This article is from the October 2012 issue of Total Politics
Once you’ve had the opportunity to get to know Simon Burns, he strikes you as one of those people you like to have around. Politics can at times be a routine, and dull, and the transport minister always finds a way of lightening proceedings, intentionally or otherwise. He has a good sense of humour, gets himself into often ridiculous but hilarious (to his friends, at least) scrapes, and is utterly loyal to both friends and party.
However, there’s still a great deal of the bloke-ish, long-haired 1970s student about Burns, even though he recently turned 60. This could be the result of his biological DNA: Burns is second cousin to David Bowie. Strangely, the two have never met. When a journalist recently tried to arrange a meeting, he was told by Bowie’s agent that Burns wasn’t famous enough.
Burns’ unusual interests, though fairly narrow, have depth. He has a library of 7,000 books – around 2,000 of them are about the Kennedys and another 2,000 about US politics. Keith Simpson, Total Politics’ books editor, describes Burns as didactic, although, to be fair, the rest of his library of books come under British politics. Possessing a huge book collection might seem anathema to a man who, along the way, gained the nickname Third-Degree Burns.
He worked hard and successfully at school, but lost interest in his studies at Oxford University due to his involvement in student politics and as a result got a third-class degree. Burns denies he has ever had the nickname; it was an invention, he says, of a producer of QI – but “it has plagued me ever since”.
The transport minister’s future career choice was made early on. The morning of 23 November 1963 was momentous for 11-year-old Simon Hugh McGuigan Burns; that was the day he decided that he wanted to be a politician and, as he remembers: “My whole life from that point on was geared towards achieving that ambition in the shortest possible time.” The previous day, President John F Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. From that single tragic event, Burns’ love affair with US politics and the Democrat Party began. It continues as strongly today as it ever did.
This career impetus might strike some as slightly abnormal. Burns was neither from a particularly political family nor had US connections. His early years were spent – as a Protestant – in a Catholic school in Ghana, where his father was on an army posting. His parents were Conservatives, but his father in particular, being in the military, didn’t have much time for politicians of any description.
Consequently, young Burns didn’t have a great deal of exposure to politics in Africa, nor when packed off to boarding school back in England. He didn’t see a television until he was nine, but when he did begin to see the news, it had a profound impact on him. The Cuban missile crisis, in particular, is his first memory of news, but followed swiftly by the death of Pope John XXIII, and President Kennedy making Winston Churchill an honorary US citizen.
Burns, specifically, became absolutely captivated by JFK and his Camelot administration. He remembers: “As you looked around the world you had a prime minister in Britain who was about 69, a president in France in his mid-70s and a chancellor in West Germany in his 80s. He [Kennedy] had a glamorous family, and conveyed the impression that you could actually do something in politics to improve the lives of citizens. I thought that was cool, and decided that public service would be fantastic.”
He told his parents, who thought it was probably a flash in the pan. But by the time Burns was 14, and had joined the Conservative Party, his parents began to take it more seriously. Why, however, having been inspired by a Democrat, did he decide to join the Tories? He’s quick to explain the apparent paradox: “You can’t just say that, because you’re a British Conservative, so you have to be a Republican. American politics isn’t contained in that way. Turn the clock back to the 1970s, and the Democrat Party went from the liberal Kennedy wing right through to the out-and-out racists in the Southern states. The Republican Party had its liberal wing – people like John Lindsay, Chuck Percy (senator, Illinois) and Nelson Rockefeller (governor, New York State)”.
Despite the reasonable explanation, it did make him an oddity in the Conservative Party of the 1990s. “I’m a Democrat, and proud,” Burns re-affirms. “But it was a lonely place in the 1990s as a Conservative MP; no-one else shared my views. They found it either endearing or nauseating. I was rather pleased that, by 2008 – and I have George W Bush to thank for this – a majority of the parliamentary party would have voted for Obama if they could. So we were all Democrats then.”
As a young man, his fascination and love for the US and all things Democrat continued. He worked at a garage after his O-Levels, aged 16, to raise money to go to the US. His parents made him save the £65 he could take abroad – in those days, there were foreign currency limits – while they bought the return air ticket. “I literally spent three months travelling coast to coast, border to border, on a Greyhound bus – it was fabulous.” Having enjoyed it so much, and having taken his A-Levels and applied for Oxford, he filled the nine-month gap before the academic varsity term began by working in the US for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern.
Based in Detroit, he spent his time as a “dogsbody”, writing on envelopes and doing the menial campaigning necessary in a non-computerised election campaign. Burns’ efforts were in vain, however – McGovern was heavily defeated by Richard Nixon. “It wasn’t a successful campaign, but we won the argument, even if we lost the vote”, he says.
He then picked another loser in the Democrat primaries, supporting Ted Kennedy against Jimmy Carter. One detects that his decision, to some extent, was based on a loyalty to the Kennedy name. In February 2012, Burns, via a friend, met Carter in Atlanta at a dinner at his home. He continued: “Having been a firm supporter of Ted Kennedy, I was slightly perplexed as to what I would make of Jimmy Carter when I met him but he was absolutely captivating. He was fascinating.”
Carter must have enjoyed the encounter, as Burns and his son Bobby (named, inevitably, after Bobby Kennedy) were invited back to dinner on the Saturday. However, the text invitation did not arrive on the BlackBerry until they were on their way back to the UK. “Sadly, we stood up a former president of the United States – unintentionally, of course.”
Loyalty is something that is precious to Burns. He’s one of a very rare breed in that he has never rebelled against the party whip in all his time in the Commons, and doesn’t have a great deal of time for those who do. He says: “If you don’t like something proposed by your party you can go through the proper channels to make your opposition known; you don’t have to do it on College Green or in a pamphlet or in a newspaper.”
“The only people who benefit are your political opponents. Also, if you vote against your party the whole time it devalues your influence when you really do care about something important.”
In this respect, he was once described as: “A good swimmer, usually with the tide... a pragmatist with an instinctive feel for the winning side.” I put this to him, and the fact that he has progressed from wet Conservative to Thatcherite, to Major loyalist, and adapted to four party leaders. His response is firm: “I take that as a compliment. Loyalty used to be the secret word of the Tory Party.”
In many ways, Burns’ natural affinity for loyalty found its outlet in his long service as a whip, both in government and opposition. He’s done the job on and off for 25 years, and it’s clearly something he enjoyed immensely. Apart from foreign affairs (vis-à-vis North America) and health, the Whips’ Office is probably the place he most enjoys being in politics. Now, he has joined his best friend in politics, former Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin, at transport.
He had, though, a very challenging couple of years as minister of state for health. He was the minister guiding the Health and Social Care Bill through committee – not once, but twice. It was particularly onerous, but he stuck with it because he says: “It was the right thing to do. The health service needs to evolve to put patients at the centre, and one simply has to do one’s job.”
Although Burns passionately believes the policy itself was right, he acknowledges that communicating this was difficult. The reforms were complex and not easy to put in a soundbite, and, he believes: “In hindsight, I should have brought the issues down to a simpler level when I talked to people, so they understood what we were doing was to improve care and to raise standards.”
He did not, he feels, get across his personal passion for the healthcare system in the UK, which is more evident when he speaks about the US. A facet that drew him to JFK was the president’s passion for equitable healthcare. “One of the overriding convictions of my political make-up is a free health service. Roosevelt talked about the four freedoms, including freedom from fear. I think there’s a fifth freedom – freedom from fear of a medical bill dropping on your doormat that will destroy your family’s finances and your life. America has not had that. There’s something obscene about the greatest economic power in the world, with all its wealth, having around 40 million middle-class Americans without health insurance.”
These emotive words should make it clear, even to the Labour Party, that this was not a man with intentions of destroying the NHS. But Burns has no time for Labour’s behaviour, even though he regards Andy Burnham as a friend. “They have cynically misrepresented and distorted what is happening,” he says. “They have no scruples about misrepresenting the facts if those facts don’t fit their agenda.” He cites the fall in waiting times as a clear example. He also feels that Labour has failed to offer a realistic, alternative policy, which has led to debates in the Commons running the government’s way.
However, he aims his sternest criticism at the vested interests in the NHS. Many of the arguments, he feels, were misrepresented by trade unions, politicians and the Royal Colleges. His ire, however, isn’t targeted at the usual suspects in Unite or UNISON, but rather at the BMA and Royal College of GPs, whose role he describes as “fairly negative and irresponsible in certain areas”.
He continues: “You must remember that when we published the white paper there were parts of the BMA that were quite happy with it.”
So what changed? “I believe that the BMA leader was under pressure from more radical hard-line members. They became determined to see nothing good in the proposals. The irony is that they had a special conference last summer where they voted for outright opposition to the Bill, and the next day voted in favour of clinical commissioning. Funny that, isn’t it?”
Alongside a bruising encounter with the health profession, Burns continues to run into what might be described as local difficulties. He had to apologise after an organisation called Walking With Giants got involved in his ongoing spat with Speaker John Bercow. Burns did not want to cause them any offence – but does he still think Bercow is a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf”?
“I don’t usually change my mind once I’ve said something,” he responds emphatically. Apparently, the antipathy between them goes back to when Burns was Bercow’s whip, and they had quite a few run-ins. In 2009, Burns received a £400 fine for careless driving, which, to this day, he is unhappy about. As he was trying to pull out of Old Palace Yard at Westminster, he says that his car was stationary when a cyclist hit him and sailed onto the bonnet. “I thought it was a genuine accident, where neither party was at fault, but I pleaded guilty because the legal advice made it clear I would be found guilty.”
When Burns isn’t involving himself in RTAs, he can often be found having a fag beneath the Speaker’s apartment. His smoking habit still causes great hilarity among his colleagues; as a former health minister, he shouldn’t be indulging in such unhealthy practices. He doesn’t know how many he smokes per day, but adds: “It’s never more than a pack. I’m not a hypocrite, as I have nothing to do with smoking policy in the department. I support the smoking ban, and I’d like to give up, but I find it difficult because I’m obviously weak-minded. I do enjoy it, but it’s not necessarily the healthiest thing to do.”
Despite the ups and downs of the ministerial job, Burns still loves what he does. After all, it was his involvement in politics that made, very recently, one of his dreams come true. Burns is not just a Democrat: he’s also a Clintonista. In fact, it wouldn’t be stretching the point to say he adores Hillary Clinton. He’s been to New Hampshire to campaign for her in freezing temperatures in the middle of winter. And he still hopes – and believes – she will be president.
Last May, William Hague arranged for Burns to meet Clinton in the Foreign Office once the formal sessions were over – with one condition. Duly, the meeting took place in a corridor outside the room where a press conference had just finished.
They chatted about New Hampshire and other matters, and then Hague turned to Burns and told him it was time to deliver. Burns immediately hitched his sleeve up – to display his much-loved Hillary Clinton watch. Clinton shrieked, her secret service men stepped in, and Burns was then marched downstairs by Clinton to show the watch to her chief of staff.
That’s Simon Burns: always lightening proceedings in the sometimes dull world of politics.
Rob Wilson is MP for Reading East