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‘Power is a disgusting, awful thing’ — Steve Baker MP interviewed

by
29 April 2022

The senior Conservative backbench MP emerged as a key critic of Boris Johnson in last week’s Commons exchanges (News, 22 April). Huw Spanner interviewed him in February. Read the full 7300-word interview here

Andrew Firth

Steve Baker MP in his office at Portcullis House, Westminster

Steve Baker MP in his office at Portcullis House, Westminster

HS: People were startled when, on the floor of the House of Commons back in November, you referred to Britains response to the pandemic as a fundamental choice between heading towards heaven and heading towards hell. Did you really mean that?

SB: The preceding day, I’d had lunch with [the psychologist] Jordan Peterson, and [I asked him why] he often uses spiritual language. He explained that, in some of the things he deals with, only spiritual language will do to describe the gravity of the situation.

And I thought: “OK, I’m a Christian, I’ll give it a whirl.” And it was quite effective!

It keys into the sentiments of people like Ronald Reagan, who said in his “A time for choosing” speech — which I absolutely adore — “There is no left and right, there’s only up or down.”

I genuinely do believe that, whether it’s as individuals or as a government, each choice we make every day is a choice between things getting better and things getting worse.

Which societies do you see as being further on the road to heaven than us?

I hadn’t really thought of things in those terms. I suppose [that] when I look at who does better than us on the Legatum Institute’s prosperity index, there’s no getting away from it, some of them are better countries to live in. I think Norway and New Zealand probably are, as it were, more heavenly than us.

You said youre a Christian. Can you say what kind of Christian?

I like to think of myself as a “mere Christian”, as C. S. Lewis put it. I’ve attended a Pentecostal church, an Evangelical church; but, for the past 14 years, I’ve been in a Baptist church which [offers] a sort of Spirit-led British reserve, as it were — and I’m comfortable with that.

Was there a particular point in your life when you embraced that faith?

I remember at primary school being invited to pray that Jesus should come into my life, and I did, and he did; but it was several years later, when my parents were going through their divorce, that I really turned to God. I was probably 14. I was baptised by full immersion [in the sea] and confirmed.

I’ve been a failed Christian at times, and backslidden and picked myself up; but now my faith has been tested and I’m not going to be walking away.

Your first career was as an aeronautical engineer. You told an interviewer recently: I had to think extremely hard about joining the RAF, and you referred to the organised use of violence for a purpose. Why did you decide that, as a Christian, it was OK to join the armed forces?

I started reading [up on] what Communism was all about, and I came to the conclusion that actually, if our values are worth anything, sometimes you do have to kill to maintain them — sometimes on a mass scale. I mean, we had to fight the Second World War — we had to stand alone, and it was worth standing alone. It was worth deciding we’d rather resist to the uttermost.

These days, I have to say, I’m almost a pacifist, but not quite. I do believe in just war, I believe in a strong defence; but I absolutely do not want us setting out to solve problems by the use of armed force. One of the reasons I got into politics was to vote against war.

I certainly think we ought not to have gone into Iraq or Afghanistan. I voted for [military intervention in] Libya, with a very heavy heart, because of what we were told was going to happen in Benghazi; but I regretted it afterwards.

Your opposition to the EU is not just intellectual; its quite visceral, isnt it?

My visceral objection is to unaccountable power. That’s why I joined the armed forces: in order to keep power under control, even if it costs us our lives. People roll their eyes at me when I say things like that, but, actually, we ought not to live our lives under unaccountable power. Power has no legitimacy other than that given to it by the people by voting.

It is to me absolutely intolerable to have a European Commission that you neither elect nor can dismiss peacefully at the ballot box. Karl Popper said: “I . . . call the type of government which can be removed without violence ‘democracy’, and the other, ‘tyranny’.” That is where I’m visceral.

In the first General Election you voted in, in 1983, you voted Liberal Democrat. The Lib Dems got almost one fifth of the national vote, but only 20 seats in the House of Commons. One cant really say that Britain is a fully functioning democracy, can one?

Oh, no, I totally disagree with that!

Its actually quite hard for us to dismiss a government. In 2005, Labour held on to power with only 35.2 per cent of the vote.

Democracy is thoroughly imperfect — the truth is that there aren’t any good ways of doing it.

I think the problem I have as a Christian libertarian — because that’s truly my politics — is that you end up not really believing in power at all. I don’t like power, I despise it. That’s one of the reasons why I’m different to all the other boys and girls.

The big story of the Bible is that power is never going to work to set society right. Again, I feel passionately about this. Politicians use power to try and set society right, [but] that’s not what Jesus did. He made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem in order to die. He wasn’t the kind of Messiah that was expected — and yet he had total victory through his death and resurrection.

That’s the story, right? In the beginning, God gives the Israelites the law, and yet even the ten most basic rules, people can’t keep. The prophets spend all their time crying out to the people to turn back to God and obey the law, but they don’t.

And then Christ comes, and does what he does. Hebrews 7.18ff confirms this big story that the law is never going to set society right. It’s “set aside because it’s weak and useless”, and “a better hope is introduced”.

Here I am again, as a politician, preaching the gospel — and in a sense I’m fed up with it. How does it fall to me to take this risk? Because it is a risk. Sitting here as a Conservative MP talking to you about the big story of the Bible is a fantastically huge risk. Look what happened to Tim Farron! Why on earth have I got to do it? Well, because I’m under a command to do it. The Bible tells me that I’m to give the reason for the hope that I have whenever I’m asked, and so I do.

Now, that’s not to say that I totally reject political power, because [Romans 13.1-5] also tells me that power is instituted by God for the benefit of the people. But I do struggle.

Its almost a truism in the Bible that whatever most people think best is foolish and will end in tears. The will of the people is not a positive thing. Isnt democracy suspect from a Christian point of view?

I’m grinning, because I love this question. I would refer anyone to 1 Samuel 8, where the Israelites demand a king, and God tells them what a king will be like. He would take one tenth of their possessions in taxes. Can you believe it? A tenth! Give me a break!

I’m absolutely clear [that] God is a libertarian as well as an absolute monarchist — there’s no other explanation for why he lets us do what we do. He must believe in freedom, even though it comes at the most extraordinary price to leave us free to choose.

We turned away from him — and once you’ve [done that] and said you’re going to make your own decisions, we end up where we are, and we’ve got to run around messing about with democracy and politics and all the nonsense we see going on in [Westminster] every day, with people struggling for status and power.

If you’re asking me about the big cosmic story — to go much further than a politician really should — there’s only one question in politics or religion, and that is: to what extent power can be used to make society right? And God’s answer is: it cant be used to set society right, and that’s why Jesus came.

Well, that’s got really massive implications for the world. Should we have PR or first-past-the-post? It’s not relevant from a Christian point of view, because we’re doing it wrong anyway. We’re not supposed to be living under a democratic system, we’re supposed to be living a free life, under God as king, obeying his laws.

But that doesn’t work; so (from a real-world point of view) I am required to be where I am: a pragmatic classical liberal who muddles forward as best I can.

Why is it necessary to be a classical liberal?

When I got the phone call to tell me I was invited to the meeting in Wycombe [to select the Conservative parliamentary candidate] — two years to the day after I prayerfully decided to seek election — I was on my way to a conference in Salamanca, where the Thomists first wrote their systematic treatises on society based on reason and theology. The system of ideas that they came up with was classical liberalism of the kind I follow.

The first speaker was a monk speaking in Spanish. I didn’t know any Spanish. but I understood that his heart was breaking for the poor. And he was blaming the state, and I thought: I am never, ever resiling from a classical-liberal Christianity, because it’s right. It’s God’s way.

But I have to say at this point: I’m absolutely sure that everything I believe can be justified from secular principles and from historical experience. I don’t require the Bible to believe what I believe and do what I do. I’m very clear that I would never vote [for] or advocate a policy purely based on scripture.

Andrew FirthSteve Baker MP in his office at Portcullis House, Westminster. The political cartoon on his wall shows Boris Johnson tempted by angels and devils

You talk a lot about the freedom to choose. The principal choice that many people are faced with at the moment is whether to feed their children or heat their homes.

It’s terrible, but it’s the fault of the state. Anybody who thinks the problems we have stem from government being too small and intervening too little, taxing too little, borrowing too little, spending too little — or having money that’s too sound — anybody who thinks thats the source of our difficulties has not acquainted themselves with the data.

We have spent over a century since the 1911 National Insurance Act believing in the omnipotence of the state. We have spent and spent and spent, beyond the limits of taxation, which is why we’ve had so many deficits and very few surpluses. We’ve now got taxation at historic levels — I believe beyond the limit at which taxation can be sustained.

The idea that we’ve borrowed too little is a joke. And the idea [that] money has been too sound when we’ve had interest rates deliberately slammed to the floor to facilitate credit expansion, followed up by getting on for £1 trillion of [quantitative easing], and people seriously want to tell me that the problems we have arise from the free market! It’s a terrible indictment of the philosophy we’ve had for 100 years of state power.

Englands rivers are polluted by raw sewage. Thats not because government is too big, is it?

Well, there is a plan to sort it out.

But why did it arise in the first place?

It arose because we’ve ended up with a population growing far beyond the capacity of the sewage system, and as a result, when it rains. . .

Its nothing to do with private companies taking billions out of the system?

We can go to and fro about all of this; but historical experience [shows] that wherever socialism is seriously tried — the nationalisation of the means of production — the fruit of that system is impoverishment and misery and tyranny and mass murder.

And it’s always the same. It always makes the world a worse place. It makes the world a more polluted place.

Some really lovely Christian people who want to make the world a better place read Acts 2[.44ff] and think therefore we should have socialism. But we have to use our reason.

The problem is that socialism is, in the end, always an attempt to co-ordinate society using power and decree. It is necessarily a doctrine of absolute force, and that is why it fails: it’s not compatible with the world as it is.

Even in Acts, two people ended up killed over socialism. They wouldn’t comply, and they end up being killed for it!

By the Holy Spirit, apparently.

The reason I’m so frank about these things is [because] I believe this system is heading into collapse. Politicians believe in the omnipotence of the state, and make promises they can’t honestly fund out of taxation, because people now live a lot longer and are having fewer children.

The Office for Budget Responsibility shows us that, in my lifetime, the welfare state will default on its promises. And that’s a very bad thing, but it’s not because government’s taxing too little.

Many people see Jesus as a woolly-liberal figure, but he himself said: I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. Where do you think his teachings most strongly challenge our society?

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount. I mean, “Love even your enemies,” which is something I try to live out — which might contribute to why [in 2020] I got a Civility in Public Life award. The single most challenging thing in life, I find as a politician, is to forgive and to bless those who curse you.

I’m cursed every day by my constituents. People write to me saying: “I’m a lifelong Conservative voter,” and I know that quite a lot of them are not, and are just lying to take the rise out of me. And so they’re cursing me, telling me they can’t understand how I support the free-market system when there are foodbanks and so on.

I’ve been threatened with hanging, having my throat slit, acid attack. These are the things that challenge me: blessing and forgiving over and over, like God forgives us over and over again, though we sin.

Is that Jesus’s primary challenge to our society: to be more forgiving?

Society is about our relationship with each other, and therefore the big challenge that Jesus [presents] to all of us, all of the time, is to love one another. And I would say that, in my life, my capacity to forgive and to bless those who curse me is the most frequent practical outworking of me trying to obey that command.

People think that the job of a Christian is to go out there and feed the poor, and all the rest of it — and it is, it is. But this is one of the frustrations for me, that Jesus challenges us, like the good Samaritan, to care for other people ourselves, and a great way of doing that is [through] friendly societies. But kind-hearted people who wanted to extend the benefits of friendly societies to everyone then destroyed them with the 1911 National Insurance Act and the establishment of the NHS.

For 111 years now, we have been — with benevolent intent — constantly moving away from people co-operating for themselves and developing their own character and virtue and care for one another, their own expertise and fulfilment as human beings, the dignity of choice and responsibility, and casting all those troubles on the state. And we can’t afford it, and it doesn’t work.

How do you protect your integrity amid all the pressures of party politics?

I personally don’t find it a problem, but that makes me a difficult politician for my party whips to manage.

For so many people — not me, I have to say — power is a drug. You offer a backbencher a trade-envoy role or something, and they’ll corrupt themselves and compromise: they’ll say things they don’t believe, just to get that little whiff of influence and power and status. Power is a terrible, corrupting thing. A disgusting, awful thing.

Being Prime Minister, I’m told, is the crack cocaine of politics, and that’s why you can’t get Boris [Johnson] out right now. It’s why we couldn’t get [Theresa] May out easily. They’re addicts, and they won’t give it up easily.

The veteran Conservative journalist Peter Oborne has written: I have never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly, and so systematically as Boris Johnson. You must have been aware of his flaws, so why did you vote for him as leader?

I don’t think I was aware. . . I think my opinion of Boris has become much worse since we made him Prime Minister. Bear in mind that others had made him Foreign Secretary.

We made him Prime Minister for two reasons: he was the candidate most likely to defeat Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. They would have given us a revolutionary Marxist Government from which our country would, I think, never have recovered. Never. And the person most likely to stop them taking power was Boris Johnson, because of his charisma.

What was your second reason?

Because he was well motivated to get us out of the EU somehow. And that’s what he did.

But I have to say that his performance now is well below my lowest expectations. To have not complied with the rules [on social distancing] that were enforced on everybody at such huge cost in their lives is itself an outrageous thing, over which he should be long gone.

And the fact that we’re now having to debate whether or not he lied about it at the dispatch box. . . I’m absolutely clear that if he’s lied about breaking the law, and doubled down on the lie, he’s got to go.

Youre a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which (to say the least) urges caution in addressing climate breakdown. . .

If I can use an unchristian term, we’re being bullshitted by people who want to get their own way. Children are being terrified, and young people are having fewer children because they think the world’s going to end; and it isn’t what the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]’s own science says.

Now, I think climate change is a real thing. I think carbon dioxide emitted by people has contributed to climate change — I think that is settled science. But what I’m not willing to do is adopt policies that make people poorer and colder, and which will therefore not survive contact with the political system, in order to try and address a problem where the worst scenarios actually aren’t now likely. What I want is pragmatic policy that we can actually drive forwards.

I’m quite happy for us to go to net zero, but I’m not happy to [do it] in a way that really threatens the way that we live. If we carry on the way we are, we are going to run into the most extraordinary political crisis — far, far worse than Brexit.

When one day Christ says to you, as I imagine you hope he will, Well done, good and faithful servant!, what do you think he might have in mind?

I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t like to say.

I mean, I think he might say: “You did your best.” I’m welling up thinking about it. “You didn’t really want to but you did what you felt you had to, and you put your heart and your soul into it, and you paid a price for it. You carried your cross, as best you could, and in a world without certainty you did what you thought was right.”

Huw Spanner interviewed Steve Baker MP at Portcullis House on 9 February.

© High Profiles 2022

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