Sir Chris Clarke dedicated decades of his life to the simple task of helping people make the most of their own lives and in particular to giving society’s less fortunate the chances they need to escape the traps of their misfortune, whether imposed by poor education, ill health or just a social environment that offered too little hope.
Chris also played a leading role in the renaissance of British liberalism, helping to build the party’s heartland in the South West of England. He was (as a Councillor for 22 years and Leader of Somerset for 8 years) a terrific exponent of community politics, making Somerset a beacon for the localised form of politics that the Liberal Democrats put to such potent use, first in making huge gains in local government elections and then in taking an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats, generally based on their local successes.
For Chris Clarke though electoral success was not the purpose of politics. His own motivation was always to make a real difference to the lives of ordinary people. Political commentators were quick to see the significance of the Lib Dem gains that saw them take control of Somerset County Council in 1993. Combined with the by-election shocks in Newbury and Christchurch, the writing was on the wall for a domino effect where the Conservatives would lose their local power-bases and then their Parliamentary seats to the Liberal Democrats across the Shire Counties.
The significance of the victory in Somerset was not lost on Chris Clarke, but from the outset he and his colleagues were driven by what they could do for the County. What followed became further beacons to inspire Lib Dems around the country. The new administration, led by Chris, invested heavily in education and social services, determined as they were to give young people a better start in life and open opportunities for people to live life to its full potential.
For many, this era was the Lib Dem golden age. Led by Paddy Ashdown in Westminster and with real power on the ground through local government leaders like Chris Clarke, the party exuded new confidence and credibility, matching their fizz of policy ideas to a record of action in public office. The party’s focus was on making a difference through a patchwork of ground-breaking, innovative, local ideas. Somerset, time and again, was the beacon of good practice.
It was clear to Chris that more needed to be and could be done. This underlay his determination to organise South West local authorities into the South West Regional Assembly, to work harder at maximising the potential of local governance. No surprise then that his energy, drive, patience and warm, natural charisma soon led him to lead the new Assembly.
As the leading voice for Somerset and the South West, Chris inevitably got more involved in national politics, pressing the case for more to be done both for the region and for what had become his main focus, the disadvantaged. Chris was always tremendously popular with his Liberal Democrat colleagues around the country. It wasn’t long though before he had earned respect across all the parties and among government officials. So it was no surprise when in 2001, Chris became the leader of the Liberal Democrats’ local government base through the Local Government Association. He was already leading a cross party and cross government programme to improve social inclusion, bringing local and central government together to pursue a common agenda around Chris’ most passionate cause.
Chris also devoted considerable personal energy to securing better funding for local public services, through significantly improved government grant and through a fairer local tax system. The tax system unfortunately remains largely intact (though not in Scotland, where reform won through), but the difference that was made to local services such as schools, thanks to billions of pounds of additional investment is now very clear to see.
In 2005 Chris stood down as a County Councillor and moved to Gloucestershire. He withdrew from party politics but remained fully engaged in public life and his efforts to improve public services continued. Chris took on the role of Chair of South Gloucestershire Primary Care Trust and until his death was acting Chair of Arts Council South West. Through his support for the Arts, Chris secured funding to support the Bristol based digital art project, Submerge, which gives young people hoping to build careers in digital media the chance to display their talent.
In addition to his long career in public life, Chris Clarke worked as a marketing and general business management expert in private industry, including 19 years working for Clarks (no relation), the international shoe company.
Chris was awarded an OBE in 2001 and then a Knighthood, in 2005, for services to local government. He described his visit to the Palace to pick up his award, surrounded by his family, as one of the happiest days of his life.
All who knew Chris will remember him as a great liberal, a hard working councillor, and as a disarmingly modest man driven by a passion for helping others, whose dry humour and sharp mind won friends and influenced people, in the best possible way.
Chris was also a devoted and protective family man and is survived by his wife Liz and children Tim and Angela. Also by his first wife Sheila.
Sir Chris Clarke was born 24th March 1941 and died on 15th December 2009, aged 68.
Written by Nick Rijke: email@example.com