Politician Norman Baker served 28 years in elected office – 18 as an MP. He lost his seat at the general election in May this year.
In 2010, as part of the Conservative & Liberal Democrat Coalition government he was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport.
In 2013, he was appointed Minister of State for Crime Prevention at the Home Office. That means he was based at the Home Office, preventing crime – not that he was preventing crime happening within the Home Office.
In 2014, he resigned, citing conflicts with Home Secretary Theresa May. (Bear this fact in mind later.) He was quoted as saying that being the only Liberal Democrat at the Home Office was like being “the only hippy at an Iron Maiden concert”.
The music analogy is not random. For the last 20-odd years, he has been lead singer and lyricist for The Reform Club, a band which he describes as playing “retro-1960s pop” music.
There is a video of them on YouTube, performing at Piccadilly Circus in 2013.
“Did you want to be a rock star?” I asked him yesterday in Soho.
“No,” he told me. “That’s a ridiculous thing to want to be. I just wanted to have some fun. It’s a therapy, a release. It’s like playing pinball. I’ve got a pinball machine.”
“I have never,” I said, “seen the point of playing pinball.”
“It’s a bit like playing snooker or playing in a band,” he told me. “You just switch off. It’s like meditating for an hour.”
“You are,” I said, “President of the Tibet Society and you were a member of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet. Why?”
“Well,” he replied, “it’s a matter of human rights and justice and trying to take on bullies.”
“But you’ve been quoted,” I said, “as saying: Compromise is a useful thing.”
“It is a necessary thing. No-one gets 100% their own way.”
“But you have to,” I said, “do deals with nasty people.”
“Yes, you do. Sometimes you have to work with them.”
“In the Home Office?” I asked.
He did not reply.
“You seem to be a terribly principled man,” I said. “Don’t you compromise your principles by talking to and doing deals with shits?”
“Well, otherwise,” he replied, “they run the show themselves. People asked why didn’t I resign, why didn’t the LibDems resign from the government? The answer is because all the people you don’t like would be left there and we’d be gone. Do you really want to hand the government over to the people you disagree with most?”
“So you’re a left wing LibDem,” I said.
“The LibDems have got lost somewhere,” I said. “I don’t know where they are in the spectrum.”
“We need them,” he replied. “We need a liberal voice.”
“So what’s the book you’ve just written? – Against The Grain?”
“It is,” he said, “a political memoir. 1987-2015.”
“Why write it?” I asked. “To justify your time in office?”
“No, to close a door on it. And so the public know what happened. It’s the first Coalition book and shows how it worked. But it was quite selfish of me in a way. It was cathartic, rationalising the last 28 years in my head, putting it in some sort of order and shutting the door on it.”
“Do you have an elevator pitch for the book?” I asked.
“Truthful, controversial, humorous, contrary, pleasingly insulting. That sort of thing.”
“Is that a description of you or the book?”
“Me… Well, both.”
“You have said you’re not interested in going back into politics.”
“I’m not. I have done 28 years in elected office.”
“But, if you’re really passionate about changing things…”
“I’ll do it in a different way. I’ll write books or lecture. Tony Benn famously said he was leaving the House of Commons to spend more time on politics.”
“I’m not an admirer of Tony Benn,” I said. “He was a bit too far up his own arse.”
“It’s a good quote, though,” said Norman.
“Do you think the book you have written will have as big as an effect as being an MP?”
“Books are on the way out,” I said. “You can only have an effect if you’re on TV.”
“I don’t have to have an effect. I need to do what I think is right. And I need to put myself first for a bit. I spent 28 years serving the public. I don’t want to sound too grand about it, but that’s the sum of it. You don’t become a LibDem if you are after power; you do it from the ground up. If I can make a pittance writing books or doing music, then that’s fine. I don’t have to be ‘out there’. I’ve done that.”
“The irony,” I said, “is that people became LibDems thinking they would never actually be in power and then they ended up in the Coalition government.”
“We had a big effect. You can see the effect we had, because it’s all being undone by the Tories.”
“What,” I asked, “is the worst thing they’re un-doing?”
“Well, reducing the tax credits is clearly just vicious.”
“It seems to me,” I said, “that, with the tax credit thing, George Osborne is undermining his own chances of becoming Prime Minister. Boris Johnson is going to become Conservative Party leader now…”
“Well,” said Norman, “out of all the candidates, it may sound unlikely but I would rather have Theresa May. At least she’s got principles, even if you don’t agree with them. Osborne is just terrible. Boris is a nasty bit of work and Osborne is just power crazy.”
“But being power crazy is OK in politics, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Well, Osborne is interested in two things: becoming leader of the Tory Party and winning the 2020 Election and everything is being sacrificed to those two ends. That is not in the interests of the country; that’s the interests of Osborne.”
“I think Boris will make a good Prime Minister,” I said, “because…”
“Boris has not been a very good Mayor of London,” Norman told me. “He’s had his back covered by a lot of people. He’s made a lot of mistakes.”
“Why is he a nasty piece of work?” I asked.
“You need to listen to the interview with Eddie Mair.”
(It was on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show in March 2013)
“What does it show?” I asked.
“Well, it shows he’s a nasty bit of work.”
“Did you used to read Scallywag magazine?” I asked.
“Yes, in fact, the guy who wrote it (Simon Regan) sent me some information.”
“About MPs allegedly involved in child sex exploitation.”
“You didn’t live in Dolphin Square?”
“The male prostitutes allegedly in that place…”
“That’s one thing, There’s nothing wrong with that. I take the view, if you’re over 18, you can make up your own mind what you do.”
“The scandal Simon Regan got wrong, though,” I said, “was the John Major affair with…”
“…Edwina Currie,” said Norman.
“No, the caterer,” I said. “Scallywag wrongly kept going on about Claire’s Kitchen. Everyone was thrown by that.”
“I think it’s nobody’s business,” said Norman. “I feel quite strongly about that.”
“John Major was married, though,” I said.
“But so what?” said Norman. “You’re entitled to a private life. Mitterrand and everyone else has all these affairs and no-one worries about that. The question is: Are you, in public life, doing what you are supposed to do for the benefit of the public? Yes or No? End of question.”
“I think,” I said, “that the problem was John Major was talking about Victorian Values a lot at the time.”
“No,” said Norman, “to be fair to John Major, it was Back To Basics and, by that, he meant things like the Three Rs in education, but it was taken by the press to mean some sort of puritanical view. I don’t think he ever meant that.”
“John Major,” I said, “seems to have grown in stature since he stopped being Conservative Party leader.”
“Well, he is not mad.,” said Norman. “He’s the only Prime Minister in recent times to leave office not mad.”
“Margaret Thatcher?” I asked.
“She was hopeless,” said Norman. “She went to the Sistine Chapel with all the other European leaders on some EU trip and they were all in there admiring the Michaelangelos, or pretending to, and there was silence and she barked out: My goodness! How do they keep the floors so clean?”
“That’s surely good PR,” I said. “…I’m the woman next door.”
“Completely gormless, actually,” said Norman.
“Mrs Thatcher wasn’t a great brain,” I suggested. “She got where she got by being really hard working. But no Einstein.”
“She was hard-working,” agreed Norman. “She wasn’t Einstein, but she thought she was in some ways: I’m a chemist, therefore I understand this.”
“By the end,” I said, “she thought she knew better than the public.”
“Yes,” said Norman. “Blair had the same fault. It’s a sign of madness.”
“Blair talked to God,” I said. “and, it seems, God does not always make good decisions.”
“Well,” said Norman, “Blair became a Catholic and, within two weeks was telling the Pope he was wrong, which must take some medal for arrogance.”
“You asked questions in the Commons on UFOs,” I said, “which seems totally out-of-character.”
“I didn’t ask any UFO questions,” said Norman. “This is a slur put about by my enemies. I asked about expenditure by the Ministry of Defence on a particular area. I was interested in the potential of other countries invading our airspace without being detected by radar. I’m afraid you’ll find that people who want to try to disagree with my arguments seek to character assassinate me. That’s what people do. They’ll go for the player rather than the ball. It’s a standard technique.”
“It must be a relief not being in Parliament,” I said. “You don’t get all that crap.”
“Yes. I enjoyed it and I achieved quite a lot, but I’ve now shut the door on it and I’m feeling rather better for it. The new Reform Club album is out on January 16th. It’s called Never Yesterday.”
YouTube also has an audio track from Animal Countdown – the latest EP by Norman Baker and Friends.