Michael Barber on Baker revisited

31st May 1996 at 01:00
I remember meeting Kenneth Baker on two or three formal deputations when he was Secretary of State for Education in the late 1980s - twice when I was Labour chairman of education in the London borough of Hackney and once as an official of the National Union of Teachers. He would sit with his back to the windows in a large room on the 14th floor of the old DES near Waterloo station. Behind him through the panoramic windows one could see the London skyline. Inside the room Baker, always immaculately dressed, swatted away our best efforts to put whatever the case happened to be.

He managed to appear to be listening without ever seeming terribly interested, still less moved. When he had heard enough, he would re-state government policy in that smooth, lucid manner of his, outline the minor adjustments that his officials might now consider as a result of the discussion and thank us for our attendance. It was all very polished and you left feeling slightly inadequate and wondering, what impact if any, you had made. It was never much fun.

So why did I want to go back and interview him? Partly because I'm a sucker for anniversaries. Most of all though, I want to know how policy is made: the real grubby story of accident and argument, conflict and contingency. People with their hands still on the levers of power are constrained and people who have been out of power too long are deceived by their own memories. Kenneth Baker in 1996, I thought, was perfectly poised between the two and so it turned out.

I had thought of him as shallow, as a good presenter of policy in public. What struck me forcibly during this interview was the sheer strength of his political instincts. Whatever one thinks about the reforms he introduced, there is no doubt that such a revolutionary package required a minister of rare political talent and in Baker they found one. The comparison with his three predecessors - Williams, Carlisle and Joseph - who achieved remarkably little - and his three successors - Clarke, MacGregor and Patten who stumbled and fell, simply reinforces the point.

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