Some former MPs, particularly of the Conservative disposition, find in retirement a well-paid if undemanding directorship, often of a company they had helped privatise. Some others slowly drink themselves to death, unable to cope with their overnight anonymity.
Not so our Norm. He has reactivated his love of music and with his band The Reform Club is busy undertaking gigs both locally and nationally to promote the group’s second album, Never Yesterday.
“Music was in my life before politics, and has never left it,” explains the former Home Office Minister, who was regional director of Our Price Records before his election. “It is great to have more time to devote to it now my front-line role in politics is over.”
Tony Blair once declared candidly that politics is rock ‘n’ roll for ugly people; but perhaps Norman,
never afraid to take up unpopular, if principled, high-profile causes – such as what he believed was the murder of David Kelly, the government scientist –proved that politics could sometimes be rock ‘n’ roll for decent people.
The Reform Club was named after a smart Pall Mall club first established by Liberal politicians in the Victorian era keen to extend the franchise; the band’s first gig was performed in more modest surrounding over 20 years ago, at the Elephant and Castle pub in Lewes. But after Norman’s election in Lewes in 1997 and subsequent rise up the greasy pole, the band had to take something of a backbench role in the life of the ever-campaigning MP.
“People were asking why I was doing this, was I going for the youth vote, and so on,” Norman says. “They seemed not to want to understand that there was a simple explanation – this is what I liked to do in my spare time.
“One day the News of the World devoted a whole page to the band, in a piece headed ‘Rock ‘n’ Poll’, together with suggestions for songs we might play, like Stand By Your Mandy, a reference to Labour’s Rasputin-like figure. It was quite a funny piece, but it was becoming increasingly difficult just to do music, and the rest of the band, who were not particularly political, were getting a bit tired of this, so we called it a day.”
So what changed?
“About five years ago, while a Minister, I thought one way round this would be, instead of playing gigs, to record a studio album,” he says. “I had lots of songs I had written lyrics for over the previous 30 years, but done nothing with. So I got together with an old colleague from Our Price Records back in the early 1980s, Mike Phipps, and together we came up with 15 originals.”
The result was an album, Always Tomorrow, issued by the Seaford-based label Splash Point in early 2013. The single from the album, Piccadilly Circus, became a minor hit, and remains the band’s best known original song. Many, expecting that any musical offering from an MP was likely to be dire, were pleasantly surprised by the catchy tune, and it received good reviews, bar one from a rather curmudgeonly writer on the old Tory rag, The Daily Telegraph.
Did that worry Norman?
“I have never had good reviews from the Telegraph,” he quipped. “I’m not nearly right-wing enough for their liking.”
Spurred on by the positive reception, he released a solo EP called Animal Countdown, to highlight his concern about the loss of species in the wild. There then followed a second album from The Reform Club, issued earlier this year by respected label Angel Air, where Norman’s band shares a stable with T Rex, Sailor, and After The Fire.
Neither album is particularly political, bar one song on the latest outing, Give War A Chance, a searing commentary on a Middle East peace envoy. It is a good tune, made more powerful by the none-to-subtle implication that it is about Tony Blair. Norman plays “Blair” in the hard-hitting, professionally produced video, moving imaginary troops around a map and behaving rudely to waiters.
The new album can be seen as a companion piece to the first, as Always Tomorrow became Never Yesterday. In addition, both feature on the front cover a striking folly, one a pyramid, the other a sugar loaf.
The follies, both to be found in rural East Sussex, are the work of “Mad” Jack Fuller (see page 52). The pyramid, in Brightling churchyard, overpowers the adjacent church. He was buried in it, legend has it sitting at a table with a bottle of port; there are probably worse ways to go.
The sugar loaf came about as a result of a bet.
Mad Jack had wagered that he could see the spire of Dallington Church from his property, but on returning back to Brightling, found that he could not, so built the sugar loaf to win the bet.
“I have long been interested in the curious structures Mad Jack erected around Brightling, but it was only after the last album that I discovered, to my delight, Mad Jack had for a short period around 1810 been the MP for Lewes,” says Norman.
May 2015 saw the political tsunami as Lib Dems across the country were swept away everywhere. The party now has just eight MPs. Most of the losses, such as in Lewes, were to the Conservatives. Ironically, in Lewes and elsewhere, the Tory vote barely changed. What did change was that Labour and Green supporters, who had voted tactically for the Lib Dems in 2010, refused to do so this time because of the Lib Dem involvement in the Coalition and their strong dislike of the Tories. Yet by not voting Lib Dem, they “succeeded” in electing Tory MPs in Lewes, Eastbourne and across the country. These Labour and Green supporters helped create a Conservative government which would not have been possible if they had voted tactically as they had in 2010.
So 18 years as an MP came to an end for Norman. In his speech at the count, he announced his retirement from front-line politics.
“If someone had said to me in 1987 when I was first elected as a councillor, here is the deal: you will become the first ever Lib Dem leader of the district council, you will be the first non-Tory MP for Lewes since 1874 and serve for 18 years, and you will be a government Minister for almost five years, I would have bitten their hand off. I had a great time, and enjoyed it tremendously. I think I achieved a lot and leave with a clear conscience. But everything comes to a natural end.”
As well as his music, Norman is currently running Tibet Society – the oldest Tibet support group in the world, is Chair of Bus Users UK, is undertaking transport consultancy work, giving lectures, leading training courses, and writing articles. He has also recently published his second book, a political memoir, Against The Grain. Oh, and he presents two weekly music shows on local station, Seahaven FM, now in his seventh year.
The division bell may no longer ring, but the sound from Norman’s amp is growing louder.
Is there life after the House of Commons? There certainly is for the Rt Hon Norman Baker, Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015