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  Philip John  Noel-Baker (1889–1982), by Howard Coster, 1946 Philip John Noel-Baker (1889–1982), by Howard Coster, 1946
Baker, Philip John Noel-, Baron Noel-Baker (1889–1982), politician and Nobel prizewinner, was born Philip John Baker at Woodstock, Brondesbury Park, London, on 1 November 1889, the sixth and penultimate child of (Joseph) Allen Baker (1852–1918) and his wife, Elizabeth Balmer Moscrip. His father had moved to Britain from New Brunswick, Canada, in 1876; his mother was from the Scottish borders. Allen Baker developed a successful engineering business and became a Progressive member of the London county council. From 1905 until his death in 1918 he was Liberal MP for East Finsbury and, as a member of the Society of Friends, a prominent peace campaigner.

Philip Baker had a Quaker education at Bootham School, York, followed by Haverford College in Pennsylvania, USA. He entered King's College, Cambridge, in 1908 and took a second in part one of the history tripos (1910) and a first in the second part of the economics tripos (1912). He was president of the Cambridge Union in 1912 and of the university athletic club (1910–12). During his glittering undergraduate career he was selected for the 1500 metres at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. A finalist at his first Olympics, eight years later at Antwerp he gained a silver medal when he came second to another Briton, Albert Hill, in the same event. After graduating, he held a senior Whewell scholarship in international law at Cambridge (1912) and was elected a fellow of King's College in 1915.

Baker's political ideas were influenced heavily by his father; in 1911, during a visit to the United States, he was attracted by the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt. His political sentiments were evident in his appointment as vice-principal of Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1914. During the First World War he served with the Friends' Ambulance Unit in France and in Italy. He was awarded the Mons star and silver medal for valour (1917) and the croce di guerra (1918). He also met Irene Noel (1879–1956), a friend of Virginia Woolf, and the daughter of Francis Edward Noel, the British owner of a Greek estate, Achmetaga. She was working as a nurse; they were married on 12 June 1915. On his marriage he adopted the additional surname Noel (he began to hyphenate his surname in the early 1940s).

Noel Baker's political background and wartime experiences produced a strong commitment to international co-operation and disarmament. He was a member of the British delegation to the Paris peace conference and then worked with the League of Nations secretariat until 1922. From 1923 to 1924 he was secretary to the British delegation to the League of Nations, working closely with Edgar Cecil. Subsequently he was private secretary to Charles Alfred Cripps, the minister responsible for League of Nations affairs in the Labour government of 1924. In that year's general election Noel Baker stood unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for Birmingham Handsworth, a safe Conservative seat. From 1924 until 1929 he was Cassel professor of international relations at the University of London, an appointment secured without previous academic experience. His specialist credentials were confirmed in 1926 with the publication of Disarmament. However, he was increasingly committed to a political career and in May 1929 became the Labour MP for Coventry. Like many liberal internationalists he saw the Labour Party as the best available instrument for his ideals.

Arthur Henderson, the foreign secretary in the Labour government of 1929, appointed Noel Baker his parliamentary private secretary. Thus the newly elected MP had some involvement in one of the increasingly beleaguered government's few successful fields. On economic issues he could be critical of the administration and felt some sympathy for the arguments developed by Sir Oswald Mosley in spring 1930. Essentially, however, he was a party loyalist and his rapport with Henderson was close. Following the loss of his Coventry seat at the 1931 election, Noel Baker went to Geneva as Henderson's principal assistant, during the latter's presidency of the disarmament conference of 1932–3. Noel Baker was optimistic about the prospects for agreement, and the failure of the conference marked the first of a series of disappointments that culminated in the outbreak of the Second World War. As the international situation deteriorated he continued to campaign for collective security and armaments reduction. His book The Private Manufacture of Armaments (1936) was a critical analysis of the private arms trade.

Noel Baker unsuccessfully contested Coventry in the 1935 election but was victorious in a by-election at Derby in July 1936. He remained an MP for the town (his seat became Derby South at the 1950 election) until he retired from the House of Commons in 1970. During the late 1930s he stood in the second tier of Labour parliamentarians. He had an acknowledged expertise but his political experience was limited. Following the reform of the national executive committee in 1937, he was elected to that body's constituency section. He clearly had a significant standing among party activists. His reputation among Labour MPs secured his election to the parliamentary committee.

Yet Noel-Baker's talents did not guarantee him easy access to office in the Churchill coalition. Attlee was unsympathetic to his claims—‘too unbalanced in his judgements’ (War Diary of Hugh Dalton, 12–13, 18 May 1940). Eventually in February 1942 he was appointed joint parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of War Transport, where he performed competently until the termination of the coalition. Within the Labour Party he used his position on the national executive committee to criticize proposals for the severe post-war treatment of Germany.

Labour's electoral victory in 1945 brought Noel-Baker back to the Foreign Office as minister of state under Ernest Bevin. There was no repeat of the rapport with Henderson. Noel-Baker would not have been Bevin's choice, and the foreign secretary was relieved when Noel-Baker was replaced in October 1946. The differences were stylistic and not substantive. Noel-Baker's liberalism and support for collective security combined readily to produce a critical view of Soviet foreign policy. Thus early in 1940 he had gone to Finland as a member of a labour mission to investigate the Soviet–Finnish conflict, and had returned a strong supporter of the Finns (Dalton, Fateful Years, 293). On his return to the Foreign Office he was comfortable with Bevin's foreign policy and gave conventional justifications for restoring European colonialism in south-east Asia (Saville, 197–8).

Noel-Baker left the Foreign Office for the Air Ministry and then in 1947 joined the cabinet as secretary of state for the Commonwealth. The image of him as the academic in politics proved damaging: ‘You'll have to try to keep Noel-Baker practical’, was Herbert Morrison's advice to his junior minister (Gordon Walker: Political Diaries, 168, 6 Oct 1947). Noel-Baker's relationship with his permanent under-secretary Percivale Liesching was poor, and Attlee felt that he was a lightweight in cabinet. Following the 1950 election he was shifted to the Ministry of Fuel and Power and dropped from the cabinet. Faced with the threat of coal and power shortages, his last ministerial post was not a happy one. Hugh Gaitskell, a previous incumbent, felt that he should be replaced, but ‘he is a very nice man and deserves better things’ (Diary of Hugh Gaitskell, 226, 10 Jan 1951).

Noel-Baker's stock also declined in the wider party. He chaired the Labour Party conference in 1947, but was voted off the national executive the following year in favour of a young back-bencher, Michael Foot. Back in opposition from 1951 he remained on the parliamentary committee until November 1959. He opposed the Bevanite left and favoured withdrawing the whip from Bevan in 1955. Strongly multilateralist on disarmament, he opposed proposals that the Labour Party should shift to a unilateralist policy on nuclear weapons. In his final term in the Commons he opposed the Wilson government's policy towards Biafra. Characteristically, his most significant achievement in these later years lay outside party politics. The publication of his book The Arms Race: a Programme for World Disarmament in 1958 was the prelude to the award of the Nobel peace prize the following year. The proceeds were used in support of the disarmament cause. Made a life peer in July 1977, he was active into the 1980s both on disarmament and on international sports bodies.

Noel-Baker was a longstanding promoter of the Olympic movement. Active in the British Olympic Association, he attempted to counter the negative reporting of the Olympic games in the British media in the interwar years. In the Cold War era he viewed sport as a means of reducing international tension, and as a minister in the Attlee government he helped to bring about the tour of Britain by the Dynamo Moscow football team in November 1945. He had ministerial responsibility for organizing the London Olympic games in 1948. He welcomed the entry of the USSR to the Helsinki games in 1952, and in 1980 wrote in opposition to the boycott of the Moscow games led by the USA (The Guardian, 17 March 1980). In 1960 he was elected the first president of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education, a position he held until 1976.

Noel-Baker's marriage produced a son, Francis Edward Noel-Baker [see below], but his relationship with Irene was not a success. She spent much time in Greece; Philip was absorbed in his campaigns. He began a relationship with , probably in 1936. This lasted for twenty years, with a hiatus during and after the war. It ended paradoxically with the death of Irene Noel-Baker. For those few who knew of this complex and often painful situation it was hard to reconcile the Philip Noel-Baker revealed here with the public figure.

Philip Noel-Baker was charming, talented, and intellectually serious. Athletic and convivial, he nevertheless bore a puritan legacy. ‘Phil Baker shd do half what he does, and should drink wine’ was Virginia Woolf's verdict (Diary of Virginia Woolf, 34, 17 Nov 1936). Several politicians felt that his positive qualities were subverted by a lack of judgement; this sentiment undoubtedly limited his ministerial opportunities. Yet the paradox was that his espousal of principle was typically accompanied by conventional positions on immediate issues. He died at his home, 16 South Eaton Place, Westminster, London, on 8 October 1982.

Noel-Baker's only child, Francis Edward Noel-Baker (1920–2009), politician and estate owner, was born on 7 January 1920 at 1 Cheniston Garden Studios, Kensington. Although he was registered as Francis Edward Baker, his mother signed the certificate as Irene Noel Baker, and it was as Noel Baker then Noel-Baker that he was known. He was educated at Westminster School and King's College, Cambridge, where during his first year he founded and chaired the University Labour Club, the university's socialist club then being in the hands of a pro-Soviet group. He left Cambridge early, in 1940, to enlist in the Royal Tank Regiment as a trooper. He was subsequently recruited to the Intelligence Corps. He was in Egypt when he was persuaded to stand as the Labour candidate for Brentford and Chiswick in the 1945 general election. He was not expected to win (the seat had until then been a safe Conservative seat) but was elected in the Labour landslide, becoming the ‘baby’ of the house. On 1 August 1947 he married the nineteen-year-old Ann Lavinia Saunders, daughter of Hilary St George Saunders, librarian of the House of Commons. They had two sons. In 1949–50 he was parliamentary private secretary at the Admiralty, but lost his seat in the Conservative revival in 1950. After working for the BBC European Service he was elected Labour MP for Swindon in 1955. He did not prosper in his second period in parliament, particularly after Harold Wilson replaced Hugh Gaitskell as Labour leader, and he was increasingly at odds with his party on a number of issues, most notably Cyprus (where he was a firm supporter of Archbishop Makarios), and Greece itself (where, even more controversially for the Labour Party, he welcomed the colonels' coup of 1967). He held the seat until announcing his retirement in 1968 (though he did not trigger a by-election until a year later, when it was won by the Conservatives). He quit the Labour Party in 1971, citing its hostility to European integration. Meanwhile, his first marriage ended in divorce in 1955, and on 26 July 1957 he married Barbro Kristina (otherwise Barbara Christina) Sonander (d. 2004), a Swede five years his junior, daughter of Josef Karl Sonander, engineer. They had three sons and one daughter. After his resignation as an MP they spent most of their time at Achmetaga, where he had to fight off attempts by the socialist government to expropriate his estate. He was a very active chairman of the North Euboean Foundation, which he set up in 1961, and which provided medical, veterinary, and other services for the people of northern Euboea. In 1996 he became a member of the Orthodox Church, his wife Barbro having already converted. Retaining his links with Britain, he was briefly a member of the Ecology Party, later joined the Social Democratic Party, and ended a supporter of the Conservative Party. From 1984 he was the founding president of the European Council for Villages and Small Towns, which he had played a large part in bringing into existence. He wrote nine books, including three about Greece and one about Cyprus, a study of communist espionage, The Spy Web (1954), and a biography of Fridtjof Nansen. He died in Greece on 25 September 2009 and was survived by four sons and a daughter, one son of his first marriage having predeceased him.

David Howell


D. J. Whittaker, Fighter for peace: Philip Noel-Baker, 1889–1982 (1989) · M. Jones, A radical life: the biography of Megan Lloyd George, 1902–1966 (1991) · The political diary of Hugh Dalton, 1918–1940, 1945–1960, ed. B. Pimlott (1986) · The Second World War diary of Hugh Dalton, 1940–1945, ed. B. Pimlott (1986) · H. Dalton, The fateful years: memoirs, 1931–1945 (1957) · H. Dalton, High tide and after: memoirs, 1945–1960 (1962) · The diary of Hugh Gaitskell, 1945–1956, ed. P. M. Williams (1983) · Patrick Gordon Walker: political diaries, 1932–1971, ed. R. Pearce (1991) · The diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. A. O. Bell and A. McNeillie, 5 (1984) · S. Brooke, Labour's war: the labour party during the Second World War (1992) · A. Glees, Exile politics during the Second World War: the German social democrats in Britain (1982) · Labour party conference report (1947) · E. B. Baker and P. J. Noel Baker, J. Allen Baker: a memoir (1927) · J. Saville, The politics of continuity: British foreign policy and the Labour government, 1945–46 (1993) · DNB · The Labour who's who (1927) · P. J. Beck, ‘Confronting George Orwell: Philip Noel-Baker on international sport, particularly the Olympic movement, as peacemaker’, Militarism, sport, Europe, ed. J. A. Mangan (2003) · S. Bailey, Science in the service of physical education and sport (1996) · WW · d. cert. · J. J. Withers, A register of admissions to King's College, Cambridge, 1797–1925, 2nd edn (1929) · b. cert. · m. cert. · Daily Telegraph (29 Sept 2009) · The Independent (30 Sept 2009) · The Times (1 Oct 2009); (5 Oct 2009); (13 Oct 2009); (23 Oct 2009) · The Guardian (2 Oct 2009) · WW (2009) · b. cert. [F. Noel-Baker] · m. certs. [F. Noel-Baker]


Bodl. RH, corresp. relating to colonial questions · CAC Cam., corresp. and papers · TNA: PRO, papers relating to the League of Nations, FO 800/249 |  BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil, Add. MSS 51106–51109 · BLPES, Dalton MSS · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with C. Attlee; corresp. with Lord Monckton; corresp. with G. Murray · CAC Cam., corresp. with A. V. Hill · Georgetown University, Washington, DC, letters to B. Jackson · JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with B. H. Liddell Hart · McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, corresp. with B. Russell · NAM, corresp. with Sir R. Bucher · NL Wales, letters to M. Lloyd George · Parl. Arch., letters to D. Lloyd George · People's History Museum, Manchester, Labour Party national executive committee minutes · St Ant. Oxf., Middle East Centre, corresp. with C. Edmonds · U. Sussex, corresp. with L. Woolf


H. Coster, photographs, 1930–46, NPG [see illus.] · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1947, NPG · W. Bird, photograph, 1963, NPG · obituary photographs (Francis Noel-Baker) · obituary photographs (F. Noel-Baker)

Wealth at death  

under £25,000: probate, 29 Oct 1982, CGPLA Eng. & Wales