Greasy Pole: Pray Silence for the Veterans
Confronted with overwhelming evidence of their impotence to deal with capitalism’s persistent barbarities our Members of Parliament are prone to disguise their discomfort behind what their Whips call ‘a wall of noise’. Except that when a Member whose ‘service’ in the Commons qualifies them to be known as a ‘veteran’ considers that there is a matter of sufficient gravity to justify their rising to speak it is customary for them to be heard in respectful silence – apart from a few grovelling ‘hear hear’s’. No matter that the veterans’ past does not justify them claiming any exceptional insight into those barbarities. There is, for one, Peter Tapsell, MP for Louth and Horncastle whose unbroken presence there has given him the title of Father of the House, known by one observer as ‘the grandest of grandees’ who does not speak so much as ‘intone superbly’– which he perhaps employed when he was once severely critical of his late leader Margaret Thatcher.
But Tapsell has decided that he will not be there after the 2015 election, which brings us to Tony Baldry, who is 20 years younger than Tapsell but has been MP for Banbury in Oxfordshire for over thirty years. He recently persuaded the government benches to be silent when he rose to put a ‘question’ to David Cameron about Ed Miliband as a teenager delivering election leaflets which promised that Michael Foot would take a Labour government out of the European Union. As Miliband sat squirming Cameron seized his chance. Ignoring the fact that capitalist politics is a process of the parties trying to reshape the confusion between their past and the present he bellowed: ‘If as a 14-year-old that was his idea of fun obviously, you know, we have to, you know, make room for everybody’. Which had the Tories choking on their false laughter. As Baldry knows, feeding dummy questions to the party leadership is often essential to the hopes of an ambitious MP.
He got involved in politics while a student at Sussex University, with its reputation as a hot-bed of left wing turbulence. By the time of the general election of February 1974 he had begun his serious involvement in a political career, holding a series of jobs as Personal Assistant (in other words spin doctor) to Tory ministers including none other than Margaret Thatcher – before she had earned the title of The Iron Lady. His reward for this in 1979 was to be selected to stand for the Conservative Party at Thurrock where he did well enough against an entrenched Labour majority to be later selected to succeed the retiring Tory MP at the very different Banbury in Oxfordshire. The scale of his victory there in the 1983 election, with his previous experience, put him in line for promotion and he held a succession of promising jobs including another for Thatcher (his role as the persistent servant and assistant to all those luminaries caused his civil servants to stick the name ‘Baldrick’ on him). The Banbury Tories were reputed to be devoted to him and the voters went along with this, giving him a majority of over 18,000 in the 2010 election.
Baldry has done well out of the system through which our governors congratulate themselves. He was made a Privy Councillor and in 2012 he was knighted so that we should acknowledge him correctly as The Right Honourable Sir… And then he was appointed as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, responsible for answering MP’s questions about the Commissioners. All of which is designed to induce in us a state of comfortable admiration for those who claim to make themselves responsible for modelling our behaviour under the stress of this society of privilege and property. In the case of Baldry, as in so many others, it is not so straightforward for there is a maze of interests – financial and political – which have to be taken into account.
His time in the higher reaches of government and the law has been punctuated by a series of diverting and complicated events. In one example in 1997 he wrote in support of awarding the CBE to London solicitor Sarosh Zaiwalla. He did not mention that he had recently benefited from a large personal loan from Zaiwalla; in consequence he had to apologise to the House of Commons. In February 2010, as a barrister instructed by Zaiwalla, he wrote to David Miliband who was then Foreign Secretary, warning that a police investigation of James Ibori, who had been president of the Delta State in Nigeria, would ‘damage British interests in that country’. At the time Ibori’s assets in Britain, including houses and motor vehicles worth some £17 million, were being frozen as he was facing charges of theft of public funds, abuse of office and money laundering. At Southwark Crown Court in April 2012 Ibori was sent to prison for 13 years and much of his assets, described by the head of the Crown Prosecution Service central fraud squad as being acquired ‘at the expense of some of the poorest people in the world’, were confiscated.
That original question from Baldry is typical of his compliant support of the government. On the issue of the cuts in welfare benefits he consistently opposes any suggestion about easing the misery and despair which they aggravate. Instead he offers an almost Dickensian version about the division between the deserving poor and the un-deserving. The most catching idea he offers, based on events in Merseyside, is that anyone who is starving and has to resort to begging at their local Food Bank, should instead undergo a course in cookery and nutrition – at 50p a session – with the idea of making what little food they have sustaining and affordable. At the end of the course they will be rewarded with a book of recipes. His principle that ‘I think everyone is agreeing that as a nation we have to get welfare spending under control’ ignores the crucial fact that poverty and its symptoms are disastrously out of control of the victims. If he survives long enough in the raucous uproar of the Commons, Baldry will become a veteran to match Tapsell. With about as little to show for it.