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05th February 2008

Charles Clarke on Labour and liberty

On Wednesday 30th January 2008, students of Exeter College gathered to hear the former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke MP give a speech and take questions on his political career, his thoughts on the future of the Labour Party and his views on civil rights. Standing up in front of a packed Hall, with some having to stand in order to get a space, Mr. Clarke began by offering an overview of his views on the Labour Party. He discussed his belief that Labour needs to hold firm to two key beliefs – firstly, that politics matter for real people outside of the circus of Westminster and secondly, that individual people and policies have the capability to reshape the political landscape. He spoke of his own political career and in response to questions regarding his own responsibility for perpetuating the internal Blairite/Brownite divide, admitted he had to assume some responsibility, saying he now believed internal unity was more important for the success of the party than internal divisions which harm public confidence in the government.

In his opening address, Mr Clarke joked that speaking in front of a group of students would undoubtedly prompt explanations on his support of top-up fees. Indeed, Exeter students rigorously questioned the impact of top-up fees on the cause for ensuring wider access to university from students of all socio-economic backgrounds. The former Education Secretary said that his support for top-up fees was based in the fact that it facilitated a wider distribution of talent across different institutions and that both he and the Labour government were committed to improving access for individual students.

Perhaps the most contentious point in the evening’s proceedings came when Mr. Clarke was asked about his public support for Identity Cards and detention of terrorist subjects without trial. Though he restated his commitment to civil liberties, he said believed the ultimate human rights of the public to be free from the threat of terrorism was a greater priority and so the implications of ID cards were a necessary sacrifice to this end. After concluding his speech, Charles Clarke answered further questions on the future of the New Labour; he said that now he fully supported Gordon Brown in the next general election. In addition, he openly remarked that though he enjoyed the freedoms of a backbench role, his ultimate preference was to be in government, but felt it was unlikely he will ever fulfil a ministerial role again. Undoubtedly, the talk promoted extensive and, often, heated debate but Exeter’s community enjoyed the chance to meet one of the most influential figures in recent politics.

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