtue of running Kinnock's private office between 1983 and 1992, he was one of the most influential figures in the party.

His choice of self-description is significant and an indication of how some Kinnockites, though loyalists, nevertheless seek to differentiate themselves from the leader they see as having reaped the reward of a party much-changed by their own man.

Kinnock ditched unilateral nuclear disarmament, U-turned on withdrawing from the European Community, routed Militant from the party, made his peace with the capital economy and became a two-time general election loser. Blair re-wrote Clause Four - a symbolic act - and became prime minister.

It plainly rankles that New Labour's official 21 July 1994 date of birth - when Blair became leader - consigns the Kinnock years to pre-Year Zero.

'Inclusive dialogue' required

"I sometimes felt that the New Labour nomenclature tended to distinguish current Labour from that modernising old Labour," says Clarke. "And I thought that was unfortunate."

What differences does he see between the inner circle he was a part of and the one that now surrounds Blair?

"Very difficult question. Very, very, very difficult question," says Clarke.

"In a sense I'm not the right person to ask it of because I was seen as running the gatekeeper role for Neil in a way that others are seen as doing for Tony now, and we were very much criticised at the time for not allowing access to Neil and so on - actually wrongly, but never mind, that's what we were seen as doing."


Tony Blair: Too keen to show he is different
"So I have some sympathy with the people around Tony at the moment."

But he has noted some differences - ones which, though he doesn't use the word, he feels may prove to be mistaken.

"I think that the main difference is that we tried always to have an inclusive dialogue and rhetoric about what we were trying to do, certainly in relation to the Labour Party but also I think more widely."

"And I think sometimes there have been points at which the group around Tony, with or without his agreement I don't know, have sometimes sought to distinguish themselves from certain elements within Labour."

Does he mean an active wish by the Labour leadership to spark a hostile reaction from the left of the party - the willingness to be "gratuitously offensive" to its own supporters, as Peter Hain described it after Labour's disappointing performance at last year's Welsh Assembly elections?

"I think there were some people around Tony at some points who thought there was political advantage to be gained from sparking such a reaction," is as far as Clarke will go. "I don't know who they were and I'm not making particular allegations about particular people."

Given the mega-majority Labour won at the last election, Clarke believes such a strategy may well have been right for the run-up to May 1997. "But the question of how it moves forward now is very important."

No memoirs, no diary

Another subject from the days before he became an MP that Clarke is often asked about is Peter Mandelson. The now Northern Ireland secretary was a fellow member of Kinnock's kitchen cabinet.


Looking back: Peter Mandelson during his days as a Kinnock adviser
Clarke has remained infuriatingly tight-lipped, telling journalists he has taken a self-denying ordinance on talking about the period when the two worked closely together.

"When I'm retired and in my dotage we'll have another interview and we'll go right through it and talk about it very fully," he promises.

"I wish discussion about history didn't affect the present as much as it does. I think there are many aspects of the media who seek from some aspect of history, relatively minor often, to make a big contemporary story out of a situation. This government has been absolutely beset by that."

Clarke is keeping schtum about whatever frenzies, torments and rows he witnessed at first hand. He decided, not for lack of tempting offers, not to write any memoirs of his time at Kinnock's side. Nor has he ever kept a diary.

Mutually assured silence

But contemporaries who worked closely with Clarke and Mandelson say that, as befits a master spinner, the latter has spun up his own role in Kinnock's transformation of Labour.

Clarke half-laughs when this is put to him: "You're trying to provoke me into various remarks.

"What I've said to Peter is that if this discussion is to be entered into, I will enter into it."

He laughs when told that this if-you-start-talking-about-it-so-will-I stand-off sounds vaguely menacing to his onetime colleague.

"But I hope the discussion isn't entered into because I think a discussion about who did or didn't save the Labour Party, who did or didn't play what role in what circumstance, will only feed discussion now in a way which actually has got nothing to do with what happened then, but will titillate and excite discussion - but to no positive avail.

"I don't think Peter has sought to rewrite history in that way," he says. Then he dryly adds: "At least recently."

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