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Clare Short on a new dawn in British politics: a 'time of idiots'

Clare Short on a new dawn in British politics: a 'time of idiots'

Clare Short - credit: Paul Heartfield

It seems elegantly appropriate that on the day The Sun newspaper eventually sacks its former editor – and now controversial columnist – Kelvin MacKenzie, that I coincidentally go to interview one of his, admittedly many, nemeses.

The indomitable and much maligned Clare Short – the Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood for 27 years, a vital cog in the New Labour project and the first international development secretary – campaigned to have The Sun’s Page 3 banned and was rewarded by being described as “too ugly to rape”.

Back in 1987, Short, a relatively unknown MP – she was elected in 1983 – and an opposition backbencher, introduced her Indecent Displays (Newspapers) Bill into the Commons.

The bill had no real chance of becoming law, but The Sun, then edited by MacKenzie, gleefully retaliated with the launch of its ‘Save our Sizzlers’ campaign – a blatant excuse for MacKenzie to simply run loads more pictures of topless girls, extolling their political views as well as their vital statistics, and to revel in branding Short with the moniker ‘Killjoy Clare’. That was a label that unfairly dogged her time in politics and saw her caricatured by both her enemies in the tabloid press and, sadly, her supposed allies on Labour’s front-bench, as perpetually opposed to any signs of levity.

It’s true that she often took outspoken and principled positions on a variety of subjects, which also led to her resigning from Labour's front bench twice – in 1988 over the Prevention of Terrorism Act and in 1990 over the Gulf War – before ultimately quitting Blair's cabinet over Iraq in 2003.

And so when, 17 years later in 2003, Short was asked at a Westminster lunch what legislation she would like to introduce if she got the chance, she mischievously replied: “I might go back to my little Page 3 bill and take the pornography out of the press,” she discovered The Sun always sets on a grudge. Within 45 minutes of her comments being made, a busload of Page 3 models, armed with jumbo-sized glossy calendars of themselves, had parked outside Short’s townhouse in Clapham along with the obligatory photographer. The girls’ mission was to hang around semi-naked in the freezing weather and pick a fight with Short whenever she crossed the threshold.

The puerile exercise was designed to prevent the MP from, The Sun said, “spreading more doom and gloom” and “making everyone’s life a misery”. The Sun kept the story going for a week – promising to stand a Page 3 lovely against Short at the next election and even forcing one of its models to change her name to ‘Clare Short’ so that the paper could run a picture of ‘Clare Short topless on Page 3’.

By this time, however, MacKenzie had been replaced by Rebekah Wade who, ironically as the tabloid’s first woman editor, marked that step forward for women’s equality by taking feminism back a few decades and reviving MacKenzie’s vendetta against Short. Wade took it to another level, though, photo shopping Short’s head onto a flabby, naked, middle-aged female body as part of its revived ‘Hands off Page 3’ campaign.

The return of ‘Killjoy Clare’ saw her being creatively described in the pages of the tabloid as “Short on looks”, “Short on brains” and that making her into a Page 3 girl would be “mission impossible”. Readers were invited to sign a nationwide petition to save Page 3 from Short’s (effectively non-existent) “barmy crusade” to have it banned. And in a vigorous defence in the paper’s leader column, Wade quoted three Page 3 girls who described Ms Short as “jealous” and “fat and ugly”.

“And who are we to disagree with their verdict?” she asked. “Page 3 girls are intelligent, vibrant young women who appear in The Sun out of choice and because they enjoy the job. Unsurprisingly, millions of our readers – men and women – enjoy looking at them.

“If Ms Short ran our world it would be time to move to Mars.”

Looking back on it now, it did feel like The Sun was indeed living on another planet, even if in reality it was just a cynical attempt on the part of Wade to recapture the very un-PC spirit of The Sun’s 1980s glory days, when, under the editorship of MacKenzie, the paper sold a million more copies. With Wade, Page 3 and now MacKenzie metaphorically relegated to The Sun’s spike, does Short believe times have changed?

“I suppose it is fitting that we are talking on the day that he [Kelvin MacKenzie] is apparently sacked, but the ugliness of The Sun and everything that was said at that time wasn’t just about him, it was [Rupert] Murdoch, and he’s still around. 

“Murdoch has spent 30 years or more buying up a big chunk of British media outlets and campaigning for a very hard-right political line; a pro-Israeli, pro-American, anti-EU line. This is a man who used to share whisky with Mrs Thatcher, used to go in the back door of Number 10 to see Blair and has links with Gordon Brown. I think Murdoch is a much bigger, more insidious and more destructive character in all of this and Kelvin MacKenzie, in the face of all of that, was just a small pawn.

“However, what he and The Sun did to me was pure, brutal bullying designed, I’m sure, to shut you up and if it doesn’t frighten you, it’ll frighten the others. What I’m saying is, yes, they didn’t have any respect for women but there was a bigger political game going on and that use of a right-wing populism to control our foreign policy, our attitude to the EU, to immigration and so on, I think that today, given where we now are, Murdoch is probably a very happy man.”

Short is referring to the imminent snap election. Faced with an almost certain return of a Tory government emboldened by a larger majority, the prospect of a hard right, a hard Brexit and with an apparently unelectable Labour PM in Jeremy Corbyn, I ask her if she now fears for Britain’s political future.

 “Well, I don’t like where we are, but we have been here before…

“Go back to 1979 when Thatcher won with a not very big majority, then there was the Falklands, and then she won big in ’83 and in ’87 and then it was very contested, there was the massive rise in unemployment, the poll tax riots and then you’ll remember that it was believed that Labour would win in ’92 and yet we still didn’t.

"Then of course, we still had the whole possibility of John Smith as leader, and I agree with those who say we would’ve won under John had he lived, and it would have been a much more solid Labour government than the one we got with Blair, and I do think Britain’s trajectory might well have been very different – a more successful government that consolidated a settlement that lasted.

“But let me just complete the point, so ’83 with Michael Foot as the Labour leader, we lost devastatingly, Thatcher won with a very big majority, but it was then very contested. So we’ve been through this before; a big swing to the Tories, Labour kind of semi wiped out, Labour coming back, Tories becoming deeply unpopular and so on and if you actually add together the votes, projecting from the recent local government elections, the majority of voters across the UK are not right wing, populist and nationalist.

"If you add together Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid, Green, because really, outside the national question, they’re all social democratic, there’s still a majority. So, I know it feels like we’re walking off a cliff, but we’ve sort of been here before and should take some comfort in that.

“And really, even with the melodrama of Brexit, I mean, if 600,000 or so voters had voted the other way, we’d be on the other side of this. That’s why it’s so stupid for them to say ‘the country has spoken’ when you know it could have easily gone the other way. I don’t like it, but I think we’ve been here before and I can see it reversing and I also think Theresa May and her ‘strong and stable’ line is a bit silly and vacuous.

“And of course, our electoral system is part of the problem because it distorts the reality, but I’m just responding to your question of this feeling of whether this is an end of an era, and it is the end of an era, but, as I say, we’ve been through this cycle before and it will come back round again. I think there’ll be more cuts and more austerity and people will get more angry. I think there’ll be economic consequences of Brexit that will hurt a lot of people and the mood will change. That’s what I think. Labour will then either rebuild itself or some other forces will grow up, like what’s happening in Scotland with the SNP.”

I ask her what she means by “what’s happening in Scotland”.

“It seems to me that what has happened in Scotland is that the same things that are making people in France, in America, in England, look for alternatives have contributed to the SNP breakthrough, if you know what I mean? I’m not trying to diminish what has happened in terms of the SNP, but I am saying that there was an outlet in Scotland for some of that dissatisfaction with the establishment. There was a choice, something new that people could turn to, whereas in England if you wanted to protest and you were fed up, you went Brexit. In America, you went Trump.

“And while I’m not saying the SNP was a home for the angry right, I went to the House of Commons in ’83 and the SNP was a much more confused party about whether it was right or left then and there were some quite right-wing ones, but then they consolidated to be broadly social democratic. It wasn’t necessarily that at the beginning and it’s very interesting for me, because nationalism can be allied to a democratic progressive spirit and a nationalism of patriotism and a fair country or it can be nationalism of racism and hostility. I think the SNP has taken it in that more progressive direction and it’s very interesting.

“I remember discussing these things with Alex Salmond and certainly there was something very seductive about the arguments for independence and when the SNP could say, ‘we’ve got the oil, we can join the euro, we can get rid of nuclear weapons and we can be an independent Scandinavian-type country’, that was a very attractive pitch.

"I mean, ‘yes, please’, just look at England, but I do think there’ll be a high point though and my own sense is that while it is completely up to Scottish people to decide, now the euro is deflationary and problematic, and the North Sea oil is nearly gone, I think it’s much more difficult to make the case for independence.

"I think Scotland can still say that with more autonomy, it’ll be a different kind of country, less unequal, more pluralistic, but whether people will actually go with the risk of full independence, I kind of doubt. I mean, it’s not for me to say, but personally, I think that will be a challenge for the SNP.

“Alex and I worked together on Iraq after I resigned and so on and we supported similar motions, and I think he did a good job on Iraq and he’s right in the analysis that points to a bigger thing than just the error on Iraq, it’s about what is Britain’s role in the world. Are we really just a sort of poodle of an increasingly ill-thought-out America or is there another role for us to be more respectful of international law and to look for alliances with other middle-level countries to stand for different positions on, for instance, the Middle East, Israel/Palestine, which is a completely unjust disaster.

"I think Alex would agree with this line of conversation and would see a different kind of role for Scotland in the world and I would agree with him, that that role, which I would obviously like to see for the whole of Britain, is a much more intelligent and constructive role that we can all be proud of, so for me, there is obviously a bigger set of questions at play here than just Scotland and the SNP.”

What is striking about meeting Short is not just how familiar she feels given she has been out of elected politics for seven years and has had no real ‘political afterlife’ – no House of Lords or high-profile media contribution for her – but that as a woman in her 70s, who for many women of my age was simply part of our early political architecture and growing-up, she still has, despite all the disappointment in New Labour, an innate belief in the force of politics, specifically left-leaning politics, for good.

Short was an elected politician for 27 years, resigning from the Labour cabinet in 2003 over Iraq and finally giving up the party whip in 2006, condemning Tony Blair for “half-truths and deceits” over the war and accusing the government of being “arrogant” and “error prone”. She sat as an independent until her retirement ahead of the election in 2010 and remained a firm critic of Blair and New Labour.

Her own political reputation is a chequered one. Her initial hesitation at resigning over Iraq when Robin Cook did, undoubtedly blotted her eventual principled stance. Her outspoken approach – she responded to calls from residents of the island of Montserrat for compensation following damage caused by a volcano with “they will be wanting golden elephants next”.

And her occasional gaffes – she posed on a beach in Brighton dressed in a flak jacket and helmet with a landmine held aloft in both hands, in what was clearly intended as a tribute to Lady Diana’s work in the field, to announce plans to double government spend on global landmine clearance just two months after the princess had died in a car crash. Headlines the next day screamed that ‘Clare Short had walked into a minefield’. But she was also a hard-working MP who in her six years at the Department for International Development put the UK at the fore of the renewal of that global approach to aid and development.

And despite the way Short was portrayed in the tabloids as dour, accident-prone and far too serious for her own good, she is actually someone with a deep sense of optimism. It is, she says, perhaps due to her 1960s’ childhood in Birmingham, of having Irish Catholic parentage and of a coming to power politically in a short-lived window between the cold war and the ‘war on terror’. Perhaps it is simply being one of a family of seven children and having to fight to get her voice heard.

But Short has also lived a life. She had a child at 17 which she gave up for adoption, but with whom she was happily reunited 31 years later.

She said at the time: “We are at the moment happier than we have been in our lives. It is more wonderful than anyone can imagine and makes us both feel complete. It is like falling in love, but less complicated. And it is guaranteed to last for ever.” She had a relatively short first marriage to her baby’s father. A second long, happy but childless marriage, which she says was down to damage done by the contraceptive coil, followed and she nursed her second husband during his long fight with Alzheimer’s disease until his death in 1993.

She found love again when she and Mo Mowlem’s widower got together in 2006, but since his death finds herself on her own, albeit with her son, grandchildren and many friends and causes filling her life. She describes herself as “troubled by the world but blessed and content with my lot.”

She is certainly ‘real’ and it is that authenticity that can be credited with her popular support as a hard-working constituency MP that saw her elected time and time again. Short traces much of what she is to her upbringing. Her father, Frank, was a schoolteacher from County Armagh. He was a radical critic of the establishment and sympathetic to those on the receiving end of British imperial instincts. “We all just grew up knowing that the British Empire was not a good thing,” says Short.

And in a time in England when signs that read “No blacks, no coloureds, no Irish” were common, she recalls her father chastising other Irish people who made racist comments, and going to the aid of pupils’ families made homeless by the infamous slum landlord Peter Rachman. He was also someone that at the age of 17 had taken some offence at the partition of Ireland and his border town being on the wrong side of independence.

Her mother was ‘potato-famine Irish,’ from the poor area of Birmingham in which Short grew up, and a “very committed Catholic”. Until she was 14 or so Clare was just as devout, going to mass each morning, joining the Legion of Mary and visiting old ladies.

“I used to say that I was brought up as a Catholic by my very generous-hearted mother,” she says. “My father was a teacher, more intellectual, so it was a very progressive version of Catholicism and some of what people talk about in terms of their Catholic childhood being cruel and harsh, I just don’t recognise, but of course you get to 14 or something like that and realise the church says it is against contraception and you’re thinking about the state of the world and so on and I couldn’t reconcile that, so it wasn’t for me.

“The church’s strength was that it was all encompassing and clear on what you were supposed to believe in and its weakness was that some things that it believed in were just ridiculous.

“It’s true to say, that I later put all that moral yearning and [need for] belonging to something structured into the Labour Party. From the 1970s on, it was my core moral thing.” When, in 2006, she finally resigned the Labour whip, she said it was this sense of leaving something that she belonged to again that worried her. “I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m going to lapse again and I’ll have no home’.

“To tell the truth, I actually just meant to resign the whip and stay a member of the party, but you know, you pay your money into the parliamentary party and your membership was included in that, so when I cancelled the standing order, I cancelled my membership and I thought, ‘Oh’ and then you know what, I thought, ‘I don’t care’, so I was no longer a member.”

Short was elected as an MP at the Labour nadir of 1983. She was one of only 23 women in a House of Commons of 650 MPs. She says she never felt intimidated and just resolutely “stuck to her guns”.

Her combination of confidence and scepticism was evident as soon as she joined the house, when a BBC reporter asked her what she had made of the investiture of the new speaker. “It’s silly,” she replied. “I found it embarrassing and I actually left. I thought afterwards maybe I should have had more humility. But it was long-winded, and I had a lot to do.” A couple of weeks later she stood up in the Commons and suggested that Alan Clark, then defence minister, was drunk at the dispatch box. A fact he denied at the time, but later confirmed in his published diaries.

“It’s quite extraordinary that I ended up in the Cabinet,” she says now, “because I’ve always gone on like I go on. But I’m hard-working, and I’m not stupid, and I do mean it. And I’d stand for election and people would vote for me, for those reasons. I was a very committed and hard-working constituency MP and of that I am very proud.

“I was a very attentive constituency MP. I was always there. I saw hundreds and thousands of people over the years. I helped a lot of people to get problems fixed and always treated them with respect. I’m quite proud of that, and even just doing that was worth it.

“When people talk about being politicians, they don’t give enough regard to the importance of that constituency work. I think politicians who do that will be clearer about what’s going on, what’s hurting people, what matters.

“It’s interesting,” she laughs. “You remember that the Labour manifesto of 1983 was called the longest suicide note in history, well, maybe so, but it produced me, Jeremy Corbyn, Gordon, Tony, and so on, so while it was a terrible devastating defeat for Labour, it did mean we all came in at that time so that election got something right.

“Would I have believed then that Jeremy would one day be the leader? No. Jeremy is a nice guy, who’s a complete oppositionist, and you do need them in politics, you need someone standing on the side-lines saying ‘That’s not right’. I was a radical and a critic, but I stayed closer to the proposition that we’ve got to get things done and we would only get them done by being in power. Jeremy was more on the fringe, a radical and a critic and always against, never saying ‘But we could do this’ and as I say, you need them in politics, but it’s a problem then when one of them becomes a leader because they’ve got no tradition of holding people together or turning radicalism into realisable things.

“Honestly, I think he’s coming through better now that we’re in the election campaign, but where’s he been for the last couple of years? I don’t think it’s his fault, I think some of the people around him are more sectarian than he is – the old right-left thing, and I think the Parliamentary Labour Party behaved badly, disgracefully, with senior MPs flouncing off to the backbenches in a huff, but from what I understand, his office also behaved badly. The tragedy is that a divided party is always in trouble, we know that.

“I don’t think Jeremy ever thought he’d be in the position he’s in and I think one of the reasons he won the leadership contest is that he came across well in the meetings and the others came across so badly; they were complacent, they were ministers and they thought they were entitled. They were also part of New Labour and people were fed up of New Labour, and yet no one was discussing what was wrong with it. People thought the party needed a kick up the pants and Jeremy was the kick up the pants.

“This combination of Jeremy’s character being likeable and non-arrogant and open and people feeling the Labour Party needed renewal, and New Labour had moved so far away from any kind of principles, produced Jeremy, I think.”

Were she still an MP and still in the Labour Party, Short says she would be happy to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – more to do with her belief in the party process than any particular respect for him as a leader – but says a Labour majority at the election is out of the question – “because 40 seats were lost in Scotland, and even if the Archangel Gabriel was the leader, they bloody cannot win” – but, she says, the Tories could, nonetheless, lose. In a coalition with the Scots and Welsh nationalists, the Greens and the Lib Dems, she claims she can see Corbyn in No 10. “Not in the Blair/Cameron sort of image of a prime minister, but more like Harold Wilson.”

Will she be voting for him?

“I don’t want to make a public declaration, but I will vote in order to use my vote to push things the way that I think everyone should vote, to make sure the Tory majority is as low as possible. I think the argument that if they get a big majority, May will be flexible about Brexit and it will affect how long the transition will be, is quite an assumption; it seems to me that she doesn’t have a flexible bone in her body. The hard line Brexit is her, she’s a rigid person and the chances are that all the new Tory MPs will be mad Brexiteers, because that’s the mood of the party. I think that’s dangerous. I think everyone should try and diminish as far as possible the Tory numbers and bring forward progressive MPs and then you’ve got to look at where you are, who the candidates are, what the likely vote is, who’s got a chance of winning, and vote accordingly.

“I’m not hostile to the Labour Party – I do sometimes vote Labour, but not exclusively – and I’ve voted Green previously. But you know what I was saying earlier about a progressive alliance, well, if the parties don’t do it, then the public should do it. You can look at where your vote is and what the odds are and what the candidates are and we can all shift our votes as necessary.

“I think we do need some kind of crunch where we wake ourselves up and realise we can make something better. I think the Tories will almost certainly win, the question is with how big a majority? Then I think things will get very cruel. There will be more austerity, and that’s coming on top of what’s already happened, there will be food banks all over the country, diktats about how many children you are going to have – the rape exemption only exists because of the original proposal about limiting the number of children you can have, which didn’t get much fuss. How dare the state tell you what’s allowed. I think people will get more and more angry and that will change the atmosphere, like the poll tax did. There’s going to be a lot of loss. People will get hurt, I have no doubt about that, but five years isn’t a long time in history and if we all get shaken up and realise this won’t do, and it isn’t just Tweedledum or Tweedledee and silly slogans and we wake ourselves up and start to change and make a society that is more civilised, then it’ll be worth it. If not, we’re in a lot of trouble…we might just be in trouble.

“We are living in a very unequal society and people just want more and more, but consumer goods don’t actually make people satisfied. I’ve got a friend in Birmingham who manages storage facilities where law firms and the like put their confidential papers, but 50 per cent of it is now taken up with domestic items – people have so much stuff that it can’t fit in their house and they hire space to keep this stuff that they obviously don’t use. Don’t you think that’s a little like the parable of our times?

“I hope you see what I’m saying, that we need something bigger than just alternating parties in government and maybe if things are falling apart a bit and people are worried.

“If that leads to more reflection on what we should be doing, what kind of society we want, what kind of country we are and what kind of role we want in the world, then something good could come of it. I’m not one for saying that we need to go through pain to feel better, but it does seem that people are choosing that route anyway.”

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