A “silkily bitchy” political memoir

Book review: Kind of Blue: A Political MemoirReading Ken Clarke's memoirs is a bit like being at an after-dinner talk over brandy and cigars, says Matthew Partridge.


Clarke: the best prime minister we never had?
(Image credit: Copyright (c) 2014 Rex Features. No use without permission.)

Kind of Blue:A Political Memoir

by Ken Clarke

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As a moderate pro-European Conservative, Ken Clarke earned respect from many of those on the other side of the political spectrum, while at the same time being hated by many in his own party. He occupied two of the great offices of state, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary, and he came within a whisker of being leader of the Conservatives on two occasions (1997 and 2001). So you would expect his autobiography, Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir, to be filled with behind-the-scenes revelations and cutting observations about his colleagues.

However, "anyone hoping for bibulous indiscretions is likely to wind up disappointed", says The Daily Telegraph's John Preston. Instead, "the anecdotes are thin on the ground", while Clarke offers "next to no insight into anyone he meets", as "he covers almost everybody in the same chummy balm".

The net result is that "this reads more like the roll call at a Rotarians' dinner than an autobiography". There is "an intriguing glimpse of how Cameron and the Number 10 machine had come to regard Clarke as a rogue elephant" and a "brief thunderflash" when he vents his frustration over Brexit. However, the book is generally "a long, damp squib".

It is odd that the "robust and opinionated" Clarke has produced a book that is "surprisingly bloodless" for "much of the time", agrees Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times. However, towards the end, "the old full-throated battling bruiser emerges" with an "assault on modern politics, on Blairism, the mass media and euroscepticism and referendums".

Clarke argues that "had the Blair/Brown/Cameron era not left voters so mistrustful of all politicians, they would have listened to reason rather than to the populists and mass media". Overall, this is a story about "a standout candidate" whose refusal "to compromise on style or substance cost him the top job".

The memoir is "disappointingly discreet", says The Spectator's Philip Hensher. What's more, it's "based on recollection rather than the long hours in government files to which politician-memoirists are entitled". That said, "the detail starts to become more impressive in accounts of recent years, and Clarke's personal charm emerges in some silkily bitchy comments". There is also "a keen sense of the comedy of public life". Overall, "it is hard not to finish it with a sense that Clarke had the unusual quality of mostly having been right about anything he set his mind to".

MoneyWeek agrees with the consensus that Kind of Blue doesn't contain many earth-shattering revelations. Even the row over joining the euro only occupies a few pages. However, the sweep of Clarke's career, which has lasted more than 45 years, more than makes up for the lack of detail.

The affable tone, combined with his forthright views on certain figures, especially Cameron, makes the experience of reading the book a bit like an after-dinner talk over brandy and cigars. It also serves as a reminder of why many people consider Clarke one of the best prime ministers we never had. Kind of Blue is a cut above the usual memoir and would make an ideal Christmas present for someone interested in the key debates of the last 50 years.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri