Hagley Road interviews Norman Baker MP, author of "The Strange Death of David Kelly"
According to the stereotype, MPs are a collection of spineless, boring and samey individuals. After the squalid 10-year-long display offered by most Labour Party MPs under Messiah Tony, it's now quite difficult to argue against that. Whether it was the Iraq war, tuition fees or foundation hospitals, one of the few certainties of life became that the House of the Unrepresentatives would vote against people's wishes. Yet, it must be said that not all MPs are the same and laudable exceptions do exist. And when they do, they come in the guise of one Norman Baker, MP for Lewes, Sussex, since 1997, a man with an enviable record of tireless investigations into the privileges and expenses of Westminster. One who would probably be called "a pain in the arse" by fellow parliamentarians reluctant to scrutiny and transparency. Most recently, Norman Baker embarked upon an almost solitary battle to shed light on one of the most disgraceful moments of recent British history, the death of weapons inspector David Kelly. You can read this blog's review of Norman Baker's book The Strange Death of David Kelly here. The topic was too interesting to pass over the chance of asking Mr Baker some questions and the Lewis MP kindly decided to spare a pleasant fifteen minutes.
As I was researching for this I found out you used to work as a teacher.
As I was researching for this I found out you used to work as a teacher.
I did! Mainly in Eastbourne, but sometimes in Brighton too. I used to teach groups of Swedes. Any advice? Well, teaching Swedish girls…it was a good job, I did it in between other things when I was waiting for my politics to take off.
What triggered your interest in the Dr Kelly controversy to the point of writing a book?
I think it was obviously a sensational death. Newspapers and tabloids were on about it all the time and it grabbed my attention like everyone else's. So I waited for Lord Hutton's inquiry to be completed. Rather naïvely of me, because when the report came out it became apparent it had completely failed to investigate his death, as it spent most of its time analysing the row between the BBC and the government. Then what happened was that letters from medical experts started appearing in the press saying it was impossible for Dr Kelly to have died like that. In July 2006 I published an article on The Mail on Sunday. I had the largest response to anything I've done since becoming an MP. Literally, hundreds of letters of support. In fact, all bar two were supportive. Some people sent me statements or pieces of evidence that Lord Hutton hadn’t used. So I thought that writing a book would be the most sensible way to go about it.
Was relevant evidence actually being sent to you?
Some stuff they sent seemed to be. Yes.
Last year The Independent called you "the most hated man in Westminster". Surely you can wear that as a badge of honour…
Well, it was interesting because, in spite of the title, the article was actually positive. On the other hand you had the Daily Mail headlining "Britain's greatest MP". But neither are true. It's not a question of black or white. In a sense how you describe me is not relevant to things I campaign on. I don’t do it to improve my public image.
How sympathetic - or hostile- was the climate at Westminster throughout the time you spent gathering evidence for your book?
People were instinctively uncomfortable about it. Maybe sceptical, but what I showed them for many years was objective statements. As Matthew Parris said I'm usually right in what I'm doing and people recognise that. I was right on the Millennium Dome, I was right on Mandelson, I was right on Campbell and then climate change. Earlier on people disagreed but I was then vindicated by the way events turned out.
You mentioned quite a few disturbing episodes that occurred while you were writing. For instance, when the hard drive on your PC was completely erased. Did you ever feel you were treading on murky territory? Did you fear for your own safety?
Well, what I tried to do in the book was to make sure I didn’t overegg the pudding. If you overegg the pudding, that's easiest way to be rubbished. I haven’t written anything to exactly say that there was a direct connection. I just described what happened. But, you know, it may be entirely innocuous and coincidental and I have no evidence to the contrary. That's what I wrote in the book. Did I fear for my safety? Well, you do what you think is right. You can cross the road and get runover and you can't live like that. The best defence in any such situation is to keep a high profile in the papers, therefore if anything happens then at least it's in the public view.
So you don’t have any protection as an MP? A police escort or something?
A Ford Escort, more like.
It's quite puzzling that Dr Kelly's wife, Janice, has kept such a low profile since the start of the whole controversy. Why do you think that is…and did you try to contact her?
I don’t want to hurt anybody's sensitivity therefore I don’t think it's appropriate to go into what I did or I didn’t in relation with Janice Kelly. As I wrote in my book, there are members of the family who were unhappy with the verdict and you may be aware of that. As with Mrs Kelly and her actions, it's all in the book.
Similarly, Ruth Absalom, the last person who allegedly spoke to David Kelly before his disappearance, gave a fairly muddled statement to the Hutton inquiry. Did you manage to track her down?
Yes and no. I found out where she's living but she's got Alzheimers or similar debilitating illness which means she was unable to contribute. I suppose in retrospect it may have started at that point already. I spoke to relatives, but no, they couldn’t shed any light.
Britain seems to have remarkable ability to sweep most relevant questions under the carpet - perhaps I dare say in a way other countries haven’t. The endless post 7/7 spirit-of-the-blitz rhetoric was a typical example of weapons of mass distraction. In the light of Lord Hutton's whitewash, what's your view?
I would say this. Any society which functions properly as a democratic society needs certain safeguards. To begin with, in this country there is too much centralised power. Also, you need a system of freedom of information. Thirdly, a system of accountability for the government of the day so that if they cover something up it should be found out. We haven’t got that. A lot of info in my book came from the US. Though faulty they have congress hearing and you can get to bottom of some issues. I mean, Nixon was subject to impeachment and we that simply wouldn’t happen here. It was quite clear that many people thought Blair lied but nothing happened.
I mean, I find it incredible that a war can be unleashed on what soon turn out to be a pack of lies and no political consequences take place. I mean, look at what happened to Aznar in Spain in 2004…would that take place in Britain? I don’t think so…
I think… sometimes if you wanna tell a lie just tell a big one.
I thought your book was incredibly analytical in the way cases were put forward. Only, in the last chapter, you seem to give some credit to the Iraqi element theory, yet quite without a great deal of evidence. Did you find out more than you were allowed to publish?
Yes [chuckles]. There were two constraining facts. There's the issue of libel and my publishers advised me to drop a few things from my book. Secondly, in the last chapter I refer to one particular source, and a great deal of what he told me had to be removed in order to protect his identity and safety.
Amongst the many reviews of your book I've looked at, The Times' David Aaronovitch was dishearteningly dismissive. Personally I don’t even think he read your book. For one, he glossed over the fact that under one tablet of Copraxamol was found inside Kelly's body, whereas the official version spoke of 29 tablets. Now, I know in ten years he's never written a critical word, not a single one, about the Blair government, but whatever happened to investigative journalism?
Investigative journalism is alive and kicking. Well, ok, not alive and kicking, perhaps more on a life support machine in fact. There's a book, 'Flat Earth News', written by one of my constituents, Nick Davies, analysing the weaknesses of the press. There are indeed plenty of good journalists out there, Anthony Barnett from The Observer, for example, and one or two papers who have the time or money to do it. The Sunday Times does it, the Mail on Sunday does it…they have got time and money. But the worst journalists are those who betray their profession by simply acting as promoters for those in power. What [Aaronovitch] wrote was a pre-emptive strike. At the time of his article, the book hadn’t even been published.
But perhaps he got hold of sample copies, you know…made available to the press prior to publishing dates?
No, no, there was no such thing! He just read one or two extracts from the Daily Mail and that was it!
Has the LibDems' policy on Iraq changed in any way since the election of Nick Clegg as leader?
No, it hasn’t. We want to get out. We’re doing no good in Iraq and we need to extract ourselves as soon as possible. That's what the public as large has said to me. The picture coming out from those days is one of a totally discredited government who behaved disgracefully and with no control from within the [Labour] party. Then we had a Tory party who at the time was totally out of touch and unable to form any coherent policy. So the only people against the war were us. In fact, every single Liberal Democrat MP voted against the war in the Commons.
In the book you also hint at the possibility that Tony Blair was left with no choice with regard to Iraq. He appeared disconcertingly eager to please the Bush administration. Apart from losing political capital what else could he have been scared of?
He put himself into a corner where he thought he could be very clever. He thought he could do what Bush wanted by agreeing to the war in 2002, so long before the war actually started. Secondly, he was still of the opinion he could get the UN Security Council to authorise it. That way he could get cover and still please Bush. But things went down a different route, so Blair ended up tied to Bush's wagon and unable to separate himself. He played his cards rather badly and things went different from what he wanted. Again, one section of the book had to be edited out but the question you can still read is basically: "If the US had info which, if released, would have caused Blair to resign, in what way would he have behaved differently from how he did."
Some people are pointing out that they were right all along as the number of casualties in Iraq is now decreasing. But what pisses me off is that if you show a bit of realism you're deemed a Cassandra who's going against the grain. This from the people who declared victory 5 years ago and are still bogged down.
I mean, fatalities are decreasing only because they were at such a horrendously high figure but they are still a high figure. The whole Iraq escapade has been a total disaster for UK policies across the world, for the UK's image in the world, as we are now seen as an adjunct to the US. Secondly, it's damaged Iraq, it's in such a mess, and it may as well splinter into two. Saddam was a ghastly grotesque maniac but he held the country together. Now it's falling apart, especially into the two Sunni and Shia entities. It's also damaging US interests because if you want to pour petrol on the flame then that's exactly what's been happening. Radical Islamism has been escalating to a point we didn’t have before.