I’m just finishing off Ken Clarke‘s autobiography on Audible. I tend to think of Ken Clarke as very moderate, as right-wingers go, plus he’s been a cabinet minister through large parts of my life. Now that I’m older myself, I can appreciate some of the issues he’s had to grapple with. A lot of what he says is interesting but like most Conservatives, he sees a world of profit and loss, where I tend to see it as people’s (and the planet’s) well-being (or not). I think ultimately it boils down to what the main function of government is – to have prosperous people or to have happy people. (To a large extent, but not completely, I think that the two are mutual.)
For example he’s just recounted a French attitude he experienced whilst at the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry), visiting the Airbus project in Toulouse. This is at the time of Mitterand, so the socialists were in control in France. Clarke’s notion was primarily to make Airbus commercially competitive versus Boeing, whilst other people’s priority was to offer stable jobs to local workers (bearing in mind that Airbus is dotted across Europe). I mean, sure, you needed a viable aircraft at the end of the process, but to me, the latter seems a perfectly acceptable viewpoint.
It’s kind-of like the arguments about nationalised industries. Is the role of the health service (say) limited to delivering healthcare, end of story, or do you also use it as a vehicle to get you towards full employment? That seems to me to be the whole purpose of having nationalised industries – instead of having the goal to supply some goods or service with 100% efficiency, as you would in a private company, you settle for maybe 80% efficiency. That 80% is just a number I plucked out of the air, but, you know, something deliberately a little bit short of full efficiency. The wins being that whilst you pay out on salaries, you both save on benefits, and you’re left with somebody who feels they’ve made a contribution. I think that’s important because, by and large, I think people want to contribute. I think that some people do epect a free ride, but that they’re in a small minority.
Interesting also to hear Clarke describing some of the things he encountered in the early Eighties and his analysis of the problems, at least, seem reasonable. I think something had to change from the Seventies, although I’m not sure that Margaret Thatcher’s solutions took us entirely in the right direction. But you do look at things like the power of the unions… It’s a great pity that we had to have a miner’s strike (amongst others) to force the issue.
I think lastly that you need to be careful with political biographies. No matter who the politician is, they will present the facts so as to make their actions appear reasonable, and as a result, you end up feeling a degree of sympathy for them. No matter whether left or right. So I think you need to finish the book and give yourself time to digest its contents before drawing any firm conclusions.