Born on the 21st September 1950 in London, Charles Rodway Clarke was the son of Sir Richard Clarke, a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Technology. Charles was educated at the Highgate School in London and King's College, Cambridge where he read mathematics and economics and graduated with a BA (Hons). Whilst at university he became active in student politics, became president of the Cambridge Union as an undergraduate and was afterwards president of the National Union of Students from 1975 to 1977. At this time Charles was a radical Marxist and even spent a year in Cuba, organising the 1978 World Youth Festival.1
On his return to Britain he became a local councillor for the London Borough of Hackney and from 1980 to 1986 acted as chairman of the housing committee and vice-chairman of economic development. He combined his duties in local government with the position of part-time lecturer in mathematics at the City Literary Institute, until he began working as a researcher for the Labour MP Neil Kinnock in 1981. In the following year he was appointed Kinnock's Chief of Staff in 1982, a position of some influence in the party once Kinnock replaced Michael Foot as leader in the following year.
Clarke is believed to have had a major role in preparing Kinnock's famous speech attacking Militant at the 1985 Labour Party Conference and continued as his Chief of Staff throughout Kinnock's time as Labour Party leader. But after the disastrous and somewhat unexpected defeat of the Labour Party in the General Election of 1992, Charles was forced to seek alternative employment and from 1992 to 1997 he was chief executive of Quality Public Affairs, described as a 'public affairs management consultancy', in reality this was Clarke's own one-man lobbying firm. Meanwhile Clarke tried and failed several times to find a parliamentary seat, but was eventually selected as the PPC for Norwich South and was finally elected as a Member of Parliament in the General Election of 1997 at the relatively mature age of forty-six.
At the time the New Statesman offered the opinion that he was an "effective fixer, talented and ambitious," but that his "historic connections with Kinnock could hold him back". As it happens his "historic connections" proved no impediment whatsoever to a rapidly advancing parliamentary career as Clarke successfully ditched his prior left-wing credentials, and despite his lack of parliamentary experience soon found his way into government. In July 1998 he became Parliamentary under Secretary of State for School Standards, a year later on the 29th July 1999 Minister of State at the Home Office with responsibility for police and crime, before joining the Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio and Labour Party Chair in July 2001. This latter appointment caused a little controversy in the party since this was the first time anyone had held such a ministerial position as 'Labour Party Chair', particularly since the party already had its own elected party chairman.
As Minister without Portfolio Clarke's main duties were to act as a general media trouble-shooter for the government. He was generally judged to have been particularly successful in this role and so it was no surprise when he was appointed Secretary of State for Education and Skills on the 24th October 2002 following the resignation of Estelle Morris. Whilst at Education he was responsible for the Higher Education Act and its controversial plans for the introduction of university tuition fees, seemingly unconcerned about the fact that the party had made a manifesto commitment not to introduce such fees. He also courted controversy when he expressed the view that the National Union of Teachers had "seriously damaged" the image of the teaching profession, and refused to attend their conferences in both 2003 and 2004.
Charles again profited from one of his colleagues failures when he became Home Secretary on the 15th December 2004, following the resignation of David Blunkett. As Home Secretary he largely continued with his predecessor policies, taking a hardline on the issues of asylum and immigration and promoting the cause a national identity card as a solution to the government's security concerns. He was responsible for steering the government's Terrorism bill through Parliament, introduced in the wake of the 7th July bombings in London, which amongst other things, promised to extend the maximum period for which a terrorist suspect could be detained without charge and introduced the new offence of glorifying terrorism.
Soon afterwards Clarke became embroiled in the scandal over the release of foreign nationals convicted of a criminal offence in England and Wales, an issue that had only moved into the public domain thanks to the persistent questioning of the Conservative MP Richard Bacon, who first raised the issue during a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee in October 20052. After much prevarication and obfuscation the Home Office was eventually forced to admit that it had released a total of 1,023 prisoners who were foreign nationals who ought to have been either deported back to their country of origin or at least considered for deportation. These included 79 individuals who were originally responsible for a number of serious crimes, including 8 rapes, 2 murders, 2 cases of manslaughter, 4 kidnappings, 13 sundry sex offences, and 50 other violent offences.
These failings dated back to February 1999; HM Inspector of Prisons had been dropping hints that all was not as it should be since 2003 and the problem was certainly known to the Home Office in January 2005. However Charles Clarke claimed that it was not until the National Audit Office report was published in July 2005 that he himself aware of the problem, at which time he told parliament that he had put a new system in place to correct the inadequacy. The Home Office later revealed that 288 of the 1,023 were freed after August 2005, despite the measures put in place by Charles and his claim that "very few" prisoners had been released since he supposedly took action.
Charles offered his resignation to Tony Blair who declined to accept it; however both opposition parties are unamimous in their opinion that Clarke should go3. The former Home Secretary David Blunkett even added his own opinion that "heads should roll", a somewhat ironic position to take given his own role in creating the problem in the first place. This left the Home Office rushing around trying to arrange the arrest the remainder of the 79 serious offenders, although it admitted that it had no idea where the other 900 or so have got to, since most of these were not subject to probation orders, and were therefore not 'in the system'. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Home affairs spokesmen summarised what perhaps many people felt about the affair, "It's difficult to work out where cock-up ends and cover-up begins".
Charles Clarke married Carol Pearson in 1984 and has two sons. He may well be spending some more time with them soon.
1 The World Youth Festival is organised by the World Federation of Democratic Youth, widely regarded in some quarters as a communist front organisation. The 1978 event also included such notable attendees as Peter Mandelson, Paul Boateng and Fiona McTaggart, all of whom were to later join Clarke as supporters of the New Labour project.
2 This is related to the previously unpublicised issue of the signicant rise seen in the number of foreign nationals in the prison system of England and Wales in recent years. As of February 2006, there were 10,265 foreign nationals in jail, representing 13% of the prison population. It has been suggested that the problem has been allowed to get out of hand because the Labour government has been so concerned to be seen to be dealing with the problem of so-called 'asylum seekers' that it has been diverting resources in that direction.
3 The final week of April 2006 proved to be a particularly bad one for the Labour Prime Minister, with revelations regarding the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's affair with his secretary as well as the embarassing spectacle of Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt beeing booed and jeered by nurses.
'Official' biographies of Charles Clarke at;
Profile: Charles Clarke
Matthew Tempest, Profile: Charles Clarke October 24, 2002