Peter Clarke CVO, OBE, QPM
Doctor of Laws
11 July 2008 – Orator: Professor Gareth Williams
Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor,
The award of an honorary degree is, above all, the celebration of outstanding and conspicuous achievement. It could be argued that we are breaking with tradition this morning, in that the achievements of this Honorary Graduand are indeed outstanding – but some of them are not at all conspicuous. However, we are certainly not lowering our standards; there are very sound reasons for the detail of what Peter Clarke has done to remain strictly under wraps. This is because he has risen right to the top of the combined police and intelligence services, as the country’s National Coordinator of Terrorist Investigation.
His is a fascinating story, and a terrific plug for the diversity of employment opportunities that open themselves up to Bristol alumni. Take note, any of today’s graduates who fancy a job that combines intellectual challenge, excitement, travelling and a high media profile – but be aware that you would also have to play for frighteningly high stakes and shoulder some of the heaviest responsibilities in our society.
When Peter graduated in this Hall in 1977, one might not have predicted that he would return in this capacity. His career has been influenced by both genes and environment, and by attraction and repulsion. Peter’s father trained as a teacher but spent some time in the Metropolitan Police Force, on the beat in Hackney. His mother had worked at Bletchley Park during the War; enigmatically, she always declined to say exactly what she did there. On top of any genetic predisposition to detective and intelligence work, environmental factors then chipped in during Peter’s childhood in Surrey: he was evidently enthralled by stories from his father and others about life as a policeman. Peter did well at the local grammar school and was offered a place at Oxford – which, I am delighted to report, he turned down in favour of coming to Bristol to read Law.
He greatly enjoyed his time here and says that he was particularly assiduous during his first year. Some aspects of the course evidently gripped him more than others. This is not my field, Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, but I am led to believe on good authority that it is unusual for students to die of excitement during lectures on land law. Around this time, Peter also found his attention wandering progressively away from a future as a jobbing lawyer. His eyes were fully opened – and his mind finally closed – by a spell of work experience in a solicitor’s office in town. He decided then that this was not for him and that the sharp end of law enforcement was where his real interest lay. He signed up to train as a policeman and, soon after graduation, found himself with several hundred other young hopefuls at Hendon College.
Thus, Peter’s early career choices were guided by both attraction and repulsion. His time at Bristol was also enlivened by attraction (and indeed distraction) in another direction, specifically by a young woman studying Russian and French. That ex-student has also returned to this Hall today, but this is no coincidence: she is Peter’s wife, Deborah.
If you plot a graph of Peter’s career in the police force, you are instantly struck by two things. The first is the very steep upward trajectory, clearly of someone heading for the very top. Secondly, he has switched several times between the parallel tracks of conventional policeman and detective: indeed, he’s been in and out of uniform so many times that his outfit this morning is probably light relief. This cross-dressing is the Met’s strategy for ensuring that even their most senior officers remain firmly in contact with the real world of everyday policing, and it has certainly worked in Peter’s case. When I asked him about the best moment in his career, he didn’t choose some high-profile success involving radioactive cocktails or a suburban bomb factory, but instead a commonplace incident on the beat: reuniting a frail old man with his wallet and arresting the two muggers who had just beaten him up to steal it.
Peter has remained in London throughout his ascent through the ranks, taking in some of the Capital’s most notorious flashpoints – Tottenham, Brixton, and even the Chelsea Flower Show. All these posts have provided opportunities for his talents to shine through. While Staff Officer to Sir Paul Condon, the then Commissioner of the Met, Peter showed that he was good at big-picture strategies as well as dealing with the difficult and unpredictable. Back in the front line as Divisional Commander in Brixton, his brief was to lead the drive against crime, especially drugs and guns, while winning the support of the local community – all of which he managed to do.
His accumulated credentials then took him to an exalted position of trust, as Head of the Royalty and Diplomatic Protection Department. The description of this post makes it seem pretty straightforward: “To protect the Royal Family wherever they may be, and the diplomatic community in London, and the Houses of Parliament.” And I thought my job was a tricky one. Peter describes this position as a privilege and a pleasure, although his 6-year tenure also saw many difficult times, notably the death in Paris of Diana, Princess of Wales.
All this pushed Peter steadily away from dealing with what he calls ‘ordinary decent crime’, and towards counter-terrorism. His most significant role to date has been as the Head of the Met’s Anti-Terrorist Branch and National Coordinator of Terrorist Investigation – surely the pinnacle of high-wire risk management, and without the benefit of any safety net. The post had to be created because of the high level and complexity of terrorist threats facing this country, and Peter was, quite simply, the right man to fill it.
Reflecting on how much our world has been changed by terrorism brings home just how difficult his job must be. In the last 10 years, things that previously would have belonged in the realm of horror fiction have become shocking reality: British-born suicide bombers, polonium-210, home-made explosives that could blow a passenger plane out of the sky. Many places now carry new and grim associations: not just Madrid and Bali, but also Edgware Road and Russell Square. Like gunpowder, terrorism can’t be uninvented or stuffed back under the lid of Pandora’s box. The threat of terrorism has joined taxes and death on the list of inevitabilities that we must all face, and we will all have to find ways of living with it.
This gives us an insight into Peter’s world. His curriculum vitae states simply that he has “played a leading role in many investigations, including the bombings in London, Bali, Saudi Arabia and Turkey; all major counter-terrorist investigations in the United Kingdom; and the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.” Crime detection at this level is necessarily a black box to the outside world, and the visible successes in the fight against against terrorism give us only glimpses of the massive, painstaking and highly coordinated operations that lie inside. Peter has been the driving force in bringing together all the components of Terrorist Investigation in this country – and uniting the cultures of James Bond and The Bill in the process. He has also made it succeed. Peter claims that he just ‘oiled the hinges’, but in reality he was also the architect and the builder. The fact that the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorist operation is now probably the best in the world is a tribute to his vision and leadership.
What of the man himself? He is something of an iceberg: his face has become familiar to us through the media but we can only guess at all that he does below the waterline of secrecy. A clearer picture may emerge when current records are declassified in 25 years’ time, but for now we can be confident that, without Peter Clarke and the team that he has built up, the catalogue of terrorist crimes in this country would be much longer and more harrowing.
Doing a job like this demands very powerful guiding principles as well as a top-class brain and an extremely tough hide. Peter summarises his personal philosophy in four words, coincidentally all beginning with the letter ‘C’. To allay any anxieties that you may have, Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I hasten to point out that the average celebrity chef would find all these C-words unfamiliar, if not completely alien. They are: courage, compassion, courtesy and community. It is self-evident that Peter has remained true to the letter of that philosophy throughout his career. To his own four C-words, I would add another two: calm and confidence. He radiates a solid and unflappable authority, even when in the eye of the storm and the world’s media. This isn’t to everyone’s taste – he has been described as the dullest man on British television – but personally, I’d much prefer the kind of message that Peter has to bring to be delivered with calm and confidence rather than with whatever passes for charisma on TV these days.
Unsurprisingly, significant honours have come his way. The one he’s proudest of is Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, for his time looking after the Royal Family, and he has also been awarded the Queen’s Police Medal and the OBE. He has recently stepped down as Chief of Terrorist Investigation but will undoubtedly remain very busy because his unique blend of skills and experience will continue to be in great demand in our troubled version of civilisation. One of his new challenges is to advise University College London about counter-terrorism. I wish him luck with this particular task: academics are always an unruly bunch, but I had no idea that those in London were behaving quite so badly.
Just over one hundred years ago, Joseph Conrad wrote in his novel The Secret Agent that “the terrorist and the policeman come from the same basket.” This may have been true in 1907 and, sadly may still apply in other places today; but in Peter Clarke, we can see how far things can and indeed have moved on. As they say: fair cop.
To conclude, Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, we are honouring Peter Clarke for his outstanding contributions – both conspicuous and otherwise – to enhancing the nation’s security. Thanks to his efforts, we can all be assured of sleeping more safely in our beds – and indeed, through the occasional lecture.
Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, it is my great pleasure to present to you Peter Clarke, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.