Women who haunt Ken

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The Independent Online
TWO BIOGRAPHIES of Kenneth Clarke which have just been published appear to chronicle the rise and rise of one of the most cavalier politicians of the last decade, a man who had the guts to do Thatcher's bidding and then to bid her demise.

Yet, buried within these two books is a little literary scandal that ought to detonate the reputation of Kenneth Clarke, whose great expectations may yet be realised when the Conservatives acquire a new leader.

One of the biographers, Malcolm Balen, has been sufficiently unsettled by the blurring of fact and fiction in his own narrative that since the publication of his book, Kenneth Clarke: A Biography (Fourth Estate, pounds 18.99), he has already gone into (newspaper) print with a different version, two weeks ago. Perhaps he wanted to pre-empt comparison between his book and a better biography, Kenneth Clarke: A Political Biography, published last week, by Andy McSmith (Verso, pounds 17.95).

The scandal is about women. In Balen's book, Clarke denies a 1963 report in the Cambridge University paper Varsity that his first act as president of the union was to oppose the admission of women. Nineteen lines are devoted to this debate, which haunted Clarke's Cambridge career.

In support of this denial, Balen's evidence is an ambiguous tape of a Cambridge Union debate on 17 March 1963 when Clarke told those campaigning for women's admission: 'I hope that members will hurriedly assure their suffragette friends that all the assassination attempts, all the boycotts and all the sit-down strikes are quite unnecessary.'

Andy McSmith's book offers a chastening 73 lines on Clarke's resistance to the women, whose admission to the union, of course, challenged the young knights' exclusive control of the theatre that launched their political careers. The women's campaign, which began in March 1961, split Cambridge Conservatives. Michael Howard and Norman Fowler always supported the women. Norman Lamont later backed their attempts to reduce the constitutional majority stacked against change. In November 1961, Clarke opposed a motion welcoming women into the union.

In 1962, the Communist president used his power to invite women to the union for the first time. In 1963, after the Oxford Union had admitted women, Clarke became president at Cambridge. His resistance was recorded in both Varsity and the Times. He had 'always' opposed the women, he said, and Oxford 'will soon realise what a mess they are in'.

McSmith's biography leaves no room for doubt: Clarke doggedly remained on the wrong side of history. The other spectre haunting his Cambridge career was his invitation to the pre-war British fascist leader Oswald Mosley to speak at the all- powerful Conservative Association in 1961. We can't imagine how chilling that felt at the time. What did Clarke need to know from Mosley that the world had not already learned from the Second World War?

Clarke seems insufficiently interested in his own ideas to remember them. When it comes to women, British politics is still so infused with macho values that he doesn't think the debate was relevant to his formation as a politician.

The Cambridge Union and the University Conservative Association had a symbiotic relationship in the early Sixties, creating a generation of Tory politicians - later known as the Cambridge Mafia, in Thatcher's Cabinet - who have wielded extraordinary power with caprice and crudity. In the Sixties they belonged to a gargantuan community of young men, huge, greedy, ridiculous, self-absorbed, ambitious and adrift from a world driven by the winds of change. The Cambridge Mafia was protected from the cultural revolution that brought us the emblems of the era: sexual reform, Marilyn Monroe's suicide, liberation theology, the space race, Kennedy's new deal and Dr Strangelove's cold warriors.

By the time Clarke's presidency of the Cambridge Union was over, the Conservatives' experience of power-without-challenge was about to end. But the boys rolled into grown-up politics, carried by one juggernaut and then another. Just as they had been buoyed by the Cambridge Union and the Conservative Association, so the party then cocooned their aspirations.

Their part in the Cambridge controversies are gifts to any biographer quarrying their formative years. Sadly, neither of Clarke's biographers seem to know quite what to do with these sagas.

A nice wife at home, Hush Puppies, jazz and Edward Heath have given Clarke a relaxed, liberal aura. But his vaunted confrontations with 'vested interests' were hardly a challenge to the powerful on behalf of disempowered colleagues and powerless consumers. Above all, he legitimised a language that made a cult out of contempt. These biographies remind us just how rude he has been - a man euphemised as blokey, who brought to politics some bad ideas, ambition and aggression.

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