Norman Baker

I have enjoyed reading Against the Grain, the memoirs of Norman Baker, the former Lib Dem MP and Minister. There was a great deal of (unintentional?) humour.

The volume also covers Mr Baker’s career in local government.

We begin with our hero securing election to Lewes District Council. He was not happy with the chief executive’s choice of furniture:

“He would sit in a high-backed swivel chair at meetings of the chief officers. It was the only such chair in the room. It was also the seat used by the Lib Dem group leader, David Bellotti, to chair group meetings.

I disliked this chair and the hierarchy it shouted out, and resolved to get rid of it if I ever got the chance.”

Before long Cllr Baker felt he would have a chance to make his mark but it proved a false dawn:

“I was asked at one point by a Conservative if I would be the Liberal representative on the Cinematographic Licensing sub-committee. There were three members, he explained, and proportionality required that there be two Conservatives and one Liberal. He further explained, in response to my question, that the sub-committee’s job was to decide whether films should be approved for screening in the district.

This sounded like fun, and I readily agreed. It was only afterwards that I found out that there was no cinema in the district and that the sub-committee had never met.”

Later when he was elected to East Sussex County Council there was a more substantive reward:

“I discovered, with the kind of delight that comes from receiving an unexpected present, that the county council was a member of the Assembly of European Regions and that I was, by dint of my position on the sub-committee, the official representative.

Indeed, I appeared to be vice-chair of the Tourism Committee.”

Ah ha! Free trips:

“My favourite time was when the French decided that the next meeting should be on Réunion Island. Réunion is a département in the Indian Ocean, close to Madagascar.

“It had been unoccupied by humans until 1638, when the French moved in. One of the first things they did was to shoot all the native birds, so birds are a rarity on the island now.

The journey there was terrible – a long trip in economy from Paris, stuck between two fat people with screaming children behind me.

The island itself was fabulous, though, particularly the interior, where people were speaking a kind of Creole. We had the chance to visit an area where vanilla pods were growing, and to taste various vanilla-based products, also fabulous. How anyone can call vanilla ice cream ‘plain’ is beyond me.”

But while everyone else just enjoyed the junket, Cllr Baker says:

“As for the business, we certainly had an agenda and passed resolutions, but I was never very clear what happened to them or whether they had any impact anywhere.

“The decisions, insofar as any were required, tended to be reached the night before the meeting over dinner or in the bar, and when, at my first meeting, I moved an amendment on the day, the others present seemed to think that this was not only rather peculiar but not quite cricket, or whatever the equivalent is in non-cricket-playing countries.”

This patronage still exists. The European Union still provides an array of free travel and special allowances for these various committee. That is a perk which is valued by those given the chance to indulge. How will those councillors be campaigning in the EU referendum? That scale of the EU’s involvement with the political class at all levels is an example of the scale of the challenge for the campaign to leave that organisation that has so many in its pay.

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