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Annabelle Dickson, Political Editor
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Far away from the political theatre of Westminster, a distinguished line-up of both current and former high-profile public figures have spent three years debating the big issues politicians just can’t crack, with former Norwich MP Charles Clarke leading the way. Is there a solution? He talks to political editor ANNABELLE DICKSON.
Former cabinet minister Charles Clarke was never likely to hang up his political boots completely after his shock exit from the House of Commons in 2010.
Not one to shy away from the odd forthright intervention into shadow cabinet affairs, he memorably attracted headlines last year with his barb that fellow football spectator Ed Balls commits to nothing but Norwich City Football Club.
The former Norwich South MP, however, is no longer the political bruiser he once was on the green benches in Westminster and is now more comfortable – and more conspicuous – in the world of academia.
Since 2011, among other jobs in higher education , he has held a visiting professorship at the University of East Anglia. And this month, with the support of an esteemed group of East Anglian flavoured luminaries - Lord Dannatt, Baroness Shephard and Baroness Hollis, among others – he has just launched the Too Difficult Box guest lecture series in print.
Derived from a series of debates at the renowned university in his old constituency, the new book is published by defeated North Norfolk Tory candidate and former EDP columnist Iain Dale, who is behind the political publishing company Biteback.
As you would expect with such a line-up, it is not a light read.
The text (and lectures) fearlessly take on subjects which recent generations of politicians have wrung their hands over, and which the former home secretary claims the political classes just can’t crack.
Immigration, welfare reform, drug regulation, prostitution, assisted dying, social care, gender discrimination - the list goes on.
Mr Clarke, who has recently moved to Cambridge, laments a “short-term political culture”, which be partly blames on the explosion of the 24-7 media.
The current “ya boo political style” has just inhibited politicians of all parties from getting an agreement on big issues, he says.
“What the average punters want in Norwich, or anywhere else, is politicians that will sort out their problems.
The theatre of Prime Minister Questions and the theatre of ya-boo individual politicians is not engaging the electorate”.
So what is his solution, as an observer from the sidelines now?
After three years of immersion in the UEA lecture series, his conclusion is that politicians need to work together much more across parties.
“What all these people - former politicians, civil servants, academics - were saying is that we need to try and get to agreement about how we proceed in dealing with these issues. It struck me very forcibly.”
“In terms of solving long-term problems, we need democratic political agreement. That really emerged after about ten to a dozen of the lectures.”
But is this realistic?
Over the course of writing and talking about the book his view has become much less pessimistic.
“If you asked me that question three months ago, I would have said definitely not. But I am feeling a bit more optimistic. The response I am getting to this is very positive.”
He even hinted, enigmatically, that he has been in discussions with a cabinet and shadow cabinet member over a particular issue - but he would not expand.
His secrecy emphasises how cross-party collaboration is not in the DNA of tribal politicians.
“Even to have a conversation [with other parties] is thought to be a betrayal. That is what is so immature,” he said.
US senators, German politicians, Canadians are better at this - and it shows, he claims.
But are there votes for parties in this new approach to politics?
“Not enough,” he said. “What I hope from this book is that there will be more desire to get people working together.”
And is the leader of his party Ed Miliband equipped to tackle the issues too difficult to ‘box’ if he wins power next year?
“Certainly he is,” Mr Clarke, who has been critical of the Labour leader, said quickly.
But this is qualified.
“Obviously now as Labour leader he is not doing the best thing. He is highlighting the differences. But that is completely understandable, that is what David Cameron did in opposition. It is what oppositions do.
“But I think in Government Ed is someone who would want to work in a consensual way to solve these problems,” he added.
Significantly, perhaps, it is Ed’s brother who endorses the front page of the former Norfolk MP’s book.
Defeated Labour leadership candidate David Miliband is hearty in his praise of a text he says has much-needed “grown-up politics” running through it.
The question many will be asking is whether the new book is a manifesto for Mr Clarke’s return to front line politics.
“I think that time has passed for me,” he reflects. “I am sad about that in some ways... In some ways I feel I have something to offer. But life deals its cards and I have got another life with which I’m very happy. I am happy to make suggestions - as in the form of this book. But I don’t think I’m in a position to make a contribution other than that,” he adds.
With political science students and the current crop of politicians the target of this book, will he be sending a copy to each MP to take with them to the beach this summer?
“I shall be sending them a circular inviting them to buy it,” he jokes.
And if they don’t?
The consequences of not listening, he says, is the huge gains of the UK Independence Party, seen in the recent European and local elections,
“People are rejecting various manifestations of existing politics as they see it,” he said. “Up to 24pc or 25pc of the electorate, which is a very big number, are saying ‘we don’t want this any more.’”
But he also urges the political class to find other ways of relating to the electorate, one suggestion being to scale back the party whipping operation.
“We need more free votes. People would be engaged. MPs would have to get a feel for what their constituents were saying on a subject. That would not be about an instant approach.”
So what happens to the “Too Difficult Box” now the book is written and the lecture series over?
The debate will continue.
He is rather coy about plans for a series of conversations, which he says the UEA will “embarrassingly” call Charles Clarke in Conversation on Thursday evenings. There will be six in the autumn and six next spring.
“We are going to have senior politicians talking about what brought them into politics and what changes they think the political system should be considering to get more engagements,” he said.
Whether this debate, which has started over 100 miles from Westminster, will really lead to changes in the seat of power is something only time will tell.