is a politician who knows his own mind. He once styled himself a ‘Brexit hard man’ and, according to the i, ‘has already done more than most of the Cabinet [to shape] the destiny of this country’. Now he is turning his attention to the Government’s plans to decarbonise Britain.
Huw Spanner spent two hours in his office at Westminster on 9 February 2022.
Photography: Andrew Firth
People were startled when, on the floor of the House of Commons, you referred to Britain’s response to the pandemic as ‘a fundamental choice between heading towards heaven and heading towards hell’.1youtube.com Did you really mean that?
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.’2‘I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right, there’s only an up or down: Man’s [age-old] dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And, regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course’ (youtube.com).
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,3prosperity.com/rankings 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 you’re a Christian. Can you say what kind of Christian?
Well, I like to think of myself as a ‘mere Christian’, as C S Lewis put it.4See Mere Christianity (Geoffrey Bles, 1952). I’ve attended a Pentecostal church, an evangelical [Anglican] church; but for the last, gosh, 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.
I was always a very quiet and bookish boy. The idea of me bowling up at Downing Street and giving off-the-cuff interviews to the media is not really what my schoolfriends would have expected
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 at the beach at Porthpean and confirmed. I had such a joyful life after that for several years – like, singing in the shower in the morning – and then real life caught up with me, I suppose.
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.
Would people who knew you as a boy have been surprised by how you’ve turned out?
I was always a very quiet and bookish boy – I was very introverted. I didn’t like sport very much, because I’m crap at it – I was always the last kid picked for football and cricket.
I was not into politics, so the idea of me bowling up at Downing Street and giving off-the-cuff interviews to the media, live-broadcast to the nation, is not really what my schoolfriends would have expected – and yet I seem to be able to pull it off.
Your father was a carpenter. Does that make you working-class?
I’m certainly from working-class roots – gas fitters and plumbers and open-cast mine workers, normal people doing normal stuff. But I don’t think I can really claim to be working-class today. I have become definitively middle-class.
How has being Cornish-born shaped you?
I spent a lot of my teenage years on the sea in little boats. I did a lot of fishing, spent a lot of time outdoors, and the sea is in my blood. My dad taught me to sail and I love it – it’s something I can do that’s exciting and fun that doesn’t require co-ordination. I used to be a fast-catamaran sailor.
I’ve always been a biker, too, thanks to my dad.
My first impression was that you’re a bit of a Roundhead in a party dominated by Cavaliers, but you seem to be a bit of an adrenaline junkie.
I find personal fulfilment and joy in doing high-risk things that require skill and responsibility. My hobbies are all about risk management. You have to prepare, develop your skill and then do it well – if you don’t, you could die. You know, it’s wonderful to survive a skydive!
Because of politics, I don’t jump as often as I’d like: I should by now have done two or three thousand jumps, but I’ve done about 300.
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’.5listenersguide.org.uk/bbc/podcast Why did you decide that, as a Christian, it was OK to join the armed forces?
These days, I have to say, I’m almost a pacifist. 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
Well, a lot of these things, of course, are accidental. When I was a kid, I was in the Air Cadets because a friend was having a good time [there], flying and shooting and marching up and down. But as my Christianity matured I really started thinking about what it meant to be in the armed forces. The Cold War was on and at the time the Royal Air Force had free-fall nuclear weapons.
I started thinking: ‘Hang on a minute! If I’m ordered to be party to loading nuclear weapons, is that OK?’ I started reading the theory of nuclear exchanges and so on, and 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,6wikipedia.org/2011_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, because the Government went way beyond what we authorised. We provided close air support to one side in a civil war and I didn’t authorise that. I voted against [‘military intervention’ in] Syria [in 2013] despite there being chemical weapons used. You know, these are hard choices.
You quit the RAF in 1999 to go into software engineering…
I loved being in the Royal Air Force – the fast jets, the camaraderie, the purpose, I absolutely adored that. But that wasn’t what the RAF wanted me to do. The dotcom boom was happening and I thought: Well, if I’m going to sit in a big open-plan office, I might as well get into software and try and make some money.
Let’s skip forward. Why did you go into politics in 2009? Was it just a new career for a new decade?
No, of course it wasn’t! I was very interested in current affairs and I was very pro-EU – it used to drive my wife mad. I was pro a federal Europe, and I was pro-euro before I learnt a bit more about monetary systems.
I was pro-EU, but I hadn’t looked at it very closely. So, when the constitution for Europe came forward [in 2004], I read it – and I thought: ‘Well, that’s awful. It’s a horrible, bureaucratic, social-democratic mess, which bears no comparison to the classical-liberal elegance of the US constitution. So, I shall vote against it when we have a referendum.’
They then stopped having referenda when the constitution was rejected [by French and Dutch voters in 2005] and I thought: ‘Well, that’s good. Now they’ll change direction, because that’s what happens in democracies.’
But, instead, what they did is put substantially the same material in the Lisbon Treaty. But then they lied about it and said: ‘Oh no, no, no, it’s different!’ Lying …!
(I can feel my blood rising even now, talking about it all this time later. Look at what I’ve had to go through as an introvert who doesn’t like conflict! What do people think it has cost me?)
And I thought: I am not having this! So, I thought: Well, I’m not sitting at home moaning. I’ll try and get myself elected and get a referendum. I’ll give it 10 years – and I expect to fail. And the result is four general elections, a referendum, I’ve won the argument and now you’re sitting here interviewing me as a high-profile person!
Your opposition to the EU is quite visceral, isn’t it?
I’m sorry, I absolutely love the peoples of Europe. I love Europe. My visceral objection is to unaccountable power.
That’s why I joined the armed forces, of course: 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. Again, Reagan talked about it: 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”.’7Conjectures and Refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge (Psychology Press, 2002) And that is where I’m visceral.
In 2010, you said the EU ‘needs to be wholly torn down’ and described it as ‘an obstacle’ to free trade and peace ‘among all the nations of Europe as well as the world’.8See independent.co.uk/news.
That was 12 years ago and I was a new MP with no political experience and I wouldn’t choose to be that strident now. But the reason I was saying it’s an obstacle to peace is because either you can get rid of a government peacefully or you can’t – and if you can’t, you must get rid of it violently.
(This is not me saying this – I don’t have any original ideas that I’m aware of. This is Karl Popper, who started out as a Marxist and became in a sense a soppy, wet, left-liberal – and yet he’s one of my big heroes!)
The EU has chosen to advance itself against democratic consent and I think [that’s] why [we’ve ended up] with a very ugly, nationalistic Euroscepticism on the other side of the Channel. Once the penny drops with people that they’ve got a government they can’t dismiss peacefully at the ballot box, which actively doesn’t care what they think and whether they consent, what are they to do?
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 can’t really say that Britain is a fully functioning democracy, can one?
Oh, no, I totally disagree with that!
It’s 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.
This was under a constitution that I for one never voted for.
Democracy is thoroughly imperfect; but when you think about, well, what possible ways can we construct control of the use of power so that it actually meets with public consent, 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 I don’t really believe in power. I don’t like power, I despise it. That’s one of the reasons why I’m different
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. You’ve got to be practical, but, you know, I’m quite happy to say that I don’t really believe in power. 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? Forgive me! In the beginning, God gives the Israelites the Law, and yet even the 10 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 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’.9Hebrews 7:18f
(Here I am again, as a politician giving an interview, 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!10See eg premierchristianity.com/home/the-tim-farron-interview. 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,111 Peter 3:15 and so I do.)
Now, that’s not to say that I totally reject political power, because the Bible also tells me that power is instituted by God for the benefit of the people.12Romans 13:1–5 But I do struggle – you know, I look at the various regimes where it’s gone wrong [and] I struggle to see how any of them were godly. But these are just tensions we have to work through as we seek to be pragmatic.
I’m not sure that you’ve defended our first-past-the-post electoral system.
Forgive me. I understand [that] people want [proportional representation] and think that somehow gives a perfect democratic system, but I just don’t think that’s right. I think it would just give us a different set of stupid problems.
Not a perfect system, just a better one.
Well, it’s a matter of debate, but I just don’t think it would be.
Look, I’m speaking against my own interests. I dare say that if we had PR I’d be here [in Parliament] forever. I could get myself re-elected again and again and again as a Christian classical liberal and I could fulfil all my fantasies and be true to myself and never have to compromise. And I wouldn’t have to be troubled with the difficult business of representation, because I wouldn’t have a constituency.
Last weekend, I went out on Saturday morning doing constituency duties and then I spent six hours replying to angry emails about Boris Johnson,13Interviewed for High Profile in August 2004 and then on Sunday I went to church and then spent nine hours replying to angry emails – and that was my weekend. Under PR, I wouldn’t have to bother with any of that. I could just talk irresponsibly about all my wild ideas and not worry about how voters really felt. And it would be great, you know. It’d be great! But it would be wrong.
Should we have PR or first-past-the-post? It’s not relevant from a Christian point of view. We’re not supposed to be living under a democratic system, we’re supposed to be living a free life, under God as King
It’s almost a truism in the Bible that whatever most people think best will end in tears. ‘The will of the people’ is not a positive thing as far as the Old Testament goes, and according to Jesus the road that most people choose is the one that leads to destruction.14Matthew 7:13
Isn’t democracy suspect from a Christian point of view?
I’m grinning, because I love this question. I would refer anyone to 1 Samuel 8,151 Samuel 8 where the Israelites demand a king and God tells them what a king will be like. He would take a 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.
Forgive me, because there’s so much to be said! 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 can’t 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 we sat in those beautiful medieval buildings where the Thomists first wrote their systematic treatises on society, based on reason and theology.16See wikipedia.org/School_of_Salamanca. 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.
Historical experience shows that wherever socialism is seriously tried, the fruit of that system is impoverishment and misery and tyranny and mass murder. And it’s always the same
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 that’s 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,17See ifs.org.uk/taxlab/key-questions. 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.
England’s rivers are polluted by raw sewage.18publications.parliament.uk That’s 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 –
It’s nothing to do with private companies taking billions out of the system and not investing enough in…?19See eg theguardian.com/environment.
You know, 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. And people always say, ‘That wasn’t really socialism’ and then we go round the loop again and we end up with the agrarian socialism of Cambodia and the skulls piling high.
Let’s not go down that particular rabbit hole…
But this is such an important point. Some really lovely Christian people who want to make the world a better place read the Acts of the Apostles20See Acts 2:44f. 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!21Acts 5:1–11
By the Holy Spirit, apparently.
Indeed, indeed! And that is a huge challenge –
Many of our railways are now owned by foreign state-owned enterprises. How is that an improvement?
I’m not sure that it is a good idea for foreign states to own our railways. But one of the problems that we’ve got, which I think drives a lot of these decisions, is this constant, desperate search by the state to raise more money to spend on present consumption because the public are demanding it.
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 who just wanted us all to get along, but he himself said: ‘I did not come to bring peace but a sword.’22Matthew 10:34 Where do you think his teachings most strongly challenge our society?
Oh, throughout the Sermon on the Mount. I mean, ‘love even your enemies’23Matthew 5:43–48 – which is something I try to live out (which might contribute to why [in 2020] I got a Civility in Public Life award24civilityinpolitics.org/news. The single most challenging thing in life, I find as a politician, is to forgive and to bless those who curse you.
You know, 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 food banks 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’ 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 societies25A friendly society is a mutual association for the purposes of insurance, pensions, savings or co-operative banking. – 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.
There’s a wonderful quote from The Oddfellows Magazine at the time: ‘Working men are awakening to the fact that this is a subtle attempt to take from the class to which they belong the administration of the great voluntary organizations which they have built up for themselves, and to hand over the future control to the paid servants of the governing class. […] This is not liberty; this is not development of self-government, but a new form of autocracy and tyranny.’26The Oddfellows Magazine, September 1911, quoted in David Green’s book Working Class Patients and the Medical Establishment: Self-help in Britain from the mid-nineteenth century to 1948 (Maurice Temple Smith, 1985)
Being Prime Minister, I’m told, is the crack cocaine of politics, and that’s why you can’t get Boris out right now. It’s why we couldn’t get Theresa May out easily. They’re addicts and they won’t give it up
That’s what I believe. That’s who I am, a defiant working-class liberal who believes in people and voluntary co-operation. [It’s] one of the great crimes of our society, because 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.
Party politics in practice is very tribal – as in war, people end up fighting for their mates, not for any principle or cause –
And there’s a lot of dirty tricks involved. Amidst all those pressures, how do you protect your integrity?
I personally don’t find it a problem, but that makes me a difficult politician for my party whips to manage.
Clausewitz said, ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means’27‘War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means’ (On War [1832–4]). and I turn that on its head. People have all sorts of lovely, woolly ideas about politics but it is (as Orwell said about serious sport) ‘war minus the shooting’.
And for so many people – not me, I have to say – power is a drug. It’s proper hard drugs. 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] May28Interviewed for High Profile in February 2003 out easily. They’re addicts and they won’t give it up easily.
You talk a lot about the importance of people doing the right thing for the right reason…
In the 2016 Brexit referendum, you got the result you wanted but a lot of lies were told to the electorate –
On both sides.
You had to hear allies of yours saying that Turkey was about to join the EU, for example.29See voteleavetakecontrol.org.
I was on the campaign committee of Vote Leave and time and time again we were bounced. Dominic Cummings30Then Vote Leave’s campaign director just turned up with the Turkey leaflet and I looked at it and said to him: ‘I’m not taking responsibility for that!’ [He said:] ‘It’s too late. Michael Gove31Then chair of the campaign committee. He was interviewed for High Profile in March 2010. has approved it and thousands of them have been printed.’
On the [assertion that] we send the EU £350 million a week, I never said that. I always used to say ‘We’re billed…’
I’m not accusing you –
But let me – because I want to answer this question –
You don’t know what the question is going to be!
I hate the way the referendum was won – but if Remain had won it with their awful, false campaign, that also would have been an appalling victory
You asked me [how I protect my integrity]. I maintain my integrity by doing what I think is right. So, when I was on the Treasury Select Committee, I signed up to a report that outright condemned the ‘We send £350 million a week.’ It was a bitterly wounding thing for me to do to my friends at Vote Leave, but I was saying to them: I’m not having this.
I hate the way that that referendum was won – but if Remain had won it with their awful, false campaign, that also would have been an appalling victory. And the truth is that politics on both sides of any question is very often fought in an ugly way.
The best defence against that is the public informing themselves and then joining the political party of their choice – but of course that is the one thing the public don’t want to do, and our politics is very much poorer as a result.
Roughly 28 per cent of the electorate didn’t vote in the referendum, 34.5 per cent voted to stay in the EU and 37.5 per cent voted to leave. The nation seemed pretty much in two minds.
Would it not have been more appropriate, therefore, and certainly less divisive, to seek some kind of compromise? In 2017, a citizens’ assembly came to the conclusion that we should seek a soft Brexit and if the EU wouldn’t allow that, we should stay in.32Citizens-Assembly-on-Brexit-Report.pdf
All this talk about ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ to me was just a diversion. For all the nonsense that has been talked, the question was lawfully asked and answered; and the question was: Do you want to live under the legal system of the EU and submit to its power? And the answer was: No! And that has implications.
Staying in the European Economic Area and the customs union would have left us under the EU’s legal order, and dressing it up as a ‘soft’ Brexit doesn’t make it OK. It would have been a repudiation of a democratic decision, and that’s why I resisted it to the uttermost. It’s not a compromise you can make.
Surely, you’ve embroidered the question?
No, I have not embroidered the question!
The question was ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ And people were told different things about what ‘staying’ and ‘leaving’ meant.
I haven’t embroidered the question; what I’ve done is explain its implications. Remaining in the European Union meant remaining within the legal construct of the EU, and leaving the European Union meant being outside the legal construct of the EU. And when people said they wanted a soft Brexit, what they really meant was to not really leave the legal construct of the EU.
Daniel Hannan,33One of the founders of Vote Leave, who now sits in the House of Lords for example, said: ‘Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market.’34See, for example, youtube.com.
Yes, and I think Dan was wrong. Much as he’s a great hero of this cause, and he and I usually agree, what he wanted was [something] the EU was never going to offer us. Saying there was no question of leaving the Single Market was wrong.
I want a single market [and] I am in favour of free movement of capital, labour, goods and services – of course I am, I’m a classical liberal! – but the way the EU delivers it implies political centralisation without democratic control, and to me that is an unforgivable sin, which must be dealt with whatever the cost.
I’ve been honest about that. I want democracy, and if it comes at the cost of customs declarations, we’ll have to do customs declarations.
Why do you think it is that so many of us in this country are just not interested in politics?
Well, in a sense I think that’s wonderful. As a classical liberal, I would love for us all to live in a society where we didn’t have to care who was elected to power, because power was present so little in our lives that actually we got our public services, our welfare, through friendly societies and you and I worked out for ourselves how much we were going to spend on what kind of health care and welfare and so on.
You asked me about integrity. One thing I do is, when I induct my staff, I’m very careful to set out the culture of my team. I say: ‘It’s war minus the shooting, so the first thing we have to do is survive and that means compliance with all the rules’ – which is something I would commend to any politician, especially senior ones at the moment.
The other thing I say is: ‘We do not lie in this team. We do not lie.’ And I set out five tests we have to apply in everything we write or say: Is it true? Is it necessary to say it? Is it beneficial to say it? Is it rightly motivated? And do we have permission?
You said recently: ‘We didn’t make Boris Johnson Prime Minister for his meticulous grasp of tedious rules.’35bbc.co.uk/news
It’s absolutely true, I’m afraid.
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.’36The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the emergence of a new moral barbarism (Simon & Schuster, 2021)
Max Hastings, a former editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph, has said: ‘There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth.’37theguardian.com/commentisfree
You must have been aware of his flaws, so why did you vote for him?
Jeremy Corbyn would have given us a revolutionary Marxist government – I’m absolutely clear about that. Our country would never have recovered. Never
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 [in 2016].
We made him Prime Minister for two reasons. He was the candidate most likely to defeat Jeremy Corbyn38Interviewed for High Profile in June 2015 and [his Shadow Chancellor,] John McDonnell. Corbyn and McDonnell would have given us a revolutionary Marxist government – I’m absolutely clear about that. McDonnell stood at the despatch box and prayed in aid Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.39See theguardian.com/politics. Can you imagine? All the people Mao had killed!
That was a joke, surely?
Oh, come on! Of course it wasn’t a joke. He’s a revolutionary Marxist. They would have given us a revolutionary Marxist government from which our country would, I think, never have recovered. Never. We had tested our constitution nearly to destruction, we were under duress with the EU and we faced a revolutionary Marxist government, and the person most likely to stop them taking power was Boris Johnson, because of his charisma.
What was your second reason for voting for him?
Because he was well motivated to get us out of the EU somehow. And that’s what he did.
So, we saved our country by having Boris as Prime Minister. 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 despatch 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. And I’ve told him that to his face.
With regard to Covid, you voiced fears that your party was ‘drifting into authoritarianism’,40news.sky.com and yet you voted in favour of new restrictions on public protest.
Yeah, and I’ve set out why I had misgivings about them.41conservativehome.com/platform In the end, I am not a mere party man who turns up and just votes the way he’s told but, equally, I can’t fight on every front. I just can’t. I haven’t got the capacity as an individual and I cannot try the patience of either the whips or the people who elected me – they voted Conservative and I can’t always be testing their patience by rebelling.42In fact, on 28 February he was to be the only Conservative MP to vote in favour of amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would have protected eg noisy protests.
I recognise that there’s a terrible problem with Extinction Rebellion doing stupid things like glueing their faces to the road. Ordinary people who need to get to work just don’t need middle-class twits disrupting their lives and stopping them going about their lawful occasions.
XR, by the way, are quite happy to overwhelm the criminal-justice system by getting people [jailed] –
Just as the Suffragettes did?
That’s in the end who I am. I care about ideas, but I also care about practice. We’ve got to feed the poor and it doesn’t matter what libertarian ideas we’ve got, we’ve got to give them welfare benefits
Well, yeah, maybe. But…
I like to think I would have been with [William] Wilberforce against slavery and I like to think I would have been with the Suffragettes in favour of votes for women; but I do think that XR are wrong to do what they’re doing. I don’t think there’s the need for the hysteria that they’re stoking, or are victims of. As a state that upholds the rule of law, we just cannot allow the kind of techniques they’re now using to go unchallenged.
There’s a line in an essay you wrote in 2014, ‘In Defence of Capitalism’: ‘I want to force even the most selfish into the service of others.’43stevebaker.info
Are you concerned with outcomes – you want the right things to be done – or is what matters to you ultimately that people do the right things for the right reasons, even if that means that sometimes the right thing is not done?
That particular line was actually a rebuttal of Ayn Rand.44The Russian-born US writer and philosopher best known for her novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). Her admirers reportedly include Sajid Javid and Daniel Hannan. I put Ayn Rand in the same category as Nigel Farage:45Interviewed for High Profile in December 2011 they are important standard-bearers [for libertarianism] who are, very often, ultimately unhelpful to the cause. People often cite her as one of our touchstones and she is occasionally useful; but she sought to make selfishness a virtue and that is just a nonsense and she’s done immeasurable harm to the cause of freedom as a result.
I’m a utilitarian libertarian. Look, I am an engineer. If you were in an aeroplane that I’d signed off as airworthy, you would like to think I had a solid understanding of how aircraft flew; but if you’re sitting in that aeroplane waiting to take off and it develops a fault, you would like me to be very pragmatic in getting that aircraft off the ground. That’s the way real life works, right? And I bring the same attitude to politics.
One of the things that goes wrong with politics is, you get mere pragmatists unguided by any serious understanding of history or theory, and then you get ideologues who don’t know how to compromise and apply their ideas. And I’m trying to be an engineer: I’m trying to understand how society works – the theory, the history, the data – and then apply it pragmatically.
That’s in the end who I am. I care about ideas, but I also care about practice. We’ve got to feed the poor and it doesn’t matter what libertarian ideas we’ve got, we’ve got to give them welfare benefits.
You’re a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation46wikipedia.org/Global_Warming_Policy_Foundation, which (to say the least) urges caution in addressing climate breakdown. Is it a coincidence that so many people who wanted to leave the EU also line up with you on our response both to Covid and to climate breakdown, or is there a common thread?
Well, I’ve got to pick up on ‘climate breakdown’ –
I thought you would.
– because this is one of the problems. The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]’s own science doesn’t support the notion of climate breakdown.47A term used by eg theguardian.com Unfortunately, people are propagandising the IPCC scenarios and they’re confusing severity and likelihood. I’ve been a professional risk manager and I know [that] it’s very important, when you’re talking about a genuinely catastrophic problem, that you understand how likely it is.
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 IPCC’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 be carbon neutral. I’m happy to go to net zero, but I’m not happy to [do it] in a way that really threatens the way that we live.
And that’s not out of political expediency, that’s out of principle?
I’m sorry, if we carry on the way we are, we are going to run into the most extraordinary political crisis, far, far worse than Brexit. Brexit was an issue that only really mattered to core voters on both sides of the argument and then we forced everybody to confront the question. (And I think one of the things we’ve learnt is that deciding serious political questions with major ramifications is actually a big deal and we shouldn’t normally ask the public to do it because it’s too divisive.)
I’m very happy to do pragmatic things, but we’re pretending that there’s public consent [for some measures] because they were in everybody’s manifestos and therefore everybody voted for them. It really does take a Civil Service mentality to believe that that’s OK. The public don’t read manifestos.
To be fair, that line is peddled by politicians of all parties. They say, ‘The public voted for this’ and it’s bullshit.
Yeah, of course it is, and it’s absolutely one of the big problems with politics.
You know the old [saying] is: If you want to maintain your respect for sausages and laws, don’t look how they’re made. It’s absolutely true. Politics is a disgusting practice. 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.
When one day Christ says to you, as I imagine you hope he will, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’,48See Matthew 25:14–28. 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.’
God knows I fall short, ‘and if we say we’re without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’491 John 1:8 I make no claim to absolute correctness. I am a flawed and fallen man like everybody else, [but] I’m doing my best. I’m doing my best to be a Christian, and I’m doing my best to try to procure public policy worthy of the best interests of the people who I love.
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|⇑2||‘I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right, there’s only an up or down: Man’s [age-old] dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And, regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course’ (youtube.com).|
|⇑4||See Mere Christianity (Geoffrey Bles, 1952).|
|⇑7||Conjectures and Refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge (Psychology Press, 2002)|
|⇑10||See eg premierchristianity.com/home/the-tim-farron-interview.|
|⇑11||1 Peter 3:15|
|⇑13||Interviewed for High Profile in August 2004|
|⇑15||1 Samuel 8|
|⇑19||See eg theguardian.com/environment.|
|⇑20||See Acts 2:44f.|
|⇑25||A friendly society is a mutual association for the purposes of insurance, pensions, savings or co-operative banking.|
|⇑26||The Oddfellows Magazine, September 1911, quoted in David Green’s book Working Class Patients and the Medical Establishment: Self-help in Britain from the mid-nineteenth century to 1948 (Maurice Temple Smith, 1985)|
|⇑27||‘War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means’ (On War [1832–4]).|
|⇑28||Interviewed for High Profile in February 2003|
|⇑30||Then Vote Leave’s campaign director|
|⇑31||Then chair of the campaign committee. He was interviewed for High Profile in March 2010.|
|⇑33||One of the founders of Vote Leave, who now sits in the House of Lords|
|⇑34||See, for example, youtube.com.|
|⇑36||The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the emergence of a new moral barbarism (Simon & Schuster, 2021)|
|⇑38||Interviewed for High Profile in June 2015|
|⇑42||In fact, on 28 February he was to be the only Conservative MP to vote in favour of amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would have protected eg noisy protests.|
|⇑44||The Russian-born US writer and philosopher best known for her novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). Her admirers reportedly include Sajid Javid and Daniel Hannan.|
|⇑45||Interviewed for High Profile in December 2011|
|⇑47||A term used by eg theguardian.com|
|⇑48||See Matthew 25:14–28.|
|⇑49||1 John 1:8|
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Steven Baker was born in 1971 in St Austell, where he was educated at Poltair School and St Austell Sixth Form College (now St Austell College).
He joined the RAF in 1989 and studied aerospace systems engineering at Southampton University, graduating in 1992. He worked on Tornados and Jaguars and, finally, the Adour aero engine. He attained the rank of flight lieutenant in 1996.
He left the service in 1999 at his own request and, the following year, took a master’s degree in computation at St Cross College, Oxford.
In 2000–01, he worked for DecisionSoft (later CoreFiling) as head of consulting and product manager.
In 2002, he was appointed chief technology officer at Basda (the Business Application Software Developers Association), a position he held until 2007. He was director of product development at CoreFiling in 2005–06, and then chief architect of global financing and asset servicing platforms at Lehman Brothers until 2008. He also operated as principal of Ambriel Consulting from 2001 to 2010.
He was an associate consultant of the Centre for Social Justice in 2008–10.
He was selected as the Conservative candidate for Wycombe in 2009 and won the seat in the general election the following year with 48.6% of the vote. He was re-elected in 2015, 2017 and 2019.
He has spent just over a year on the government payroll, as a junior minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, resigning in 2018 along with the then Secretary of State, David Davis.
He has sat on the transport and Treasury select committees.
As a backbencher, he served on the executive of the 1922 Committee between 2012 and 2021.
In 2015, he became co-chair of Conservatives for Britain, a campaigning group of Eurosceptic MPs. He chaired the European Research Group in 2016–17 and 2019–20, and was its deputy chair and de facto whip in between. He is deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group of MPs and a member of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of MPs and peers.
He co-founded the Cobden Centre in 2010 and was a trustee until 2017. Last year, he became a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and sits on the council of the Air League.
He married in 1996 and has no children.
Up-to-date as at 1 March 2022