Chocks Away, Biggles

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Labour's chair is an old acquaintance of Pat Stack who recalls fond memories

I was once told by someone that I was the most dishonest person he'd ever met. This is not a remark one would normally take lightly, let alone treasure as a compliment. Yet some 25 years or so later I still look back fondly on the remark, rather as I do my favourite denim jacket of about the same time.

The remark was not brought on by some thieving or chicanery on my part, but rather by a political speech I'd made which this person didn't like. The ins and outs of the speech have long since passed me by. However, I do know it occurred at my very first National Union of Students conference, and that my detractor was no less a person than the president of NUS. Today he has reached even dizzier ranks as the unelected chair of the Labour Party. Yes, old Charles Clarke continues to be a very important person. Some pundits have even written about him as a 'dark horse' to succeed Tony Blair.

Ah, yes, how fine it would be to be able to wander around saying I was once called the most dishonest person he'd ever met by the prime minister. I suppose I could add that I always knew he was going right to the top. Except I have to be honest and say I didn't. For Clarke always struck me as a bumbling sort of fellow who had reached the top of the union not through his intellect, brilliance, charisma or ability, but as a front man for the 'Broad Left'.

The Broad Left was neither very broad nor very left. Its clever thinkers were nearly all in the Communist Party. Its public face tended to be dominated by soft Labour left fellow travellers. Clarke was seen by one and all as a respectable frontman, albeit with little vim or vigour. His nickname was Biggles.

Now, though, Charles is a very important person. When Paul Marsden left New Labour last month old Biggles became Mr Rebuttal, the man who would denounce the deserter. I waited with bated breath to see the hatchet job he would do on Marsden on Newsnight, only for Jeremy Paxman to announce that he'd been in the studio, was about to come on, and then just as Paxman girded his loins for the fray... Charles did a runner!

When it comes to putting his views on paper Charles is made of sterner stuff just before the Marsden furore he wrote a piece for the Guardian headlined 'America Are The Good Guys Now', and subtitled 'Why I've left behind my old hostility to US foreign policy'.

Clarke then listed the horrors of US foreign and domestic policy in his youth - but, he said, things have changed. The United Nations has become more authoritative and active. The US, now far less interventionist, has led a struggle against religious intolerance, and for political democracy and the rights of women. Since 11 September the Bush administration has rejected isolationism.

It's good to know that for all his political elevation the man is still an idiot. It gives hope to idiots everywhere. Clarke explains that in his youth America supported brutal dictators. But today... His US is obviously a different one to the one that helped bring the Taliban to power, that brought us Bin Laden, and that currently is more than happy to have the brutal Saudi regime as an important ally, client and customer. Presumably his US is different to the one that props up the Colombian despots and death squads to the tune of $1 billion.

Ah, the bad old US had a horrible domestic policy which was racist. But today there are Colin Powell and many other black political leaders. Why should Charles worry if at the same time there is a huge increase in black poverty, black incarceration and judicial bias that means the disproportion of blacks to whites on death row is enormous?

Charles is delighted that for a considerable period the US has been far less interventionist. Apparently Charles has never heard of the Vietnam syndrome, which to the rage of successive regimes tied their hands militarily. Nor, apparently, has he noticed that through a succession of conflicts the US has been carefully shaking itself free of the syndrome.

Where Charles sees an enhanced UN, anyone with a modicum of sense can see at a glance that the UN is barely tolerated as a rubber stamp, and with each conflict becomes less and less relevant to US leaders.

So old Biggles has become a genuine fan of the flak jacket. Of course such a course is a must to aspiring politicians, even dark horses, but methinks there's something else to Charles's conversion.

In his account of his dashing youth Charles explains, 'I strongly opposed the Soviet Union's treatment of dissidents, and suppression of dissent internally and in central Europe.' Well, maybe, but it wasn't quite that straightforward. The Broad Left led NUS had an ambiguous attitude to Russia and its allies. It treated the state-controlled student unions of these countries as fraternal bodies, and invited their stooge leaders to NUS conferences.

One of my own favourite memories was when an SWP member of the executive went on a delegation to Eastern Europe and presented a minority report which was highly critical of state-controlled student unions. His report was accepted rather than the much less critical Broad Left one. I can still see a former vice-president of the union, who had led the delegation, sobbing at the rejection of his report. Sat beside him with a face like thunder was ... yes, you've guessed it.

It seems that, if one brutal superpower is no longer around to apologise for, you just switch to the other.