Liberal Hero of the Week #79: Norman Baker

by Stephen Tall on November 2, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

cf hero norman baker

Norman Baker

Lib Dem home office minister (2013-14)
Reason: for promoting an evidence-informed approach to drugs policy reform

Norman Baker — authentic grassroots liberal, rough diamond, homespun home officer and maverick minister — has been this column’s hero once before. Tom Papworth guested to celebrate him for “for defending the freedom of cyclists to ride without a helmet if they choose”. That he’s my liberal hero this time is part-principle, part-defensive.

The principle element is clear enough. Norman Baker has been a highly successful minister. Last week, he published a Home Office report (commissioned by his predecessor Jeremy Browne), which his boss, Tory home secretary Theresa May, had done her best to suppress. Why? Because it highlighted uncomfortable facts that her supposedly tough ‘war on drugs’ is a total and utter flop. As Simon Jenkins highlighted in The Guardian:

Where Baker has performed a service is in the cause of his resignation, the difficulty of stimulating a sane debate on drugs in Britain. … That drug illegality causes more harm to society than drug misuse is surely beyond argument. But to May facts are of no concern. Foreign experience is to be denied. Debate must not be informed. Don’t just say no, cries May, shriek it. In highlighting this stupidity, Baker has sacrificed his career for a worthy cause.

Over at Politics.co.uk, Ian Dunt made a similar point:

Baker eventually succeeded in forcing publication. It was arguably the most important government drugs report for a generation. It found that half a century of drugs policy was mistaken. Harsh drug penalties do nothing to reduce drug use, but they do significantly reduce the health of drug users. Against a hostile media, dogmatic Labour and Tory MPs, and a hugely bureaucratic department, he had scored a significant victory. It will be mentioned as a key moment in the drug debate when, a decade or two from now, Britain finally adopts a more liberal policy.

Now let me turn to the defensive reason for my nomination. You’d think Norman Baker’s success — pushing an evidence-informed approach that accepts personal choice — would be welcomed by progressive voices. And it has been, by most.

But there’s a progressive voice in the media, best exemplified by the uber-Blairite commentators David Aaronovitch and John Rentoul, who cannot find it in themselves to acknowledge Baker’s achievements in this area. Why not? Because a few years ago he wrote a book examining the circumstances of the death of Dr David Kelly, the government scientist who died after his role in disclosing doubts about the then Labour Government’s WMD dodgy dossier became public.

I’ve not read Norman’s book, don’t intend to. And it’s irrelevant to my reason for nominating him as a Liberal Hero. Just as it should be irrelevant to anyone considering Norman Baker’s record in the home office, an impressive one for any liberal-minded fair judge.

But not everyone can see past their own prejudices. For some, Norman Baker is forever tainted by his decision to turn private investigator over David Kelly’s death. They are blinkered to his other accomplishments which are considerable.

A large part of the reason for this series is to challenge those partisans who dismiss arguments because they are made by people they don’t normally agree with. That’s why Norman’s this week’s Liberal Hero.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.