BAKER, Kenneth (b.1934).
Kenneth Wilfred Baker was born on 3 November 1934 in Newport, Monmouthshire, and educated at St Paul's School, London and Magdalen College, Oxford. He married Mary Elizabeth Gray-Muir in 1963.
Having been secretary of the Union and Chairman of the Oxford University Conservative Club, Baker served as a councillor from 1960 to 1962 in Twickenham Borough Council. He unsuccessfully contested Poplar in 1964, but was elected for Acton in 1968. He served on the Public Accounts Committee from 1969-1970. He lost his seat at the 1970 election, but returned to Parliament after winning a by-election at St Marylebone later the same year. In 1972 he became Parliamentary Secretary at the Civil Service Department and in 1974 Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ted Heath. He was appointed Minister for Information Technology in 1981 and subsequently became Secretary of State for the Environment in 1985. He served as Secretary for Education from 1986 to 1989, after which he was appointed as Conservative Party Chairman (1989-90) and Home Secretary in the Major government (1990-92).
He stood down from the House of Commons in 1997 and was made a life peer as Baron Baker of Dorking, of Ilford in the County of East Sussex.
Transcript of clip
I got myself put on the candidate’s list for the Conservative Party. I was clearly a conservative, clearly in a conservative vein. And I put myself forward for Poplar, the east end seat, it was a clearly a Labour seat. Because in those days if you wanted a political career, you start in the Labour seat, you go to a marginal seat then you go to a safe seat. You don’t do what Cameron and Osborne have done: parachuted straight into safe seats. You worked your passage. And I worked by being a councillor first of all and I went and worked and so I stood for Poplar in 1964 Election… [The selection process] was very interesting. It was a very safe Labour seat but the Bow Group started, a Conservative sort of left-centre thinking group with people like Leon Brittan and Geoffrey Howe and people of that sort formed a thing called Bow Group in late 1950s, early 1960s, and they met at 151 Bow Road which was the headquarters of Poplar Conservative Association next to Poplar Town Hall and I went along to some of those Bow Group meetings, and I got to know the area a bit, I got to know the people and so when the seat came up I remember Geoffrey Howe saying ‘Why don’t you apply?’ So I said ‘Why don’t I apply?’ So I applied. There were two or three other applicants who later I think became MPs. I can’t remember the names now, but I got the candidacy in 1963.
You were interviewed for it?
You went to a meeting in 153 Bow Road, there were about 25 or 30 or 40 people in the selection room, you had to make a speech and you had to answer questions. Your wife had to come with you, if you were married, who just sat there, and you were judged that they and you were told that night if you got it or not. And that was it. It had no money at all so we had to raise money locally with bazaars and that sort of thing. I’ve done a little bit of that in Twickenham when I was a councillor so I knew a little bit about that. The fact that I’ve been a councillor was helpful. The fact that I’d been a politician in Oxford was probably helpful as well, but not decisive. The fact that I was also a businessman, because at this stage I was working for Minster Trust Trust and they said ‘yes, go ahead, have a go, I don’t mind that. I will help you along’ and so I stood as the candidate in 1964.
Summary of interview
Didn’t come from political family. Born in Newport Grandfather was docker who became secretary of Dockers’ union –was offered a seat in House of Commons by Keir Hardy 01.20 –couldn’t afford to take it; eventually became manager of docks. Father was a Civil Servant who left school at 16 –“left of centre”. Didn’t discuss politics at home. Moved in 1938 to London 03.30 Family had risen through the education system. Father fond of Dickens; Great Grandfather had gone to America to make his fortune –leaving his wife; lost all his money gambling, but was v scholarly –loved Shakespeare a consistent thread in his family. Moved to Suburban Twickenham. Remembers Blitz, father’s department evacuated to Liverpool –lived in genteel Southport 06.20. Traditional Victorian primary school. Religion: father a catholic, mother Welsh Chapel but not active. Anglican schools. Passed 11-Plus exam twice. Attended Grammar School in Southport; remembers doing carpentry. Moved back to London. Later, applied for St Paul’s Public School –once there, got involved in Debating –set up Public School Debating system with friend 09.15. Beginning of broader interest in pubic affairs. Remembers 1948 Election in Southport and 1951 election in London –growing interest in politics. Chmn of St Paul’s Debating Society. Debating/oratory essential skill for politics 10.55. Joined Twickenham Young Conservatives. 1950-55 Austerity times, tough budgets, rationing. Political views started there 13.11. Interest in school subjects also led to awareness of politics. Read J.S. Mill On Liberty –formative book 13.35. Liberal edge of Tory party. National Service –growing up period. Was a gunner instructor in Egypt–formed impression that armies of occupation can’t control a country effectively (could only control “a few square yards around the sentry box” 15.00). Describes tit-for-tat killings in Egypt. Lesson that has been forgotten since. Protégé of Iain Macleod 16.00 -took a realistic view of Empire, gave independence to former colonies –Many Tories didn’t like it. Describes standing for by election and inviting Macleod to speak; Chmn of Association complained because Macleod had welcomed the arrival of Kenyan Asians in 1968 threatened to deselect him 17.10. Went on to serve in pre-Gaddafi Libya. Liked the army, met people from all walks of life and classes –few politicians have it today –gave him insight in to society and also experience of responsibility for the men. Realised many of the men were poorly educated; volunteered as Regimental Education Officer 20.25. Describes his work. 21.00 After army went to Oxford to read History. Became more politically committed. Joined Conservative Assoc; became President. Secretary of the Union, enjoyed speaking and arguing 21.55. Tutors included AJP Taylor; loved history and literature. Remembers Gaitskell, Eden, Dalton and Attlee coming to speak (v humble man). Remembers two stirring events -1956 Russian invasion of Hungary, and Suez crisis –all study stopped for a fortnight; everyone took sides 25.00, great debates and marches. Took bet with Brian Walden, head of Labour Club, on future of Tory Party –he won, but Walden never paid. Took more active role in Macmillan’s time –became a Councillor. Decision to become politician –a libertarian, based on JS Mill. Thought Tories most effective and organized. Huge party membership then . Sat Civil Service Exam and passed, but applied to Shell Oil company -better paid – worked for 18 months in Economic Division, but decided it was not for him 28.20. Applied for job as PA to Chairman of Aquascutum; learnt about entrepreneurial business life from Jewish, Hampstead, left wing colleague Jack Sieff (?). After two years joined City Investment Firm under Peter Cannon; given a failing public company to run –learnt about obligations of business 31.20. Business and Politics –a rare combination today. Pulled company round –learnt the hard way how to run factories and businesses. At same time pursuing political career in Twickenham -as Councillor 32.55. Won seat in 1961, lost it 2 years later. Parliament still distant from him. Got onto candidates list of Party, put forward for Labour seat of Poplar – you worked your passage from Labour 1964 stood for Poplar seat to winnable seat –not “parachuted in” like today like Cameron and Osborne. 1964 stood for Poplar. Bow Group started in early 1960s in Poplar, went to their meetings and got to know area. Geoffrey Howe suggested he apply to stand. 1963 selected by local party –describes process. Wife had to come too; told that night. Had to raise money with bazaars etc. It helped to have been a councillor. Personal wealth not necessary –unlike Macmillan’s day when candidates were expected to contribute personally 36.50. Funds were raised by knocking on doors and increasing membership –old fashioned way. Many working class Tories in constituency. Got friends to help canvassing –totally safe doing it. Involved with local Housing Association – in “Geoffrey Howe vein” of trying to make things better at a local level 38.10. 1964 Election –fought and lost to Ian Mikardo –got to like him –he was the House of Commons Bookie –tells story about Mikardo keeping a book.
Mikardo’s Jewish background didn’t help him because East End was becoming more mixed with Black African and Asian population. Achieved a swing to Tories. Polling Night heavy rainstorm –heard that Khruschev had died –if he’d died two days earlier, he believes Douglas Home would have won for the sake of being “safe pair of hands” 40.45. Marginal seat came up –Acton (he has only applied for four seats in his career). Gives background to Acton by election, 1966. Didn’t win. Describes constituency. Got know seat well. Liked it, so stayed on as candidate. 1967 Sitting candidate (Bernard Floud) committed suicide –gives Floud’s background 43.00. By election in time when Harold Wilson was v unpopular –economic crisis etc. Had to decide whether he should stand –discussed it with his boss, who offered to stand by him 45.10. Spoke to wife (a teacher) who supported him. Tells story of Acton selection meeting, speaking against capital and corporal punishment to audience of constituents who included Prison Warders –they were hostile –he challenged them 48.20.
Won by election with swing of over 20% -was bound to get it due to economic crisis 1968 -“a donkey would have won”. Talks about his wife’s support. By now he had a young family. Lived in Twickenham.
Impression of Westminster, arriving via a by election –“for two days you’re a star… then you soon become one of many” 51.00. Salary £3250, no office allowances; given 1000 sheets of Parliamentary paper for free, only one free phone call to chief of local council –all else paid for –describes men in brown coats taking money at phone booths. No free postage. His boss helped him with secretarial expenses. No desks, only part time secretary -sat on bench in corridor dictating letters to her. Chamber was the centre of life –everything important happened there 53.10. You needed to make your mark between 2.30 and 6 o’clock in the Chamber -that’s when, every day, the House was full –more than today. Few committees then. MPs keen to get their speeches reported in the papers covering proceedings like the Telegraph and Guardian, or on the radio –Yesterday in Parliament –“that was fame”. Politics taken more seriously then. Admired Iain Macleod, Michael Foot, Harold Lever, Sydney Silverman, Enoch Powell –great orators 54.25. Lot of time spent in Chamber –daily attendance at Question Time. Maiden Speech –on second reading of Jenkins’ Budget -congratulated by Macleod –became a protégé. Involved in committee -the first year that a Finance Bill went from the Chamber to a committee upstairs 52.20. The great committees in those days were the Standing Committees on each Bill –they would go through every clause. Served on many of those –learnt a lot about how Parliament works. Describes Macleod’s dislike of Jenkins 57.00. Describes Macleod’s tactics e.g. over Gaming Machines tax in arcades “penny machines on piers”. Learnt about the importance of debating after midnight (pause in interview . 1.00.00 Part of team asking questions of Wilson –describes how dominant and effective he was in Commons then. Exciting times coming up to 1970 election –Tories thought they would win. Ted Heath had just won Sidney-Hobart Yacht race, and was performing better in Commons. Describes how votes took place after 10 pm on a two or three line whip, then another at 11.30 and even 1 a.m. –normal day in Commons in those days 1.02.00. People got to know each other v well –mostly in own party. Describes how members sat in party groups in the House –e.g. in Dining Room 1.02.50. Smoke Room largely Conservative, with exceptions like Michael Foot. People smoked and drank –far more drinking in those days; saw people fall down drunk in Smoke Room or be sick in Division Lobby 1.03.45. Different today –less drinking.
From experience in opposition he realized only weapon Opposition has is delay. Guillotine used v rarely then –only after a Bill had been in committee for several weeks. So there was a lot of debate then -you have to make it difficult for the government to get its legislation 1.05.00-spirit of 60s and 70s. Changed for the worse since then. Not much sympathy for the left wing things that were happening.
1968-70 Thought they would win by landslide but Wilson spent money on projects and got far ahead in the polls. . Describes campaigning in 1970 election –a speech by Heath that “turned” the election 1.08.15. Thought they were going to win –but not optimistic about his own seat: Tories won, but he lost –“not a happy bunny… swept out with the tide” 1.09.00. Had retained his business career, but had moved to Pimlico to further his political commitment –impact on wife, not so homely as Twickenham. Picked himself up and went for next by election vacancy –in Marylebone –beat Douglas Hurd and one of the McWhirter brothers to the candidacy. Got elected. PPS for Paul Bryan –the Vice Chairman who dealt with selection of candidates. Describes Bryan. 1972 Appointed by Heath to be Parliamentary Secretary in Civil Service Dept –a “dogsbody” for Heath’s own department 1.12.35. Describes being offered the job on the phone. Found out that the Permanent Secretary had dismantled his office after his predecessor (David Howell) had left - had to be reassembled. Learnt a lot as most junior Minister in Govnt 1.14.10. Dealt with original Think Tank of Victor Rothschild. Talks about great Civil Servant, Sir William Armstrong -who “ran the country with Ted”. He had come form Civil Service family –had huge respect for them and their values 1.15.00. Role of Civil Service and relationship with Ministers. Remembers Poulson scandal and enquiry1.16.20. Armstrong forecast the resignation of Home Secretary Reggie Maudling, embroiled in the scandal. Learnt about power –watched Heath, a centralist who didn’t much care for Parliament and who ran the country by Press Conferences 1.17.25. 1972 Heath made mistake of introducing Statutory Prices and Incomes Policy. Regards 1945-79 as unique self-contained period of politics and British History –i.e. running the country using powers extended from wartime, plus deals done with organized labour and the CBI 1.18.15. Succession of Prices and Income policies and planned centralised economy –destroyed three Prime Ministers (Wilson, Heath, Callaghan). Enoch Powell preached against it –his great contribution to politics. Baker was Minister who had to take Heath’s policy through the Commons –against impressive opposition. Learnt the hard way that you can’t run the country like that. 1.20.45. Three Day Week- heading onto the rocks 1.21.40. Describes difficulties of Heath’s government. Regards Ireland as “total disaster for Britain”–historically. 1973/ 4 Describes how his constituency meetings were progressively held in darkness due to power cuts. Realised defeat was likely –held his seat 1.23.23. Losing office –not worried about losing the cars etc, but structure of organized life changes overnight. Still active in business –had become interested in computing. One of his ministerial duties had been for public procurement of computers 1.24.30. Saved ICL (International Computers Ltd) from bankruptcy. Realised computing was gong to be central; gopt top know lots of software companied e.g. Logica –“the time that everything was beginning to happen”. Became Logica shareholder; got into software world as a businessman 1.25.45. Didn’t like Heath v much, could see the mistakes he was making. After Heath’s defeat he was asked to be his PPS –felt that “the ship is sinking” but agreed anhyway1.26.15. Advised Heath to have an immediate leadership election –was ignored. Attended Shadow Cabinet meetings )”and absolute hoot”) and heard the growing voice of Thatcher and people like Sir Keith Joseph. Another Heath mistake was to make Thatcher number 2 to Robert Carr (Shadow Chancellor); she shone -her breakthrough Feb-Oct 1974. Heath heading to the precipice. Regards Heath and Gordon Brown as two people who were temperamentally unsuited to be Prime Minister 1.29.00. 1974 Election. Baker had kept his relationship with constituency going, monthly surgeries, worked the party well.
Potential conflicts between politics and business. 1.31.25. When he became a Minister, he sold all his shares in the company he’d turned round. As Minister under Thatcher he put his Logica shares into a Blind Trust. 1974-81 A Backbencher -Thatcher regarded him as a Heath-ite and wouldn’t appoint him to any post. Could have given up and made a lot of money –not his prime motivation. Was active in industry, especially in new industries -computing and telephony- learnt a lot 1.33.00. In 1968 had tabled first amendment to Post Office Bill to privatise British Telecom. Wife had a major business career –helped a lot. He became a member of influential Economic Dining Club –Thatcher and Enoch Powell, Nick Ridley (and others)were members –Centre Right. Met for supper in each other’s homes –Thatcher gave them Shepherds’s pie and peas. Discussed Right Wing economic measures e.g. sell off of industries. Influential on Thatcher’s thinking. Also member of One Nation Club –Centre Left (regarded by Thatcher as “bunch of traitors”). They issued pamphlets. Liked clubs and discussion groups –politics were more convivial then 1.36.00. You spent more time in politics the. Today MPs regard themselves as Welfare Officers in their constituencies working in Westminster only from Monday to Wednesday evening 1.36.40. A greater corporate sense of Politics then. Too much legislation now. Governments too busy trying to do things. Need for more good government and good opposition –more politics.
Interview pauses 1.38.29 and does not resume (building was evacuated due to Fire Alarm).
In 1968 whe he first became MP, House of Commons was more important place in society –all the broadsheet papers gave whole page to previous day’s debate. 00.30. Disappeared now; little coverage for Backbenchers today unless attacking leadership. Coverage has been replaced by satirical commentators –serious loss. 01.18 Televised Parliament is a minority interest. Many backbench MPs live life of total obscurity unless they are raucous. People selected to go on TV and Radio are Ministers/shadow/ex-ministers. –not backbenchers. Only evening sitting later than 7pm is Monday. In his day there might be 4 late sittings –to full houses 03.30. Tells anecdote about Enoch Powell and the value of using late debates to tire out Ministers and win concessions. Late night sittings meant a more collegiate culture in the House –e.g. you talked to people over dinner 04.20. Today dining room is empty. More togetherness and camaraderie then –even between members of different parties. Today it’s more separated. Describes an MPs routine today 05.00. Use of the Guillotine -in his day he learnt about politics by serving on Standing committees of Bills –going through every page. The Commons no longer does that –the Lords receives bills from the Commons with large sections un-debated. 06.30 MPs get back to constituencies to fulfill the role of ill-trained social workers. Quotes Duncan Sandys 06.44 –rarely visited Streatham constituency. MPS need to contribute to national debate.
07.25 Good thing is that Select Committees have become important in holding departments to account –newsworthy –e.g. Margaret Hodge and Public Accounts Cmtee. Patronage of Whips holds no sway there –Whips’ power has fallen away 08.30 –difficulties controlling House. Gives example of Chris Patten appearing before Media and Culture Ctee and being treated with contempt by “Mr Price from Yorkshire, MP for Selby” (Note: actually Philip Davies MP for Shipley). Lots of people now not “on-message”. Many MPs not learnt art of interviewing –landing the killer blow 10.21 skilled art as practiced eg by Paxman. 11.20 The Chamber has got less significant therefore oratory has got less significant. Change in Party organisation –smaller membership; conferences used to be real debates.
12.25 MPS could make their name between 2.30 and 5 pm -when it all happened. Made a good speech and became a protégé of Iain Macleod –a lift to his career. Rare nowadays –you have to make a mark at PMQT 13.50. Advice to today’s MPs to get onto a good Select Ctee.
14.40 Great orators of his time –Michael Foot; quotes Ian Macleod –“small choice amongst rotten apples”. Well-read people then. Sense of history; Labour movement was steeped in history 16.45, and Tories too. Reading Macmillan diaries 17.15–struck by how many countries we were dealing with then; our role in the world today has shrunk –even in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. Power has gone from House of Commons to Scotland and Wales 18.55. Issues like Housing, Planning, Health have gone to the Nations; what are Scottish MPs doing in Westminster? Huge amount of power gone to Strasbourg and Brussels too, reducing the significance of the Commons and MPs 19.50. Dissipation of Govnt power too – as a minister for Thatcher he had power over nationalised industries eg prices, wages, pensions etc –all that has now gone to privatised companies. 20.35. Patronage in rewarding ex Ministers with chairmanships has also gone.
Story of trip to Hong Kong with Julian Amery. Reflections on how we’ve adjusted to loss of power as a nation –rather well 22.15. Occasionally great PMs like Thatcher allow you to punch above your weight.
23.00 He privatised British Telecom –showed how it could be done. Changes of Thatcher years –little in 1979 manifesto about privatization. Describes background to how he approached privatisation. Refers back to earlier time as backbencher moving an amendment to John Stonehouse’s bill. In 1981 he made proposal for privatising telecommunications to Sir Keith Joseph –went down well. Took three years to get through. Other nations couldn’t understand how telecoms could be privatized 26.20. Once it had been done with telecoms you could do it with gas, water etc –and the other countries followed suit. Removed a large part of the economy from Govnt influence 27.20. All the National Plans disappeared; started to break up union power. Ministers no longer approved the price of a stamp. Much less power in Govnt today 28.45. Margaret wanted to disperse power. He did the same in Education. There’s more that could be done.
30.25 In 1979 he was first regarded as a Heath-ite and kept out in cold. She needed him by 1981 and gave him Minister of State job –had become knowledgeable about IT. Tebbitt had all the sunset industries –steel, coal; he had the sunrise industries 32.10. Enjoyed running things –had business background.
33.08 Went on to do Local Govnt –to take on Ken Livingstone “Blue Ken and Red Ken”. Enjoyed abolishing GLC and ILEA, became better known. Then became Education Secretary 1986 –had greatest influence there 34.15. Describes his time there. Thought that Thatcher would tell him what to do. Was instructed to settle Teachers strike –took union negotiating rights away by law and set up body to determine teachers pay –draconian stuff. Apart from that Thatcher let him come up with his own ideas –e.g. independent Technical schools, transferring budgets to schools, National Curriculum. Philosophy was to move power from hub to the rim. Thinks Thatcher felt guilty about signing death warrant of many Grammar schools –persuaded by department to support Comprehensive education. Therefore left him to sort out the mess of administration. She had fixed views on the content of education –English, Maths and Science. They had lively and angry debates over curriculum 39.20. Explains how he devised English curriculum –over-rode committee of experts. Similar battles over Maths and History. Margaret never minded if you debated with her when well informed and putting good arguments -would crush people she thought were not up to it. 41.20 He always kept smiling with her. Describes how he managed Thatcher. 42.40 Always did his homework. Thatcher’s secret weapon –her hairdresser in Croydon who told her horrendous stories their children’s school 43.10. She was v well briefed –by Cabinet Office, from her political advisors and perhaps also from the Cabinet Minister –she read them all. She also used to produce scrape of paper from her handbag with a point made to her by