Why Progressives Should Defend Ken Clarke

You won’t often find me defending British Conservative ministers – especially ones who (allegedly) think that some rapes aren’t so bad – but, to quote the song, There’s Something Happening Here…

My 1980s self would be shocked to find me thinking sympathetically about Clarke. He was a minister in the Thatcher government – about as close to an Axis Of Evil that we’ve had in this country. What my young self didn’t know was that even the nastiest, most brutal of politicians can become wiser and more pragmatic with age. Make no mistake, Clarke is still conservative to the core, but some of his views are liberal enough that his appointment as Secretary of State for Justice last year upset many on the Tory right.

What particularly upset the flog-’em and hang-’em brigade was Clarke’s pronouncement that prison sizes have become too large, locking up more people doesn’t make for a better society, and that his goal in government was to reduce the size of the UK’s prison population. That made me reflect on how right-wing and authoritarian Labour had become under the Blairites. When a pragmatic Tory minister makes Labour look right-wing, you know the left has taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Yesterday, Clarke was giving a radio interview about his plan to increase the “good behaviour” time that would be offered to prisoners from 33% to 50% for those who plead guilty. In a discussion about rape, he tried to explain that, in the eyes of the law, there are different degrees of rape, pointing out that “…if an 17-year-old has sex with a 15-year-old and she’s perfectly willing, that is rape…” – in other words, what’s known in the US as Statutory Rape. (Note that the age of consent in the UK is 16).

I doubt anybody reading this would disagree with his point: to claim that a consensual sexual act could be as bad as a non-consensual one would be crazy, and would lessen rape as a crime. However, Clarke went on to talk about “date rape” when (it appears) he meant statutory rape.

The media and political opposition love to jump on apparent slips by government ministers, so yesterday afternoon’s outcry was unsurprising. But by this morning, the attacks on Clarke had ramped up: and were almost entirely from the right-wing media.

Notably, the most outspoken media were also the ones who have a poor record in defending women’s rights.

The right hates the fact that Ken Clarke is attacking one of the things they hold dear: locking people up and throwing away the key. They smelled blood and they went on the attack, calling immediately for his dismissal (“and with him”, you can hear them thinking, “the idea that prison populations should be reduced”).

The right did exactly as you’d expect – no surprise there. Unfortunately Labour leader Ed Miliband and much of the “progressive” Twitterati followed suit. “What? Ken Clarke said something about rape that seems to have upset somebody or other? DISGRACEFUL – FIRE HIM”… kind-of knee-jerk stuff.

Miliband’s intervention was a sad reminder that party politics come ahead of progressive values; most Labour supporters should be pleased that Clarke, rather than someone far more authoritarian, is the Justice Secretary. But Miliband simply saw the chance to score cheap points.

As for those people who instantly decided that Clarke was guilty – remember, we progressives pride ourselves on bring the smart ones? Read what he said. Think about it. Forcible rape really is worse than a teenager having consenting, underage sex. At least, I think so.