Against the Grain Former Lib Dem MP and Cabinet Minister Norman Baker tells Jo Rothery he is appalled by the bitter conflict and utter confusion currently holding sway in Parliament

The current state of politics and the prevailing atmosphere in Westminster leave Norman Baker, the MP for Lewes until 2015, filled with horror.

“It’s insane, an absolute shambles, very divisive and I’m appalled at the extremes some people are going to,” he says. “The House of Commons is not a good place to be now.”

He may be dismayed at what is happening now. Still, throughout his long and distinguished career on the political scene, he was a thorn in the flesh of the government, never afraid to challenge authority and always determined to get wrongs righted.

‘The most annoying man in parliament’ is how David Cameron once described him. Such an epithet didn’t cause the then MP for Lewes any qualms - instead, he regarded it as recognition of his determination to challenge the powers that be and stand up for what he believes.

This political heavyweight prides himself on his reputation for always being ready to throw down the gauntlet. His determination to tackle injustices goes back long before he entered the political arena.

When the SDP formed, I didn’t think I was in the same party as them, so I became a sleeping member.

“I was always interested in current affairs, always seeing things that were wrong and yet not seeing anyone trying to sort them out,” he says. “I don’t believe in accepting things as they are. Too often the people who should be taking responsibility ignore the elephant in the room - I want them to look at the elephant and act when needed.”

Born in Aberdeen in 1957, his mother was a nurse and his father, a trawler skipper, died when Norman was just eight. The family moved to Hornchurch in London in 1968, and he attended the Royal Liberty School near Romford before graduating from the University of London in 1978 with a degree in German and History.

Always passionate about music, he became a regional director for a record company for five years and in 1981 took his first steps on the political ladder by joining the Liberal Party.

“When the SDP was formed, I didn’t think I was in the same party like them, so I became a ‘sleeping member’,” he says.

By the early 1980s, he had moved to the Lewes area and was living in Beddingham, teaching English as a foreign language.

“In 1987 the Liberal councillor for Ringmer called round to see me and asked if I would stand for Lewes District Council. I was elected and also joined the parish council. Two years later I was also elected to East Sussex County Council.”

Already making his mark as a politician, he became a leader of the district council in 1991, holding that position until he won the Lewes parliamentary seat in the 1997 general election, standing as a Liberal Democrat.

He had contested the Lewes seat at the general election in 1992 but was defeated by the sitting Conservative MP, Tim Rathbone. Five years later he gained the position with a majority of 1,300 votes.

“In 1997 I became the first non-Conservative MP for Lewes since 1874,” he says. “It was a huge turn round, the result of several factors, I think. There was a lot of anti-Tory feeling at the time, we’d had Black Wednesday, and John Major’s government was in complete disarray, the Back to Basics policy was a shambles.

Having been on the council for several years, local electors knew me, and I was known for helping people at a local level. In a poll, 83 per cent couldn’t name the sitting Tory MP, but 69 per cent could name me as the Liberal candidate. I also brought the green voters in - they actively supported me.

Norman was ahead of his time in bringing green issues to the fore, 30 years ago.

“The environment has always been vital to me, and back in 1989, I was one of the first to highlight the issue of climate change.”

He was appointed as the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman in 2002 and in May 2005 he joined with two former environment ministers, Labour MP Michael Meacher and Conservative John Gummer, to table a cross-party Early Day Motion in support of a Climate Change Bill drafted by Friends of the Earth.

He also opposed nuclear power, describing it as ‘hopelessly uneconomic’, and warning that new nuclear power stations ‘would generate vast quantities of nuclear waste and divert essential funding away from energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy.’

The environment has always been vital to me, and back in 1989, I was one of the first to highlight the issue of climate change.

Civil liberties were another major issue over which Norman challenged the authorities, feeling that too much power was embedded in the wrong set of hands. He prided himself on uncovering scandals and conflicts of interest among MPs and in the government.

Named as ‘Inquisitor of the Year’ in The Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year awards in 2001, his persistent questioning of Peter Mandelson played a large part in Mandelson’s second resignation from government. Norman also campaigned to force disclosure of the details of MP’s expenses under the Freedom of Information Act.

Nick Clegg and Norman host a Q&A session with primary school students at Cradle Hill School, Seaford

“The Freedom of Information Act is a great cleanser. I believe that power should be devolved to a more local level to protect people’s rights.”

In 2001 he won a test case in the High Court when the National Security Appeals panel ruled that the Data Protection required MI5 to allow him access to information he believed the security service held on him, the first time this had happened in the 92-year history of MI5.

Norman continued to hold several prominent and influential Liberal Democrat posts and then came his first taste of being in government during the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010-2015 when he became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Transport.

In October 2013 he was appointed Minister of State at the Home Office but resigned from this role in November of the following year, following a year of internal battles with the then Home Secretary, Theresa May.

The Freedom of Information Act is a great cleanser. I believe that power should be devolved to a more local level to protect peoples’s right’s.

He had continually clashed with his Conservative boss on issues including drugs policy and immigration and at the time of his resignation, described working at the Home Office as like walking through the mud as he found his plans thwarted by Mrs May and her advisers. He likened being the only Liberal Democrat in the Home Office as being ‘the only hippy at an Iron Maiden concert’.

At the general election in 2015, Norman was defeated in a close-run contest with Conservative Maria Caulfield. Does he miss the cut and thrust of the Westminster scene? And is he involved in local politics?

“I still take a keen interest in national politics, but the etiquette of local politics behoves me to keep out of the way. The sitting MP has her manifesto, such as it is, and I wouldn’t want any future Lib Dem candidate to think I was there as a backseat driver.

“Nor would I want to be in Parliament now. It’s a period when people are going through extreme emotions, and colleagues tell me the House of Commons is a wretched place with a very unpleasant atmosphere.

“I’m appalled at the horrible attitudes of some people on both sides of the Brexit debate and the way some Remain extremists are driving the fear. I’m glad I’m not involved, I wouldn’t want to be a part of how some people are being treated and the violence that is being threatened.

Norman attending a International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany

“The referendum vote in favour of leaving the EU was very close, and in other countries, it would require a majority of two thirds to carry through such a significant constitutional change. I believe Theresa May got it wrong - at the very least the views of the minority should have been taken into account and a compromise reached. Her approach was very tribal, favouring her party rather than the country.

“A lot of people didn’t know what they were voting for, didn’t know what leaving would mean; it wasn’t clear at all, so people had no idea what anything meant. Now it’s become People versus Parliament, hugely divisive. Parliament had done what it’s supposed to do, preventing the Leave campaign taking control which would put that control in the hands of a small number of people in Parliament.

“I think if Boris Johnson were prepared to be sensible, he would probably get a majority in the Commons for a soft Brexit and that’s something the EU would go along with, and he would get something through. But he doesn’t want that, and if he does manage to force a hard Brexit through, that will result in a considerable level of bitterness.

“The best thing would be another referendum where people knew exactly what they were voting for - most people would accept that, but of course, he would be taking a risk he would lose.”

Although Norman is no longer actively involved in the political scene, he shows no signs of slowing down. He has a broad portfolio of interests and acts as a freelance consultant, as well as giving lectures and training civil servants. He recently carried out some work to improve democracy in Kazakhstan.

I don’t like the way media covers the Royals. I think it is very intrusive, superficial.

Better transport has always been an issue close to his heart, and in 2017 he became one of the few former MPs to carry his political campaigns into real life by being appointed the managing director of The Big Lemon, a solo-powered bus operator in Brighton. Effectively acting as transport manager there, he won several council contracts, doubled the number of routes and increased the number of staff.

He is also an established author. He had grave doubts over a public inquiry ruling that the death of scientist David Kelly in 2003 had been suicide and in 2007 Norman’s book ‘The Strange Death of David Kelly’ was published.

‘Against the Grain’, his political memoir, was published in 2015 and now Norman has just released his latest book, ‘And what do you do?’, a forensic examination of what the Royal Family means to Britain. The apt title is based on the words you’re most likely to hear if you meet a ‘Royal,’ at your investiture, a visit to your place of work or your school.

Not a ‘safe’ topic and likely to become a best-seller, in typical and challenging Norman Baker style, he likens the royal family to a long-running soap opera whose members have become celebrities, whether we like it or not. But, he says: “They also display arrogance, hypocrisy and indifference to the gigantic amount of public money they waste.”

He estimates their cost to Britain is about a third of a billion pounds a year and asks why we are being asked to pay £359m to refurbish Buckingham Palace while the Queen hangs onto admission fees.

So not a fan? He accepts there are a few admirable qualities, but the negatives outweigh the positives. He said: “There are royals we find admirable, and those Royals we do not find admirable. It very much comes down to individual personalities. I’m a fan of Harry and Meghan, but even I find it hypocritical that Harry can preach green issues then fly to his holiday in a private jet with an entourage of security staff - that we pay for.”

He does espouse Prince Charles’ stated view that the Royal Family must slim down and even wonders just what some of them are for, (except for the Queen).

And he notes how former members of loyal staff - ‘backstairs Billy’ or Princess Margaret’s chauffeur - were dismissed the day after their royal employer died, or no longer needed them. They are thrown out of their homes. “That is medieval - and inappropriate,” he says.

“I don’t like the way the media covers the Royals. I think it is very intrusive, superficial. Why should we be interested in whether Prince George is riding on a tractor - he’s a kid, let him get on with it. It would be much more accurate for the media to concentrate on the real stuff, tax exemptions due to arrangements with various governments which have allowed the Royal family to become wealthy. We should lay bare how such exemptions allow them to benefit from the State, I believe improperly.”

After losing his seat in Parliament, Norman reformed his old band, The Reform Club in which he is the chief lyricist.

“I’ve always been into music. I feel it turns black and white into colour,” he says. “As a band, we do live gigs now and then - we played at Paddy Ashdown’s memorial.”

Norman also presents three music shows a week on a local community radio station, one featuring 1970s hits, another Blues and the third playing little-known B-sides from the 1960s.

A very rare 1946 Wurlitzer jukebox has pride of place at his home in the centre of Lewes, which he moved to in 2000 knowing his house at Beddingham was to be demolished to make room for a flyover.

Eight years later the Argus newspaper in Brighton published a front-page article saying ‘MP’s house demolished’. This prompted one of his Lewes neighbours to rush around, fearing the house in town was under threat.

“I love Lewes,” Norman says. “Back in the 1980s my partner at the time and I had decided we wanted to move to somewhere about 50 miles from London. We came to Lewes, fell in love with it and I’ve been here or hereabouts ever since. I intend to stay here for the rest of my life.”

Norman addresses delgates at a Ministerial Session; Left: Norman and children from Churchill Primary School

Images: Liberal Democrats, Department of Transport