Ken Clarke has a reputation as one of the most formidable politicians of the past twenty years. He is also a bit more popular than many Tories amongst many in the media due his seemingly more liberal views, his eminent quote-ability and maybe his penchant for brown suede shoes. He has, however, also a bit of a reputation for gaffes. Whilst Health Secretary in the late 1980s he denied that junior doctors worked excessive hours and claimed they were lying about this. Unfortunately he was contradicted by his own daughter: a junior hospital doctor.
His remarks on rape have created a much greater storm. The relevant transcript is here from the BBC:
In an interview with Victoria Derbyshire on BBC Radio 5 live, Mr Clarke argued that pushing for an early guilty plea would stop rapists denying charges and would relieve the victim of “going through the whole ordeal again and of being called a liar” in court.
He dismissed suggestions rapists could be out in 15 months – calculated by halving the average sentence of five years, then allowing for the time someone would be allowed to serve on licence – as “total nonsense”.
On being told that the five-year figure came from the Council of Circuit Judges, Mr Clarke said: “That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15 year olds…
“A serious rape with violence and an unwilling woman – the tariff is longer than that.”
There are a whole series of problems with Clarke’s remarks: ones which a senior politician and indeed a former barrister should have been well aware of. The political and indeed moral gaffe was pretty significant. Whilst at some level there are variations in the severity of rape that is not far removed from suggesting that there are variations in the severity of murder. Clarke went on, however, to compound the problem by seeming to take date rape less seriously. For the past twenty years there have been attempts to address more effectively the huge problem of date rape. There is a well argued comment on the issue of date rape here in the Guardian from 2009.
However, not only was Clarke extremely foolish but he was also wrong from a legal viewpoint. As the BBC have detailed here consensual sexual intercourse between a 15 year old girl and an eighteen year old man is not rape: it is a different (also criminal) offence attracting a different sentence.
It seems likely that Clarke will survive this episode. Christina Patterson in the Independent seems to be using the strategy of attack those attacking Clarke.
Had those comments come from a right wing authoritarian figure (or indeed a member of the judiciary) it is highly likely that the calls for his political head would have been almost universal. As it is Clarke’s reputation as a liberal “blokish” jovial sort of politician may have helped save him at least in the short term. Then again I thought rape was rape and surely dismissing it as not serious rape would be unacceptable from whatever quarter.