After the tour de force of Ken Clarke’s recent speech on the triggering of Article 50, the process for taking the UK out of the EU, he deserved a drink. Clarke has long been known as someone who grew from fairly humble origins to a political bon vivant – fond of straight talk over a strong drink and mixing good times with politics.
We’ve reviewed his memoirs for drink related content. They quickly appeared. At primary school, Clarke, “sat at the back and competed for the top two or three places with the son of the pub landlord from nearby Stoneyford, and another boy whose father was a garage manager.” More seriously, his, “brother once told a biographer of mine that (their mother) had a drink problem when we were children but I do not believe that she did.”
Grammar school was followed by Cambridge University and a series of summer jobs to help pay his way. These included:
“Two alcoholic weeks as a driver’s mate on a brewer’s wagon with a pint in every pub that we stopped in – I always say it was the best job that I ever had.”
After university, Clarke became a barrister in Birmingham. He described this profession thus:
“A great deal of hard drinking accompanied a very great deal of serious practice of all kinds, enlivened by the odd practical joke.”
Our part of Birmingham – the Jewellery Quarter – played an important role in Clarke’s wedding:
“In the end I fear my solitary contributions to the day were asking John Gummer to be my best man, and buying a ring from a friend of my father in the old jewellery quarter in Birmingham.”
While working as a barrister in Birmingham, Clarke stood as the Conservative candidate at the 1964 general election in the strong Labour seat of Mansfield. He reflected:
“The association had no money so one of my first tasks was to visit the head of the local family brewery which produced Mansfield Ales. As all the brewers were in those days, he was a Conservative.”
By 1970, Ken Clarke was elected as MP for Rushcliffe, near where he had grown up in Nottinghamshire. Quite soon, Clarke was a whip in Ted Heath’s government. Drink was, again, a key feature.
“Inevitably, the culture of the Whips’ Office took most of us into the hard-drinking social life of the House of Commons in the afternoon, evening and into the night of almost every day the House was sitting.”
Industrial unrest was a feature of this period. Clarke recalls:
“Arthur Scargill … made his reputation at the siege of the Saltley Gas Works in Birmingham … Scargill brought in huge crowds of NUM ‘flying pickets’ to try to prevent employees and lorries getting in and out of the works.”
Clarke got some sense of the scale of this ‘flying picket’ when his nanny asked for time off to help her mother, landlady at the pub next to the Saltley Gas Works.
“Apparently the pub was selling huge and unprecedented amounts of beer to the hard-working pickets.”
Eventually, Heath asked, ‘who governs the country?’ And received his answer at the February 1974 general election, ‘not you’. Labour returned to government. But it wasn’t long before Labour, too, was struggling to impose their authority in government.
The Labour MP that Clarke had stood against in Mansfield, Don Concannon, was a Northern Ireland minister through the 1974-79 government. Towards the end of this end of this administration, it became so desperate for parliamentary support that this was sought from Irish Republicans.
“Don was sent to Armagh to persuade Frank Maguire, the very maverick member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to make one of his rare visits to vote in the crucial confidence division.”
Labour managed to get Maguire to Westminster but their challenges with him did not end there:
“Maguire had a tremendous head for alcohol, which never really seemed to affect him. Loyal government whips struggled to keep up with him, and as each one of them sank at the bar, another would replace him to maintain the close contact.”
The whole point of drinking with Maguire was to get him to vote with Labour in the vote that would determine whether the government would survive.
“I had watched Labour whips seize his arms, trying to drag him towards the entrance to the government lobby. He was a huge and powerful man, particularly when in drink, and he simply stood his ground and laughed at them until they had to run away to vote.”
Maguire’s failure to vote was decisive – Labour lost by one vote. The Today programme the next morning reflected on the fall of the Labour government.
“The mood of the programme abruptly changed when the presenter suddenly went over to an interview against a background of conversation and drinking in a club between sets … Never again did I allow myself to be interviewed in a jazz club. But it had been a rather exceptional occasion.”
Clarke kept visiting jazz clubs as a minister in the Conservative government of the 1980s.
“At first, Roy Gibbons, my allocated government driver, became used to dropping off my red box of ministerial homework at my London home in Kennington before running me on to Ronnie Scott’s in Soho after the ten o’clock vote. In my first years as a minister I could stay at Ronnie Scott’s into the early hours, sitting at the back of the darkened club and listening quietly to my heroes, before going home by taxi and tackling my red box. After a few years of declining regularity, I had to admit that I was now too old to survive this crazy way of life.”
One of Clarke’s ministerial jobs was Paymaster General, which involved being an ex-officio commissioner of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
“I was told that I was popular with the old boys which they demonstrated by inviting me to join them in their inner sanctum – a bar into which very few outsiders were ever allowed. I would buy beers for the men at my table whilst questioning them about their experiences in Gallipoli and elsewhere and listening to their dramatic tales.”
Drink was also a factor when Home Secretary.
“I soon discovered that if one did agree to speak to a Police Federation conference it was wise to insist on a morning slot. Policing was quite a hard-drinking occupation.”
Even more prominently, it was involved with being Chancellor:
“There was a long-standing convention, going back to Gladstone, that a Chancellor giving his Budget speech was the only MP ever allowed to drink an alcoholic refreshment in the Chamber, in order to sustain his energies through the ordeal. I insisted on making my own tradition that my parliamentary private secretary should ensure that a good glass of whisky was on the Despatch Box when I delivered my Budgets.”
Clarke is now 76 years old – still an MP, still capable of powerful public speaking, and still, we’re sure, fond of a nice drink. We’d be pleased to buy him one if he ever came to see us.