Charles Clarke reflects on time in Norwich as he moves to Cambridge
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2011
Since his election as MP for Norwich South in 1997, Charles Clarke and his family have made the city their home. As he says goodbye and moves to Cambridge he reflects on his time in Norwich, the local Labour party and the national political scene. Political editor Annabelle Dickson reports
Norwich South was the stage for one of the enduring scenes of the 2010 general election count.
Images of high profile former cabinet minister Charles Clarke losing his seat after 13 years were replayed in national news bulletins for days after the Labour defeat.
But despite the disappointment and his quick decision not to stand again, Norwich has remained his home.
Now, after more than a decade and a half shuttling between Norfolk and London and with work and family commitments increasingly taking them south, he and his wife are reluctantly moving out.
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Mr Clarke speaks with real affection about the warm welcome he and his family received shortly after he was selected to fight Norwich South as an 'outsider' in 1996. Encouraged by former Norwich City Council leader and now peer Patricia Hollis, he arrived in a constituency with more active party members than most. 'It wasn't like some of the run-down inner city constituencies. Members came from all social classes, including relatively wealthy people playing big roles in public life and running major organisations or companies, as well as more traditional Labour Party supporters in a wide range of different industries and people who did not have jobs.'
With Ian Gibson sitting in Norwich North there was a 'double act of difference', the two MPs giving their reports to their constituency party one after the other each month.
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What Mr Clarke particularly remembers and appreciates was the spirit of integrity that infused local debate, even when, as Home Secretary, he was dealing with 'very, very sharply tense' security versus liberty issues such as the 90-day detention law or controversial moves to bring in tuition fees. He also acknowledges differences with local party members over the private finance initiative for the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.
'There was bad feeling on tuition fees, there was bad feeling on counter terrorism and there was bad feeling on Iraq with some people. Things you would expect. But I wouldn't say it ever descended into out-and-out hostility. I saw it as my duty to tell it as I saw it. I thought they had the right to know what I thought I was doing and to have the discussion openly.'
'I always felt I was among friends, even at a time when the majority of the people in the room were against what I was saying about the government.'
Differences of opinion notwithstanding he believes Norwich was a city moving forward at a fantastic pace during his years as a local MP. 'All sorts of things were happening from physical changes like buildings, better trains, health and education. I felt I was contributing something to those processes and I found it very exciting,' he said.
Asked about his biggest achievement for the region during this period he tentatively mentions the introduction of a direct train service between Norwich and Cambridge.
This said, Mr Clarke is reluctant to take sole credit for anything. 'All these changes, whether you talk about the major city centre developments, the Millennium Library, new health centres, schools, the Norwich Research Park... I would never say they are down to me. They were a process of change I tried to support.' The same could be said about the long-awaited dualling of the A11, now hailed as a victory by the current crop of coalition MPs.
Mr Clarke says Norwich's self-confidence has grown during the time he has lived in and represented the city. But he feels its character is still misunderstood nationally. 'We are really very strong. That is not understood.
'People still go back to images of Norfolk which are out of time,' he adds, citing TV programmes such as the series Kingdom, set in Swaffham, and comic character Alan Partridge.
So what will he miss about the city? In general it will be the 'welcoming and relaxed nature' of Norwich, while he also talks fondly about trips to see the seals at Winterton Beach. 'My relationship with Norwich has been a central element in my life and I will always be grateful both to the local party for choosing me as the candidate and to the people of Norwich – both for electing me and, more importantly, for the way in which they treated me as a member of parliament over the years.'
He insists his wife, Carol Pearson – a former EDP columnist – should also be given credit for her contribution to Norfolk. He highlights her role in bringing The Garage theatre centre into existence, and the many other roles she performed.
Like many outsiders to the city, he will not be cutting his ties. Having developed a devotion to Norwich City Football Club during his time here, he will still be a regular at Carrow Road in future, and as a visiting professor at the University of East Anglia he will be able to continue to enjoy the Cambridge to Norwich train service he helped secure.