Steve Baker: from St Austell to Austrian School

A leading figure in the so-called Covid Recovery Group, Baker is a disaster capitalist with an impressive string of disasters to his name.

In recent months, a group of hard-right, ‘lockdown-sceptic’ Conservative MPs has been lobbying vigorously for an early exit to lockdown. And one of the loudest voices in the so-called ‘Covid Recovery Group’ (CRG) is the group’s deputy chair, Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.

In late November, the CRG – which numbers around 60 MPs  –  wrote a letter to Boris Johnson saying they would only support further lockdown measures if the government could show that the benefits of these exceeded the costs. This pressure from his own backbenchers – several of whom are also members of the influential 1922 Committee – may well have been instrumental in persuading Boris Johnson to delay a decision to impose restrictions in December, with catastrophic results.

Yesterday the group wrote another letter, this time demanding that the prime minister set out a plan for “a return to normal life” from 8 March, and for all restrictions to be lifted by the end of April.

There is considerable overlap between the CRG’s membership and that of the European Research Group (ERG), the cabal of hard-Brexit MPs who were such a thorn in the side of Theresa May’s government. Funding for the CRG has come from Risk Capital Partners, the investment firm run by the prominent Brexit-supporting businessman Luke Johnson. As Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, has observed: “The journey from euroscepticism to lockdown scepticism is fairly easy.”

At any event, one suspects that the CRG understands about as much about epidemiology as the ERG understood about trade with Europe. The European Research Group never quite managed to work out what the European Union is or why it matters, despite its supposed “research” (for which its members claimed parliamentary expenses – paid for by us). And the Covid Recovery Group seems to have little clue how Covid works or what it will take to “recover” from it.

Many members of the CRG clearly take much the same attitude to expert scientists as the ERG took to expert economists. Sir Desmond Swayne, for instance, has claimed that figures on deaths and ICU admissions are being “manipulated” as part of a conspiracy to turn Britain into a “police state”, and has refused to apologise for encouraging anti-vaxxers to persist in their efforts.

On Saturday, Steve Baker tweeted a list of the CRG’s demands: “All pupils back to school by 8 March; hospitality venues open by Easter; no legislative restrictions after 1 May; vaccine must mean permanent immunity from lockdowns and restrictions.”

As epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani commented on Twitter, following Baker’s timetable with no regard for conditions prevailing at the time, would be a recipe for even greater disaster: “Apart from tens of thousands of deaths, and potentially needing further lockdowns, early release of restrictions could also lead to spread of variants of concern that are circulating in the UK, and could threaten vaccine effectiveness. It could also lead to further adaptation.”

But disaster has never been something to deter Steve Baker; in fact, one might even say that it is something of a trademark. He could fairly be described as a true disaster capitalist, with a pretty impressive back-catalogue of disasters to his name.

Born in St Austell, Cornwall, Baker studied aerospace engineering and, later, computing at university. After 11 years in the RAF, he worked for several years as a software engineer before being appointed in 2006 to the position of “chief architect of global financing and asset service platforms” at Lehman Brothers, then one of the world’s largest investment banks.

Sadly, this phase of his career was ended by Lehman’s spectacular collapse in 2008, which was the trigger for the most calamitous financial crisis since the Second World War. Undeterred, Baker moved into politics and was elected as an MP in 2009. His main motivation seems to have been to do whatever he could to end the UK’s membership of the European Union, while promoting the most extreme variety of laissez-faire economics.

As the chair of the ERG, Baker was at the heart of the Brexit campaign in 2016.  Among his contributions was to write a notorious email to Vote Leave, advising that the official Brexit campaign could “spend as much money as is necessary to win the Referendum” by creating separate legal entities through which to spend the money. Vote Leave went on to do precisely that, and was later found to have thereby committed a serious breach of electoral law.

Like his fellow hard-Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg, Baker has not been averse to combining politics with the pursuit of personal profit. In 2018 he used his Twitter account (as “Steve Baker MP”) to promote the launch of a company called Glintpay – an outfit offering online gold-buying and selling services:

Business Insider later revealed that Baker had £70,000 invested in the company, and that it was advising people to invest in gold as a way to avoid the impacts of a hard Brexit on the UK economy – exactly the sort of Brexit that Baker had been working to achieve. As the company wrote, this would damage the economy, hit pension savings and “be damaging for all parties, particularly the UK that could see growth shrink by up to 8%”.

Baker responded angrily to the suggestion that he had invested in the company as a way of avoiding or even profiting from the dire impacts of Brexit: “Anyone can see from my record that I have long believed in money reform. With that in mind, I became a minor investor in Glint. I have no role in directing the strategy of the company. Once again we see that Remain fantasists have taken leave of their senses.”

For most people, £70,000 would hardly count as a “minor investment”. Be that as it may, it is one that may not have worked out well for Baker. In September 2019, the company – which had raised £6.1 million in capital to support its launch – went into administration. In a statement on its website, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) warned that customer funds held by Glintpay were not protected by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

Whatever Baker’s motives for his involvement with Glintpay, it’s true that he has long been an advocate of a return to the gold standard – the monetary system by which a country’s currency is directly linked to the value of gold. This is a proposal viewed by almost all serious economists as a fringe fantasy, and “macroeconomically illiterate” (in the words of leading economist and Bank of England policy committee member Anil Kashyap) – though Donald Trump, perhaps not surprisingly, is also an advocate.

A return to the gold standard is also a key tenet of the ‘Austrian School’ of economics, of which Baker counts himself a disciple. Under its leading exponents Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian School and its offshoot the ‘Chicago School’, argued for perhaps the most extreme version of ‘free-market’ neo-liberal economics.

In the 1970s, Hayek – infuriated that so few democratic governments wished to follow his extreme advice on cutting government spending and destroying the public sector – leapt at the opportunity to put his theories into practice when this was offered by Chile’s notoriously brutal dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Hayek visited Chile and met with Pinochet – who was then conducting mass torture and murder of his political opponents – and enthused about what a positive reception his ideas were finding there. “I have not been able to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende,” he wrote. The episode was later used by Canadian author Naomi Klein as a textbook example of the ‘shock doctrine’ in her book of that name.

Baker’s most significant contribution to furthering the ideas of Austrian School has been through his position as co-founder and chair of the ‘free market’ thinktank, the Cobden Centre. Toby Baxendale, another of the Cobden Centre’s co-founders, described the organisation’s role memorably: “to go for the jugular of the state, to cut the oxygen and the blood supply off and force it to be honest”.

This might seem an odd ambition for someone proclaiming their Christian beliefs, as Baker does (he is a member of  the Tory Cornerstone Group – motto: “Faith, Flag, and Family”). But Baker’s beliefs have not stopped him taking money from arms industry sources and using his parliamentary position to promote the arms trade. Perhaps his version of Christ would insist that selling lethal weapons is a godly pursuit, and that helping the sick, weak and poor is none of the state’s business.

There is little doubt that Baker hopes to see Brexit create the conditions for a radical downsizing of the British state, including welfare. But the pandemic has had quite opposite effects, forcing the government to spend unprecedented sums to stave off a complete economic collapse and mass unemployment. No wonder, then, that Baker and his CRG associates are eager for an early end to measures taken to stop the spread of the virus and to support the economy in the meantime.

And if this should result in many more people being exposed to a disease that will kill them or have long-term impacts on their health? This may be of relatively little consequence to disaster capitalist purists such as Baker. Chaos and catastrophe are, indeed, essential to their project.

As Naomi Klein described in a recent interview: “The shock doctrine was developed as a way to prevent crises from giving way to organic moments where progressive policies emerge. Political and economic elites understand that moments of crisis are their chance to push through their wish list of unpopular policies that further polarise wealth in this country and around the world.”

For disaster capitalists, every catastrophe is an opportunity – not just to profit, but also to advance the sort of ideology that can help shape the world in a way that best suits them.