Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Clarke episode illustrates everything that is wrong with our politics

I feel slightly queasy embarking on a post defending a Tory cabinet minister (let alone one of the Thatcher vintage), but here goes anyway. Having finally heard the relevant extract from Ken Clarke's now-notorious radio interview, it's quite clear that his mouth did run away with him, and he ultimately said something extremely stupid. But a fair amount of the blame for a train-wreck of an interview must lie with Victoria Derbyshire, who by the sounds of things fancies herself as the Paxman of Radio Five Live, and who barely gave Clarke the space to complete a word, let alone a sentence. In his losing battle to quell Ms Derbyshire's sneers, he blurted out in mangled form a couple of points - one of which was outrageous and I trust he didn't mean, but the other of which actually had a degree of validity, however poorly expressed. The latter was his reference to a scenario where two teenagers very close in age have consensual sex, but this is defined as rape because one of the two is just over the age of consent, and the other is just below it. Clarke's mistake was to imply that such cases are 'less serious rape', whereas what he should have been querying is whether they should really be treated as rape at all. Apart from anything else (and to return to a topic I've touched on in the past), it's hard to imagine that many seventeen-year-old girls are ever charged with rape for having consensual sex with boys who are just short of their sixteenth birthday, and yet the principle is absolutely identical.

Where Clarke said something reprehensible and didn't simply mis-speak was in his implication that date-rape is not "serious rape". But, even so, bearing in mind that this was a garbled, poorly-thought-through comment in the context of an absurdly belligerent interview, the fact that Ed Miliband immediately piled in and demanded Clarke's instant resignation tells you everything you need to know about what is wrong with our politics. And if that wasn't enough, we then had Labour MP Bridget Phillipson on Channel 4 News declaring that Clarke's modest efforts to reorient the criminal justice system towards rehabilitation and the reduction of reoffending meant that he was 'on the side of rapists and violent criminals'. Given that those words were clearly pre-planned and carefully considered, in many ways I regard them as far more offensive than the stupid things Clarke found himself saying under pressure.


  1. Well said James. I heard Ken Clarke's interview live and Derbyshire was desperate to put him on the spot. Like you I seldom defend a Tory politician but he didn't get a chance to finish a sentence.

  2. "One of the costs of modern feminism is that women must be like gay men who understand that every date is a sexual encounter. Every woman must regard a date as a possibility for mixed messages. If she is very religious, if she plans to be a virgin until marriage, if she is not sure about the person that she is with, she should be absolutely safe and she must guard herself. If a woman goes to a man's apartment on the first time she meets him, she is consenting to sex. That's what it means. I am sick and tired of women saying, Well, he just invited me in for a drink. That's called mixed messages. If you want to be safe, stay out in the public lounge."

    Camille Paglia - Feminist (Yale Journal of Ethics)


  3. Rape should mean one thing and one thing only: making someone have sex with you against their will. A person shouldn't be put on the sex offender's register for having consensual sex with someone, and certainly not because of some arbitrary age limit. A scenario I've used when debating this with people before is this: it's legal to have sex with someone on their 16th birthday, but not the day before. In fact, not even at ten minutes to midnight the day before. Are we really saying that when the clock strikes 12 a person's brain goes through some fundamental change that makes them more capable of consenting to sex than they were ten minutes previously? If it's morally wrong to have sex with someone who is 15 years and 364 days old, is it not also morally wrong to have sex with someone who is a day older?

    Having said that, I suppose you have to have a limit somewhere, otherwise how would you define someone as a paedophile? Also, the same could be said about other age limits like alcohol, smoking and driving, where arbitrary age limits fail to take into account the fact that people mature at different rates. Still, statutory rape should not be rape.

    As for the more general point, it's certainly not much of a surprise how this has played out. People complained about the recent Scottish election campaign being generally dull, but the media have forced politicians to behave in a certain way. Previously, politicians could make a bit of a gaffe, but dig their way out before the papers got to the printers or the news bulletins went out. But now, they've no sooner said something a bit wrong than it's out on the rolling news channels, who avidly gobble up anything remotely "newsworthy" to fill their airspace. Now, obviously this happened live on air on the radio, but it still got blown out of proportion far more than it would have once done. The other main problem is the way the Paxman style of interviewing has been deemed as the way to behave if you want to think of yourself as a serious journalist. This overly-aggressive manner is thought to be taking politicians to task and asking them "difficult questions", but the reality is it's one step away from public flogging, and anyone who pays attention to what the likes of Paxman are actually asking should soon be able to see this belligerant ignorance for what it is.

    We need to get away from yah-boo politics, but that can only happen if the media stop treating the political sphere like the Colosseum.

  4. In the world of political correctness, where you tread on thin ice every time you mention anything that might just have some common sense attached to it, I say this with some trepidation, en attendant an onslaught of the madding crowd.

    Clarke may have expressed himself badly (although you would have thought that a man of Clarke’s experience would have been able to deal with a relative lightweight of Derbyshire), but not every case of rape IS the same.

    Yes they are all wrong; yes they are all not just bad, but wicked, totally wicked. But some involve complete strangers in dark alleys, with terrible violence which leaves the violated person a wreck; a shell of their former self, unable to go out alone for years afterwards, wary of all men, disgusted by the thought of sex. Some rape is perpetrated by fathers on daughters; some by old men on children playing in the park.

    And some is the result of “making out” going far too far, under the influence of strong alcohol and stronger physical desire, and a guy not knowing where the boundary is until he has crossed it.

    I know that in the end all of these scenarios are wrong, but I can see some difference.

    I once heard a talk by an elderly lady; a blue stocking. She pointed out that sex was not something that started in the 1960s; the students had always had fun with each other, but that her “fellow” students had known that boys were different from girls; their urges were far more animal. They never invited them into their rooms, much less their beds unless they wanted it to go further.

    The insistence that men and women are equal, one with which I agree, and have always agreed 100% has come to mean in so many people’s minds, that they are the same. They are not; particularly with regard to emotions and sex drive. Of course there are HUGE variations and one can never say that women feel “this” and men “that”, but in general terms we need to learn to face the fact that “equal” does not equate with “the same”.

    I have long held that we need to have far better sex education and that it should be carried out by professionals in schools. It’s simply not good enough to leave it to embarrassed parents, who perhaps don’t know much about it anyway. (We don’t do that with maths or geography which may never be much needed after the exams are over.) And that sex education should include the expectations of the OTHER person involved, not just the basics of what you do with what part of your body.

    I’ll take the brickbats for this post if they come, but I’ll repeat in advance. All rape is beyond wrong. The French word for it is “violation” which is far nearer to describing what it is that the English word. The comment is not intended to in any way excuse any violators, or indeed English Tory cabinet members.

  5. The fact of the matter is that Ken Clarke should have known better and seen this coming. He is supposed to be their elder statesman and if he can’t deal with Derbyshire and avoid a total train wreck like this, while still making his point. Then maybe he should resign. Funny my money was on Gove being the first of the goons out the door!

    Clarke has dealt with all the big hitters of political interviewers so it is totally inexplicable what went wrong here. It should not be a problem to deal with the wannabe lovies like Derbyshire. If he needs a political master class he can go and see how Alex and Nicola deal with Gordon Brewer who also likes to employ the sneering not listening to what you are saying method of political journalism.

  6. Tris, sorry that you had trouble posting your comment - it got caught in the spam-trap for some reason.

    Munguin, I think Clarke got into difficulty with Derbyshire's sneering because he made the mistake of actually trying to give proper answers to the questions that were being asked. It seems that the only way to be assured of surviving a Paxman-style torrent unscathed is to play a straight bat and put as little content into the answers as possible. (Or to defuse it with humour, as Roy Jenkins once memorably did to Paxman in an interview about his proposals for electoral reform.)

    I also think Derbyshire went beyond anything I've seen someone like Gordon Brewer do. I'm not a listener of her show so I don't know if she's always like that, but it was quite extraordinary.

  7. James: Thanks for sorting that out.

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  9. Perhaps that was overly harsh. I should just say: I agree!