Charles Clarke’s CV

The new man at the Home Office is more bad news for civil liberties.

Jamie Douglass

Topics Politics

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With David Blunkett’s departure as home secretary, some thought we would to enter a new era of tolerance. The former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley has already defended Blunkett’s replacement Charles Clarke as a man who has ‘twice displayed a weakness for civil liberties…obviously grateful for the opportunity to choose the libertarian option’ (1). All this sits at odds with Clarke’s new proposal that British citizens and foreign nationals both should be liable to ‘house arrest’, without charge or trial (2).

So is Mr Clarke a woolly liberal in authoritarian lupine garb, or are we stuck with the dictatorial legacy of Mr B?

Charles Clarke’s first major action on assuming his seat of power did not augur well for those who like their civics served on the liberal side. It would have been naive to expect him, upon hearing of the Law Lords’ verdict on the detention of terrorist suspects without trial at Belmarsh prison, to dash to SE28 with the keys shouting ‘put down those thumbscrews!’, but a more considered response than the ‘says you’ the Law Lords received would have been welcome. True, Clarke did explain that the Home Office would be ‘studying the judgment carefully to see whether it is possible to modify our legislation to address the concerns raised by the House of Lords’ (3), but all the modifications in the world probably won’t mean much to people locked up indefinitely without trial.

Another option Clarke suggested was deporting them to their home countries (4), but given the risk of torture or death this is unlikely to appeal much either. In fact, unless he secures agreements of fair treatment, doing so would be equally illegal under the European Charter of Human Rights, since Article 3 prohibits people being deported to countries where they would face, um, torture or death.

At first sight, Clarke appears to have the lefty-liberal credentials to go with his beard. Educated at King’s College, Cambridge, famous politically for always finding a space somewhere to the left of everything to set up a trestle table and host a sit-in, he went on to be president of the National Union of Students (NUS) from 1975 to 1977 (though lest we take that as some indication of reasoned Home Affairs policies, it should be noted that he shares this particular CV point with one Jack Straw), and worked as Chief of Staff to Neil Kinnock from 1981 to 1992.

Although Clarke has been an MP only since 1997, it appears that he has both a Labour pedigree and a history of moderation, albeit slightly tempered by spending a year in Cuba organising the 1978 World Youth Festival. A former lecturer in maths at the City Literary Institute and the son of one of former Labour minister Tony Benn’s top civil servants, Clarke might provide what so many have hoped for in a home secretary – an educated, reflective and cautious incumbent, well-versed in the acumen of government. Please?

Since his election, Clarke’s rise within the Labour Party has been meteoric, seeing him move off the backbenches within a year to become schools standards minister, before being fast-tracked to education secretary after Estelle Morris. A quick look at his voting record suggests a possible reason; he has only ever voted against the government consensus seven times in as many years (5). Old Labour he may be, but it does not look like Blair need invest in Kevlar-backed shirts just yet; Clarke is so on-message it hurts. Indeed, even where he has disagreed with the prevailing windbags, it hasn’t been in the interests of liberalism. The last civil liberties issue that found him at odds with policy was the downgrading of cannabis, which he opposed (6).

In fact, Clarke could turn out to be even more threatening to civil liberties than Blunkett. Not only has Clarke fully taken on board the existing ethos of the Home Office, he is also at pains to prove that he is no ‘woolly liberal’. He even felt he had to go as far as to declare ‘I am not an instinctive liberal…I am not a civil libertarian in general’ (7). On record as supporting ‘state intervention’ to social issues and ‘tough solutions’, it seems that Blunkett’s authoritarian muse has done an Obi Wan and only come back stronger.

Two of the current initiatives led by the Home Office are showing promise as Blunkett-pleasers. The first, the Drugs Bill debated on 18 January, showed Clarke in full interventionist mode, having not only proposed that Magic Mushrooms (you know, the ones that grow naturally – there might be some in your garden) be classified as a Class A narcotic, thereby attracting the same penalties as Heroin or Crack Cocaine, but also that people could be automatically subject to drug tests upon arrest, perhaps even without their consent. He also appears to have recommended the use of random drug tests in schools (8).

The second piece of legislation, which has received slightly more high-profile attention, is the move to outlaw ‘incitement to religious hatred’. This dubious proto-law looks like the most ill-thought-out idea since the Millennium Dome, and is guaranteed to go down like a fish milkshake with almost everyone. Actors, writers, performers, artists, agnostics, scientists, atheists and sceptics all hate it – even followers of major religions hate it, as at least two of them depend on slagging off the others as heathens, pagans, defilers or infidels.

There are some people who would dispute the efficacy of making incitement to racial hatred an offence, since freedom of speech should mean you can say anything, not just nice acceptable things. This new law goes even further. Some branches of some religions defend and practice barbaric atrocities in the name of faith. To lose the right to criticise, satirise, or otherwise attack this would be a terrible blow to the freedom of speech. Now, it would be unfair to blame Clarke for this Bill – the impetus came from Iron Dave – but it is Clarke who is now in charge of steering it through the murky, though ever shallower, waters of the Lower House.

It can only be hoped that David Blunkett resigning to spend more time with his family will prompt a relaxation of the authoritarian precepts on which social policy has been run. The advent of 24-hour licensing has doubtless provided a great moral panic for the red-tops to sink their teeth into, to see if Clarke’s reflexes are as sharp as their last chewy toy. It could be that Clarke is playing to the gallery, desperate to reassure the vox populi that their fears on drug dealers and paedos will still be addressed as everyone is forced at billpoint to be nice to each other the New Labour Way. And maybe, in time, he will shine out as a considerate home secretary who respects the rights and freedoms of the individual.

It seems unlikely, especially given that he has New Labour’s own Nurse Ratched, Mz Hazel Blears, bringing up the rear and pursing her prim lips at impudent journalists when they dare to suggest that the Home Office might be doing something illegal (9). But it could happen. I, for one, shall exhale now.

Jamie Douglass carried out postgraduate research into youth subculture at the University of Cambridge, and worked as an intern at spiked.

(1) A liberal in need of a little help, Roy Hattersley, Guardian, 17 January 2005

(2) Terror plan may spark fresh outcry, Jon Silverman, BBC News, 26 January 2005

(3) Terror detainees win Lords appeal, BBC News, 16 December 2004

(4) Clarke looks to deport terror detainees, Dod’s Parliamentary Communications, 2005

(5) Voting record – Charles Clarke MP, Norwich South, on the Public Whip website

(6) Challenge to Charles Clarke on drugs, Conservative Party, 20 December 2004

(7) ‘Bars should pay for police to deal with drunken yobs, says Clarke’, Richard Ford and Philip Webster, The Times, 19 January 2005

(8) Orders of the Day – Drugs Bill, House of Commons debates, 18 January 2005

(9) Key anti-terror measure ‘illegal’, Simon Israel, Channel 4 News, 16 December 2004

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Topics Politics


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