The Independent Archive: Thatcherism: the thread of continuity

23 August 1988: Kenneth Baker tells Colin Brown of his admiration for Mrs Thatcher, and hints at a desire to follow in her footsteps
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IN THE ante-room to the Secretary of State's office is a portrait gallery of his predecessors, including one of Margaret, looking visionary, her head touched with a halo of light. The former Secretary of State for Education still keeps a very close eye on what goes on at her former department.

The present Secretary of State for Education, on the other hand, has a reputation for keeping his eye on the longer game - for the leadership of the party when Margaret Thatcher finally stands down. In Kenneth Baker's replies during our interview there was little attempt to conceal the fact that he sees the Education Reform Act as a test of his qualities for the leadership when the time comes.

The measure has already tested the Baker backbone. The Second Reading debate confirmed that he has little left in common with Ted Heath, the former Conservative prime minister, for whom he was Parliamentary Private Secretary in 1974-75. It also proved he was willing to stand up to Mrs Thatcher, in a Bakerish way.

"I like a frank discussion. I find in talking to her it is much better not to toady and not to say what people think she wants to hear. I argue with her and discuss things with her and it's a much better relationship, because she does bring a considerable degree of political judgement to bear. People think she shoots from prejudice. But she has now an experience which is unique in our country, having been Prime Minister for eight years and having dealt with a series of major problems and crises, the sheer longevity of her time . . ."

Perhaps he would not want too much made of the fact that, at this point, he called to mind a passage from Lytton Strachey's book on Queen Victoria. It was the death scene.

"She is lying dying and goes through in her mind all the things [she has done], she appointed 15 different prime ministers, Melbourne had been her foreign secretary, Disraeli, Gladstone, she had been through the Crimea war, through the Industrial Revolution, Albert and the Great Exhibition, the wars at the end of the 19th century; she was just powerful because she was wise, she had seen so much, been involved in so much. Margaret has been involved in so much. She has measured her strength against the other world statesmen. Any minister in her Cabinet must respect her judgement . . . She wins elections."

Indeed, Mr Baker was expansive in his praise for her: "I get on with her very well. I have great admiration for her. She has changed the political weather - I think that was said by Churchill of Joe Chamberlain, and I think Margaret has changed the political weather. It's been done with a great deal of personal courage and strength of character."

Mr Baker rejects any suggestion that Thatcherism has run out of steam: "I think the next stage of Thatcherism is implicit in this stage. I believe in the thread of continuity. Just as one has released changes of a dynamic nature in the economy, I think that in society one wants to see this come through and make changes.

"Whatever colleagues do in other departments - I'm not trying to boast too much - it will be education which really is the major social reform . . . "

His modern office in the DES building, which occupies a corner of Waterloo Station, overlooks the main line into Charing Cross. Unlike Mrs Thatcher, he likes to travel Britain by train. Suddenly, he sweeps off on a Betjemanesque reverie about England as seen from the window of the railway carriage and rattles off an appropriate passage from his best-selling anthology of English poetry. ("I tried to express the continuity of Englishness . . .")

Could he see himself at No 11? He beamed the Baker grin, but without any real enthusiasm for the idea. What about No 10? The Independent survey of 100 Tory MPs showed that, if the contest took place after the next general election, the clear favourites would be Michael Heseltine and Mr Baker. Would he be a candidate?

"There is no vacancy and I think Margaret will go on for some time."

From `The Independent', Tuesday 23 August 1988