Former Lewes MP Norman Baker’s first Sussex Express headline was in April 1987 when the front page screamed: ‘Buttering Up Voters Claim.’
As he describes in his book Against the Grain (Biteback Press) he was standing for the Liberals in a local council election and was told by the Conservative leader of Ringmer Council it might be a nice idea to distribute some butter (from the EEC butter mountain) to pensioners in Firle.
He goes on: “I must have been naïve for I was taken by surprise by that headline in the Sussex Express.”
From then on, of course, Norman Baker was in the columns – if not the headlines – of the Express almost every week.
Since his shock defeat in the May General Election, he has been particularly quiet. Hence an opportunity to find out a little about his remarkable memory and his political experience, both in local authority and government.
To many people Norman Baker is as authentic a part of Lewes as the Castle or the Brewery, epitomising the county town the way, for example, Jilly Cooper epitomises the shires or Pam Ayres epitomised Norfolk.
Against the Grain is the perfect title for his biography.
Like Lewes, he is slightly bohemian (not for effect), plain speaking, anti-authoritarian, quirky and possibly an uncomfortable political bedfellow. (David Cameron memorably described him as ‘the most annoying man in Parliament’). Times columnist Matthew Parris called him ‘a classic House of Commons bore’ but also said: ‘you underestimate him at your peril.’
His book is full of astonishing revelations and the most wonderful, insightful gossip. Did he keep a diary? “No, I collected press cuttings, partly because it was a defence if someone said: ‘You said that’ and I knew I had not but also partly because at that stage I thought I might write something.
“I also had access to papers, particularly for the Ministry of Transport but while at the Home Office I decided I would keep detailed notes.”
His book vividly describes his early territory as a local councillor, and later an MP representing – among other villages – Glynde and Firle. “In the Civic War, Firle was Royalist and Glynde was Parliamentarian – I think they still see it in that way a little.”
And although there was deprivation in towns such as Lewes, he cites the rural poverty of those estate villages.
When Lord Hampden from Glynde improved his properties, ‘he chucked up the rents.’
Norman Baker was born in Aberdeen on July 26, 1957. His family moved to Hornchurch in 1968. He attended the Royal Liberty School, Gidea Park and Royal Holloway College.
He obtained a flat in Islington via a GLC mortage (“shortly afterwards, Ken Livingstone abolished it.”)
He went on: “I felt stateless until I arrived in Lewes. My girlfriend and I decided we must live within 50 miles of London.
“We toured the area but when I arrived in Lewes I said this is it, I knew immediately. It was something ephemeral – I couldn’t quantify it.”
He was regional manager for Our Price Records for five years from 1978, worked at Malling Street Service Station, Lewes from 1983 for two years and taught English as a foreign language until 1997. In 1987 he was elected to Lewes District Council and two years later East Sussex County Council.
Unlike many career politicians he cut his teeth at parish level, commenting: “It was frustrating and a bit moribund.
“I set out to change that. District was fun in opposition because the Tory administration was useless so there was no major challenge.
“I never really liked County.
“The architecture is important. It’s brutalist, that block. I think County is brutalist actually.”
If Government is the art of compromise, how did a maverick politician like Norman Baker cope?
“Compromise is a useful thing, people being rational and agreeing a way forward. The coalition worked well. You give something away that’s not important to you to get something you want.
“Environmentally we put a huge effort in and got 80 per cent of what we asked for but we were slammed for not getting 100 per cent.
“We got little credit for what we did.”
Norman Baker was elected as LibDem MP for Lewes in 1997.
He became Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office in 2007.
Following the 2010 General Election he was again returned as MP for Lewes and appointed Under Secretary of State for the Department of Transport where, it appears, he had a whale of a time.
“The department was friendly. People talked to you in the lift. The tea lady asked if you were all right. I got on well with my Tory colleagues. Theresa Villiers even came to Bonfire one year.
“There was a lot of overlap of policy and when there wasn’t, it was sorted amicably.
“We had a huge success for the last five years with the largest rail building programme since Victorian times. I am proud of my time there.”
From his days in Beddingham, he fought tooth and nail against the dualling of the A27 from Polegate to Lewes, against fierce opposition. Why?
“Simply the economics don’t stack up. Successive governments over the years concluded it doesn’t make sense. If it made sense, someone would have built it.
“It would be hugely destructive environmentally and it is now the safest road in Sussex.
“If you build a road you attract more traffic.
“You don’t solve a problem, you just move the traffic somewhere else.”
So what about the Uckfield to Lewes rail link?
“It should be built, but who knows?
“The problem with BML2 is that it was unrealistic and expensive.
“It’s difficult enough getting funds for Lewes to Uckfield to re-open, so multiply that by some.”
He explained the line closure was opposed by British Rail but supported by the County Council which wanted to build the Phoenix Causeway.
Norman Baker was appointed Minister of State to the Home Office in the October 2013 reshuffle, repeatedly suggested changes to drug policy, but resigned from the Home Office in November 2014 citing conflicts with Home Secretary Theresa May.
“I quite admired her as a politician but the problem was the way she ran the department and I didn’t think that way was right.
“She ran it as if it was a one party government and refused to accept a coalition.”
Norman Baker was always willing to take on the big guns, famously tackling Peter Mandelson and later embarking on a quest to establish the truth behind the death in 2003 of biological warfare expert Dr David Kelly.
David Cameron? “I thought he was like a chairman of the board, not a chief executive.
“He doesn’t bother with the detail.
“George Osborne is the details man and Cameron floats above it somewhere. He can lead a Government well but should be more hands on himself.”
He was very relaxed at the Election result.
“I had a good run, there’s no point being anything but grateful. That was Tim Rathbone’s problem (Baker ousted him from the seat in 1997).
“He seemed very bitter. I was determined not to do that.
“ I look forward to doing a lot more writing and a lot more music.
“I also do some transport consultancy and lecturing.
“My music has become even more important, I host a couple of radio shows, enjoy my gigs with The Reform Club and we have been offered a new deal by a record company.
“Come and talk to me about my music at some point.”
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