Wednesday 22 December 2010

Is Norman Baker the new Helen Suzman?

This blog has been sympathetic to Vince Cable and other LibDem ministers caught in the Daily Telegraph's sting spectacular.

But we shall have to draw the line at Norman Baker MP, minister of the Crown despite being one of life's natural backbenchers, among those LibDem ministers to make private comments which get pretty personal, about David Cameron and George Osborne in particular.

Thursday's Telegraph reports that Norman Baker felt the big political decision in May was whether to model himself on Nelson Mandela or Helen Suzman:

He said: “I always think in South African terms, should you be Nelson Mandela, outside the system, campaigning for it to be changed, or should you be Helen Suzman, who’s my … one of my political heroes actually.”

“Helen Suzman was in the apartheid regime when everybody was male and white and horrible actually … she got stuck in there in the South African parliament in the apartheid days as the only person there to oppose it … she stood up and championed that from inside.”

He added: “You do get your hands dirty by dealing with things you don’t want to do, and sometimes you get results which aren’t quite what you want. But the issue we have to make, the calculation in coalition, is we have to make as a coalition is do we get stuff that we do want which outweighs some of the stuff we don’t want, and that’s the reality of it.”

This is surely gratuitously offensive to the Prime Minister and his Conservative colleagues from any Parliamentarian, still less a serving minister.

Politial opponents can find many faults with this government's agenda - but it does not parallel the South African apartheid regime.

If Baker does think that this tasteless analogy is in any way valid, it is completely baffling that he would endorse LibDem participation in the Coalition, still less choose to serve as a Minister himself.

David Cameron has moved the Conservative party a long way on race - and that is something political opponents should be happy to recognise and welcome.

When he was a young Tory researcher, David Cameron may have been unfortunately somewhat unreflective on the issue of South Africa, going on a freebie trip there in 1989. But Margaret Thatcher's opposition to sanctions against South Africa is one of the few aspects of the Thatcher record he has publicly repudiated and apologised for.

Cameron's overall record on race - particularly in opening up the Tory party = has been creditable. (It also gives the currently all-white LibDem benches in the Commons something to catch up with).

Of course, Helen Suzman was a Parliamentary opponent of the apartheid regime: she didn't work and vote for it. As the sole principled parliamentary opponent of apartheid for well over a decade, to say that she was "in the apartheid regime" is inaccurate and offensive to her and the anti-apartheid movement too. (It is the equivalent of saying that "Michael Foot was in the Thatcher regime").

So Baker has provided by far the least coherent of all of the arguments for and against LibDem participation in the Coalition.


There are some interesting problems of collective responsibility arising from these candid comments.

The doctrine surely means that Ed Davey - if he can not get housing policy changed - must either stand on his head and say he no longer thinks the policy "completely without logic" - or resign.

A rather clearer case of hypocrisy can be laid at the door of LibDem minister and deputy leader of the House David Heath.

Mr Heath and Mr Baker also publicly admit that they oppose the rise in tuition fees, despite voting in favour of the policy in the recent crucial Commons vote. “I’m still wholly against,” Mr Heath said. “I’ll say it perfectly openly, I’m wholly against tuition fees.”

Mr Baker added: “Well, it is a big shock and it’s a big shock to me and I almost resigned over the matter, on that particular one because it was just pretty horrific.”

Again, collective ministerial responsibility surely demands an (insincere) recantation - or a resignation. In any event. the willingness to speak against a policy one is voting for is deeply corrosive of political trust.


anubeon said...

I think you're reading far to much into Norman Bakers comments. He appears to be using apartheid era politics as an analogy contrasting insider and outsider politics rather than as a dig at his Conservative colleagues.

Certainly his choice of analogy is colourful, but it may simply have been the only cogent analogy he could think of at the time. That he professes he is an admirer of Helen Suzman would seem to support this; he chose an political exemplar of which he was particularly aware. The fact that, that exemplar happened to inhabit a controversial political landscape (apartheid) may simply be coincidence.

Only the most paranoid and/or prejudicial of persons would read what you have quoted as a direct (or even guarded) comparison of the Conservatives with the (former) apartheid regime in South Africa.

T.N.T. said...

I don't have a problem with Norman Baker comparing the Conservative-led govt with the apartheid regime. Any means of getting the point across that does the job is fine with me. This govt is just promoting an apartheid of rich and poor rather than skin colour - for example with its housing benefit reforms.

I do find it somewhat odd that Baker continues to serve in the govt if he believes this but is it any odder than (say) Tony Benn staying in the 1974-9 Labour government? Or the Tory Wets in the 1980s? Or Clare Short in Tony Blair's administration? Not really. The fact is that the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility means that unless one is a mindless automaton who agrees with every aspect of govt policy (and to be fair, increasing numbers of ministers are) then you are compelled to be a hypocrite if you serve in any UK government. If we got rid of collective cabinet responsibility - which IMHO is a daft idea anyway - it might help ministers speak their mind a bit more. I don't see why someone needs to support every single govt policy to serve in the govt, even under a single-party administration, much less a coalition.

Sunder Katwala said...


I hear the point. I agree with you about the socially segregating effects of the government's housing policy. The emotional/polemical description 'social apartheid' might be a valid way to dramatise/challenge this segregating policy, though I personally would avoid it. But that doesn't make this an aparheid regime, and I think that general point is considerably more offensive.

On the housing segregation by income and class, I would much prefer to use analogies with the Parisian suburbs, gated communities, and (perhaps over-dramatically) the social stratification of Dickensian London, or (most accurately) the electoral gerrymandering of Shirley Porter. It is a horible policy - but it simply isn't the equivalent of racial segregation by law in the US South pre-1964, or apartheid South Africa, or ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.


I don't think it was paranoid or prejudicial. Its a stupid as well as crass analogy. And I think the contentious context is part of his point.

In any event, the analogy is totally hopeless as an insider/outsider dilemma for LDs: should we join the Coalition.

Suzman is a fierce Parliamentary opponent of apartheid: the question is 'should you take up representation' if massively outnumbered by supporters of a system you detest.

Meanwhile, Mandela has an 'outsider' strategy - not least because he can neither vote nor stand for election, because of his race, and because all of the democratic organisations he would be part of and allied to are proscribed by law. Also because he was then jailed indefinitely (for 26 years in the end) when he was involved in direct action, facing a treason charge which carried the death penalty. Had a credible 'insider' strategy been available to him, we do not know what he had done.

But neither were offered or refused a 'serve in government with [democratic] opponents choice like that of the LibDems in May 2010. Had the LibDems gone for 'supply and confidence' or opposition, that would not make Norman Baker Nelson Mandela either.

(There might be other analogies from authoritarian regimes - eg Dubcek/Nagy in Poland/Hungary, or reformers in the pre-Gorbachev USSR or China now. These would still, in my view, be tasteless and silly - but they would at least have the feature of "should you choose to hold power within a government you oppose).