Interview with Kenneth Clarke on Brexit 'We Can't Carry On Being So Insane'

In an interview, former British government minister Kenneth Clarke, the longest-serving member of the House of Commons, discusses the destructive force of Brexit and the "fanatics" inside his own Conservative Party, who he believes are still seeking revenge against Margaret Thatcher.
British Member of Parliament Kenneth Clarke

British Member of Parliament Kenneth Clarke

Foto: Henry Nicholls/ REUTERS

Before he extends his hand in greeting at his office, Kenneth Clarke says he's never seen such a "crazy situation" in all his whole life. The politician, a veteran of the Conservative Party, will soon have spent a half-century in the British parliament. He's been a part of many of the biggest battles over Europe in Westminster. He served as a government minister under Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron and might well have made it to the top, "if I hadn't been so pro-European," as he confides. Next to Michael Heseltine, many consider Clarke to be the best prime minister Britain never had.

The 78-year-old member of parliament says he has never seen the kind of discord that has unfolded in recent weeks as the deadline for Brexit approaches.

In an interview, he discusses if and how things might proceed from here.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Clarke, you seem to be pretty relaxed considering the circumstances.

Clarke: Yes, well, it is a bizarre situation at the moment. Since the prime minister has committed herself to persuade the Europeans to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, everybody is waiting for a miraculous solution. In the meantime, the government is trying to avoid having any serious business in the House of Commons. On Monday, we spent a whole day debating sports! I have been here a very long time, but I have never seen such a crazy situation in all my life on such a serious subject.

DER SPIEGEL: Why has the prime minister chosen this path regardless of signals from the European Union that the Withdrawal Agreement is nonnegotiable?

Clarke: The prime minister is obsessed with keeping the Conservative Party in one piece. I have argued for months that the moderate majority of the House of Commons should come together on a cross-party basis. We can only reach an agreement if Tory remainers and Labour remainers strike a compromise. But Theresa May has not really reached out to them. Instead, she is making a desperate effort to win over the hardline right-wing people of our party.

DER SPIEGEL: Let's assume the European Union does make last-minute concessions on the so-called Northern Ireland backstop: Would that secure a majority in parliament?

Clarke: No. The hardcore euroskeptics in my party will never accept it. Some of them might wobble, but not enough I am afraid.

DER SPIEGEL: And then?

Clarke: I like to think that, in the end, common sense will prevail, and the prime minister will get her deal through. I just don't know how. We can't solve this in 50 days of childlike nonsense. We need a year or more to work it out.

DER SPIEGEL: But that would only buy time.

Clarke: We have a history of being quite good in processing democratic government. We can't carry on being so insane.

DER SPIEGEL: What are the deeper roots of the eternal struggle over Europe in your party?

Clarke: There was always a group of nationalists in the Tory party that didn't come to terms with our changed role in the world. In their eyes we have an imperial destiny. But that was fading away and we were becoming a rather pro-European party in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. Remember, it was us who had to persuade the Germans and French of the single market.

DER SPIEGEL: But Thatcher turned into a euroskeptic herself at the end of her term as prime minister.

Clarke: She rejected Jacques Delors' idea of a more social Europe. Her fall in 1990 enraged the Tory far-right. They thought it was all a kind of pro-European plot. The European issue became symbolic of the betrayal of Margaret Thatcher. It became a spiritual event -- revenge for Margaret. And then there was the question of the euro and the Maastricht Treaty, which became symbols for the destruction of our independence and sovereignty.

DER SPIEGEL: Since Thatcher, every Tory leader tried to appease the euroskeptics, but all of them failed. Why has nobody learned a lesson?

Clarke: I don't know. This has been going on for years and years and years. You have to keep in mind that most of our national newspapers were bought by fanatic anti-European campaigners like Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch. The leadership of the Conservative Party was always frightened of them. After this dreadful decision to hold a referendum, David Cameron didn't campaign around the benefits of being in the EU. It would have annoyed the euroskeptics in our party and in the press. He didn't want to upset them. Instead, he told people that they would be poorer after Brexit, that house prices would fall. It was project fear -- and it didn't work out.

DER SPIEGEL: Cameron wanted to marginalize the hardline euroskeptics in the Tory party, but instead they are gaining ever more influence.

Clarke: They have formed a party within the party. They have their own leader, they have their own whip. I would love to see them leaving the party. It would help. And it would stop Theresa May in giving too high a priority to trying to keep these ultrafanatics on side.

DER SPIEGEL: The irreconcilability in the political system seems to be mirrored in British society. What is happening to your country?

Clarke: It's a very nasty climate out there. People are retreating into angry simplicities. Half the population is angry about politicians not getting on with it, they're not following the detail, they haven't a clue what the Irish backstop is, and they couldn't care less. They just want it to be over. The other half does follow quite fairly, intensely, more than usual. They are divided in angry remainers who are ever more ferociously for remaining and angry leavers who ever more ferociously feel they are being betrayed.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you worried?

Clarke: Of course, I am. The Brexit debate has absolutely crippled our party-political system and it has distorted the usual process of political debate. We have lots and lots of other really big things we should be getting on with. We urgently need to create an economy that distributes benefits more fairly. But we're not, because the political class is obsessed with Brexit. This is almost a nervous breakdown, we need to stop it.

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