Baker, Kenneth (1 of 2). The History of Parliament Oral History Project
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Interviewee’s office, London
Baker, Kenneth, 1934- (speaker, male)
Greenwood, Mike, 1959- (speaker, female)
Part 1: [Session one: 12 June 2012] Didn’t come form 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 bye lection 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 enquiry [1.16.20]. 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 anyway [1.26.15]. 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).
Life story interview with Lord Kenneth Baker (1934-), former Conservative Member of Parliament.