Norman Baker interview: David Kelly's death is "unfinished business"

Home Office minister says the Attorney General would have to "reopen the inquest, which was absurdly curtailed".

No coalition appointment has caused more consternation than that of Norman Baker as Home Office minister. The promotion of the man best known for claiming that the British security services covered up the murder of Dr. David Kelly was said to have left his boss, Theresa May (along with many others), "spitting tacks".

I interviewed Baker about this and much else for tomorrow's NS. Here are some of the highlights.

On David Kelly's death: "unfinished business"

Baker, who stepped down from the Lib Dem frontbench in 2006 in order to devote a year to writing a 424-page book (The Strange Death of David Kelly) claiming that David Kelly was murdered, told me that he stil regarded his death as "unfinished business". He told me: "People who attack it by and large haven’t read it. And I’d like them to come back and deal with the facts, if they want to deal with the facts." When I asked him whether he would use his post at the Home Office to lobby for a new public inquiry, he said:

What would have to happen is: the Attorney General would have to reopen the inquest, which was absurdly curtailed. So that’s a matter for him.

He added: "The fact that there was no coroner’s inquest appeared to be of no interest to the collective media; I just find that absolutely astonishing . . . People can look at the evidence and draw their own conclusions. All I would say is in 2003, we had a situation where the prime minister of the day lied to parliament about the case for war . . . and then people say to me, ‘You should believe everything the government said in 2003.’ I’m sorry, I don’t buy that."

On whether the Iraq war was illegal, he said: "I’ve got to be careful what I say as a minister, haven’t I? There are many who believe it to be illegal and they’ve made quite a strong case."

On NSA/GCHQ surveillance: there should be an inquiry

Baker broke with the government line on the allegations of surveillance by the British and US intelligence services by calling for a full inquiry. Asked whether one should be held, he said: "Yes. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable for the Guardian to raise questions about the balance between the state and the individual to take account of the fact that technology has moved on a huge amount and the law was drafted when we didn’t have the means of communication we do now – Skype and everything else – and the capacity of the security services, or the Americans, to engage in trawling for stuff."

On tuition fees: "eduction should be free"

The Liberal Democrat conference voted earlier this year to support tuition fees of up to £9,000, with Vince Cable telling delegates: "We and the other major parties are not going to go back to free tuition." But Baker told me that he still believed university education "should be free", adding that the fees vote in 2010 was "the only time in government that I’ve come close to resigning".

He added: "I’m very conscious that people of my generation benefited from free education. I come from a poor background, unlike most people in government, and I couldn’t have got where I was without a really good state education. I’m deeply grateful for that and I couldn’t have done it had I had to pay a lot of money for it, so I feel particularly uncomfortable with the idea of charging for tuition fees as a principle."

On Ed Miliband: "I've got a lot of time for him"

While refusing to say whether he would rather partner with Labour or the Tories in the event of another hung parliament, Baker told me that he has "a lot of time" for Ed Miliband. "He seems to me to want to try to articulate a position which is different to what came before – I’ve always got time for that. And I think he’s prepared to take the odd gamble, which is right in politics." He added, somewhat immodestly: "As someone who pushes boundaries and envelopes all the time, I like someone who does the same thing. I think that’s good about him."

Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Norman Baker. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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