May’s approach was “cowardly” – Charles Clarke

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Charles Clarke sat down with SCAN to discuss national issues. Photo by Meher Gupta.

Week Eight saw former Home Secretary Charles Clarke visit Lancaster University to partake in a special event titled “Question Time: Debating Politics and Religion”. The event was hosted by the Department of Politics, Philosophy, and Religion for which Clarke is Visiting Professor of Politics and Faith.

Before the event, Clarke sat down with SCAN on Tuesday 29th November to discuss various national issues.

In regards to Question Time, Clarke expressed that he was looking forward to the event and saw it “as an experiment” to see how the format could work and “whether we can reach out to the alumni of the university.”

A likely topic on students’ minds at the moment is the cuts to Higher Education, and the rise in tuition fees for 2012. It was recently announced by the BBC that more than a fifth of universities in England were applying to reduce their fee packages “just weeks before the application deadline.” Clarke commented that he “was not actually surprised that a number of universities want to set a lower fee”, feeling that institutions may have “rushed into the £9000 in a way that was completely un-thought of.”

In terms of the cuts, he felt that there were certain aspects which he particularly deplored “such as the cutting of all government support for certain courses.” Humanities and Art are subjects which Clarke feels are especially important, but may not be as popular with the rise in tuition fees. “People will always be looking at the degrees that they think will help them get employment later, and Science and Engineering will always be stronger from that point of view” he said, going on to argue that he thought that was wrong “as many organisations will be looking for people who are good writers, who are cultured, and who understand society.”

On the topic of employment, an ever increasing worry for students, although not “optimistic” about the current situation, the advice that Clarke would give to students is to “throw yourself into what you’re interested in [….] if you wait for something to happen, it won’t.”

The 9th November this year saw more anti-cuts demonstrations taking place in London, organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). The demonstration was on a smaller scale than that in 2010, and did not gain the support of LUSU.

When asked whether he thought students should continue to lobby MPs in regards to the cuts, Clarke enthused that he did think students should continue the battle. “Essentially what I think students should be doing is identifying the changes they want to see in the system and campaigning and lobbying them in the most effective way that they can” he said.

Clarke was NUS (National Union Students) President from 1975 until 1977 and believes that the NUS “must continue to make a case and continue to make an argument”. With a long history of campaigning on behalf of student welfare, Clarke believes that the NUS is “generally very respected across Government and absolutely that case should be made.”

Despite having a smaller turnout, the recent protest in London attracted an extremely large police presence. Looking back on the 2010 protest, which resulted in various detrimental attacks of vandalism, Clarke was asked if he would have done anything differently to the current Home Secretary, Theresa May. He responded: “It’s difficult to judge not being there, but I do think the Home Secretary had a very difficult call. There were groups of people who were really not particularly involved in the student action as such, who were taking over the demonstration to do things which, in my opinion, were completely unacceptable. It was very difficult for the police to know what would happen on this occasion, which led to a much larger reliance on policing.” Summarising that he is “not really critical of the police or Home Secretary in relation to this particular thing, and those who are, need to answer the question: “How is it that the police should be policing the action in the circumstances when there are people behaving in that way?”’

Summer 2011 brought a very different kind of protest, with widespread rioting around the country resulting in multiple instances of arson and looting. At the time, the use of water cannons and other tactics were bought up as possible ways for the police to control the riots. Theresa May ultimately rejected these methods following police advice, something Clarke felt was “the right thing to do.” He also felt that the involvement of politicians and the various meetings held, such as COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A), were “completely unnecessary and wrong” and the decision should have been left to the police.

In terms of policing, he commented that the police were “not quick enough to liaise with the communities after the death of the individual in Tottenham” and only really got hold of the situation on the Monday; three days after the rioting began.

In general, Clarke described the riots as a “testament to the resilience and strength of the communities” that stood up to the rioting, rather than “a sense of decay”.

It would have been difficult to mention Theresa May without bringing up the recent border control controversy, which has resulted in the resignation of Head of Border Force, Brodie Clark. Having worked with him in the past, Clarke was quick to come to his defence stating that he “had a very high regard for him”, going on to say that he felt May “did not face up to the consequences” of her own actions, and instead assigned Brodie Clark as a “scapegoat.”

“Brodie is a stickler for the ‘civil service’ way of doing thing” explained Clarke, “and I regard it as basically inconceivable that he went beyond what he understood ministers were ready to operate. I think [May’s] approach to him was cowardly and unnecessary.”

On Wednesday 30th November, public sector workers across the UK went on strike in response to proposed changes to their pension plans. When asked what he thought about the impending strike Clarke said that he did sympathise with those striking, but did not agree with them. “I think it is necessary to change our pension system in both the private and public sectors” he said, especially as people’s life spans have increased, resulting in “consequential changes for pensions”

“The reason I have sympathy” he continued “is that change is difficult and it can be problematic for individuals […] but I don’t think the strike is the right way to proceed.”

According to the BBC, the government said that the strikes could cost the economy £500 million, which was labelled by union bosses as “fantasy economics”. Clarke agreed with this and commented that he did “think the government was scare mongering” going on to comment that he thought the government was handling the situation in general “very badly.”

Clarke was Labour Party Politician for Norwich South from 1997 until 2010, but will not be seeking the Labour parliamentary nomination in the 2015 election. Instead, he plans to place his focus on his work in the International Education field, amongst multiple other projects.

In regards to international relations in terms of education, Clarke would “like to see a lot more activity in relation to Africa, I think that there are millions of people in Africa looking for higher education and needing higher education. It is much poorer, so the international issues are less easy to solve, but I think that it is something people should be looking at more.”

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