An Interview with Cherie Blair

Cherie Blair
Cherie Blair

11th May 2015

Cherie Blair is the wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was in power between 1997 and 2007. After graduating from the London School of Economics, she became a barrister, later starting Omnia Strategy LLP, an international law firm that provides strategic counsel to governments, corporates and private clients. She is involved with a range of charity work and, in 2008 established the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, a charity which supports women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets.

Q: What were your experiences as the wife of the Prime Minister?
A: It was an amazing privilege to be the wife of the Prime Minister. To have a front row seat at so many political and diplomatic events in our country, without having the responsibility of actually making the decisions, which of course describes the role of the spouse of the Prime Minister: it’s somebody who has a position, but no power. When I was in Number 10, I tried to use the position I had to support my husband in the things he held to be important, and to pursue some of the things I care about, including, of course, the women’s issues that I still work on today.

Q: What were the highs and the lows of being in this position?
A: That’s quite a difficult question. The highs were certainly the outstanding people I was able to meet. Firstly, as a Catholic, it was a huge privilege to meet two Popes and to attend the funeral of John Paul II.  I also met the Queen, two Presidents of the United States, Bill Clinton and George Bush, as well as Nelson Mandela, although I had already met Nelson Mandela before my husband became Prime Minister, as the traditional links between the anti-Apartheid movement and the Labour Party go way back almost to my youth. Meeting these great people definitely constituted some of the highs.  But I would also include learning so much more about the good work that lots of non famous people do in our country and abroad. As far as the lows are concerned, well I suppose one of them is being photographed in my nightie on 2nd May ‘97, as I opened my front door – this was before we moved to Downing Street!  I can laugh about it now but it didn’t feel that funny at the time.

Q: What are your objectives for your charity, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women?
A: I was brought up by strong women, after my father abandoned his wife and two children when I was eight. My mother and my grandmother were determined that my sister and I would have the education that they didn’t have – neither of them had had any schooling after the age of 14. So for me, the idea of strong women is a very big thing, as is financial independence for women, because my mother was left with no income, literally holding the babies. She did very well to get where she ended up, as a manger in the travel business, but she had to start from scratch, working in a fish and chip shop, to do that. That’s why  I wanted to do something that promoted the financial independence of women, and also because of what I had seen across the world, I felt that there was a real need to promote that in developing and emerging economies. The Foundation works in 80 countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and we will be launching a new project in Latin America next year. Our aim is to support women entrepreneurs to build their confidence, capacity and access to capital, so that they can establish and grow their own businesses and have a stronger voice in their societies. It’s something I’m passionately committed to.

Q: And where do you think the charity has been most effective?
A: Well, I think we did two things which were very effective. One is that we wanted to focus on what are called SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises). A lot of the work done in the developing world, and particularly with women, focuses on micro-finance and women working inside the home making extra money and, of course, that’s important.  But I wanted to focus on those women who already had businesses, who actually employed not just themselves, but also the people in their wider communities, so becoming drivers of development. That was one thing, and I think it was right to be focused on an area which people hadn’t been looking at in 2008 when I set up my Foundation.  Now happily everyone is saying that we’ve got to do more to help women with small businesses. The other thing that my Foundation focuses on is the use of technology. That’s again because of my own experience. I would never have been able to do all I did in my own career without the use of technology. I wanted to see whether the flexibility, and the ability to upscale and to reach more people that technology brings, could be applied not just to fortunate women like myself, but to women in emerging and developing economies. We’ve done that really successfully with our mobile phone projects. For example, one of our projects delivered business training and tips via text message to over 100,000 women in three countries: Indonesia, Tanzania and Nigeria. We also run a global mentoring platform, where we’ve got 1,800 women teamed with 1,800 mentors. Each mentee-mentor pair works together over the course of a year to achieve key business goals for the mentee. We now have a global community in up to 80 different countries, and we are really using technology to enable women to access support and break down the barriers they face in setting up and growing their own businesses. One of our mentees describes her mentor as her “invisible friend” who walks with her on her business journey.

Q: What do you think is the future of philanthropy in Africa?
A: I think the future of philanthropy, not just in Africa, but across the world is to be a lot more focused on target: I believe that help should be a ‘hand up’, not a ‘hand out’, and that it’s really important to improve people’s capacities and skills so that they can stand on their own feet. That means that instead of doing things for them, you are helping them do things for themselves. I think, particularly with women entrepreneurs, and indeed with women in general, if you enable them to make choices for themselves and their families, you find that they make choices which actually benefit not just their families, but the wider community and wider society. This is the origin of the statistic that is always bounced around in development circles: if you give a development dollar to a woman, 90% of it will be reinvested in her family, and if you do the same with a man, it’s only 30-40%. Now that upsets me, because I have three sons and only one daughter, and I have a husband who is not a man who only invests 30-40% of what he has into his family. There’s a real problem here, where we seem to have created across the world a society where men doing things like my father did and abandoning their families is just regarded as ‘that’s what men do’, and I want to say ‘that’s not what men do’. Good men actually do care about their families, good men do contribute to their families, and it is unfortunate that those men are pulled down by the other men, who may not even be doing 30-40% but just 1%. For this reason, it is very important to me that men are involved in the work of my Foundation – for example, around 20% of the mentors in our Mentoring Programme are men. That’s fantastic, and I would love even more men to get involved!

Q: What African country are you most optimistic about?
A:  It would have to be Rwanda, I think. My first visit there was in 2005, after the Gleneagles [G8] summit.  I was very keen to go because I was a lawyer and I was interested in what they had been doing in relation to war crimes and crimes against humanity. But while I was there, I became fascinated by the fact it was already a society where women were really playing a strong part. And since that time, my Foundation has run projects in Rwanda, and we have one at the moment, called ‘Skilling for Change’, which I visited in July. Thanks to funding from Accenture, we are working with CARE International to support 15,000 women, helping them with business development and financial literacy training, access to financial services via mobile phones, and mentoring. We’re half way through the project, and we’ve already reached over 8,000 women, so we’re well on target. It was fantastic to meet some of these women and hear about how the training we are providing is making a difference to their lives. One woman I met used to have a small business growing and selling vegetables, but after attending our business training she decided to take out a loan to buy fertiliser and now she has a more successful business selling fertiliser not only in her village but to the surrounding areas as well. By giving this concerted help to women, we can help them contribute more to their own societies.

Q: Who is the most interesting person that you’ve met?
A: It’s so difficult to identify one person. As I said earlier I’ve been very lucky in the number of really outstanding people I’ve met, who were all of course very interesting.  But in the end it’s the people, particularly the women, that I’ve met around the world who aren’t famous outside their own village or their own town, but who are absolutely the bedrock of their community, especially when, sometimes, terrible things happen. We’ve been helping women build up businesses in Sierra Leone, for example, and they’re doing really well, but they’ve had to cope with the terrible impacts of Ebola. Naturally you can’t run a business in a country where people can’t move around because of Ebola. One of the women our project supports is Gladys – she had to make a number of staff at her guesthouse redundant last year. Our project has helped women like Gladys to put cost-cutting measures in place to ensure their businesses survive the crisis, but it is the resilience of the women themselves that is truly inspirational. The way they have coped with that level of adversity is a lesson to me whenever I feel a bit down; I wonder if I could even begin to cope in the way they have? So they’re the truly inspirational people. And I know there are people, not just across the world, but in our country too, who do that. In fact, I would say that my mother was one.

Q: Last week was the General Election, and David Cameron got re-elected. Do you think that Samantha Cameron is happy that this has happened, or do you think that she wants to get her past life back?
A: Well, I’ve met both David and Samantha Cameron on a number of occasions, and we get on well, but I wouldn’t dream of speaking for her. I’m sure though she has feelings like any other spouse of a Prime Minister: happy to see her husband succeed and conscious that being Prime Minister is a really difficult and stressful job, and that means that he is going to have a lot on his hands over the next few years.

The Cherie Blair Foundation can be found at http://www.cherieblairfoundation.org/.

An Audience with President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson of Iceland

President Grímsson
President Grímsson

1st February 2015

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has been President of Iceland since August 1996, serving over five terms in office. I was fortunate enough to sit down and talk to him while he was passing through London, and I have recounted the highlights of our conversation here. We discussed four main topics: geothermal energy, benefits and disadvantages of volcanoes in Iceland, the non-profit organisation the Arctic Circle, and his favourite and least favourite things about being President.

Over a quarter of Iceland’s energy is geothermal. Very few people are employed in geothermal energy plants, because although these produce a large portion of energy, they are mainly automatic. The President said that geothermal energy is a viable alternate energy source for the rest of the world. Although Iceland sits on two tectonic plates that are moving apart, meaning that magma rises upwards, to heat a house, temperatures underground need only be 40°C. Hence, to access geothermal energy, one does not have to bore down kilometres, but rather around one hundred metres. This could be of a great advantage to us in the UK, where geothermal energy would help alleviate growing energy costs, while winters grow colder and summers warmer.

Not only does rising magma lead to a source of geothermal energy, it also heats springs. These have become the site for spas, which attract tourism. The rising magma also forms something that the country is famous for: volcanoes. But on the flipside, volcanoes erupt. When I asked the President whether he thought the advantages outweighed the disadvantages, he said that it depended on the timeline. Volcanoes have been erupting forever. There are minor eruptions all the time, and only a few major ones. Although these can cause ice to melt and floods to occur, which can destroy infrastructure such as bridges and mean that sometimes citizens are told to stay inside, major eruptions put Iceland on the front pages, which is good for tourism. Take, for example, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull: the first eruption of this type of volcano (it sits under a glacier) since airplanes were invented. Airplane engines had not been designed to cope with the resulting ash. To conclude, in the short term, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. But in the long term, things don’t look so great. The capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, lies in a volcanic area, so in hundreds of years (no one knows when) there could be an eruption that puts its many inhabitants in danger.

The President set up the non-profit Arctic Circle in 2013 to facilitate discussion about climate change and the Arctic. He chairs the honorary board, and I asked him where he thought the next threat to the Arctic environment might come from. He said that it was coming from all around us, from heightened carbon dioxide levels in Europe and America, and not just from developing economies in the east, such as China and India. I asked him about potential drilling by Russia in the Arctic, and he said that the main potential driller is not Russia but instead the US, the UK, and Norway.

Finally, I had to ask him the clichéd but ever-interesting question: what are the best and worst things about being President? He said it was a difficult question, but he thought the best thing was being able to serve his country. I found his answer about the worst thing interesting: he told me that as President, everything is planned months or even years ahead, which means that unlike the everyday person, he can’t spontaneously decide to go on holiday.

An Interview with Bill Browder

Bill Browder
Bill Browder

19th March 2015

Bill Browder started the hedge fund Hermitage Capital Management in 1996. It quickly became very successful by investing in newly privatized Russian companies in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. A few years later, Browder began an activist strategy, and in the process, exposed wide-scale corruption. In 2006, he was barred from entering the country. When some of Hermitage’s holding companies were seized, lawyers in Russia were called in. One of Browder’s lawyers was arrested, thrown into prison, deprived of medical attention he desperately needed for months on end, and eventually beaten to death. His name was Sergei Magnitsky. Browder then started campaigning to have action taken against those responsible for this, and many other, human rights violation in Russia. He recently released a book called Red Notice, in which he recounts his experiences.

Q: Is there anywhere else in the world where you think investing in recently privatised companies will become a viable investment strategy?
A: The situation in Russia 23 years ago was an entirely unique situation; it will never be repeated again in our lifetimes. They made the decision to go from communism to capitalism, and they decided to give all the state assets away for free. It was a terrible idea, because they hadn’t set up the rules for capitalism when they gave everything away for free, so without any rules, the law of the jungle prevailed. As a result, instead of everybody being participants in the whole thing, 22 individuals ended up with 40% of the economy, which is probably the single most concentrated distortion of wealth that has ever happened in the world. The other 60% of the economy was out there and some of these shares were trading very cheaply as a result of the privatisation, but I can’t imagine that anyone will replicate such a policy again.

Q: What do you think about the current situation in Ukraine?
A: I have a very clear view of what Putin has been up to for the last 14 years: he has been running a government with the specific purpose of stealing money from the state for his own account, and the account of about a thousand other people around him. He was able to get away with this type of kleptocracy when the oil price was rising and the average Russian was doing a little bit better each year. When people have food on the table and money in the bank, they tend to be politically apathetic. But recently, the economy has gone down, and when people get hungry and have less money, they start wondering why the government has allowed this to happen. And then they start looking at their leader, and Putin has, over the last two years, been challenged to improve the situation of the country, and he has no capacity to do that. So he needed to come up with a plan to distract people from their current woes. He picked the most obvious thing: creating a foreign enemy and starting a war, to distract the Russian people from his own bad governance. So the war in Ukraine is, in my mind, a massive distraction strategy.

Q: Do you honestly think the primary motivation behind his behaviour is commercial rather than just trying to hang on to power for its own end?
A: His main motivation has been commercial, and the reason he wants to hang on to power is because if he were to lose power, he would go to jail, lose his money, and potentially lose his life. Power and money go hand in hand. But power by itself is only interesting accompanied by money, and losing power is fatal.

Q: Do you think that governments are underreacting to the situation, and that Russia should be further punished?
A: Yes. I think that we’ve been blessed with fifty years of peace, and as a result we’ve ended up with a group of world leaders, not just here in the UK but everywhere, who are not used to dealing with war. And as a result, the current leadership of the world is desperately trying to use diplomacy in a situation where diplomacy isn’t working and hasn’t worked; they’re trying to negotiate with a man who absolutely doesn’t keep his promises, and so one needs to force him to keep his promises. The way you force him is by using more aggressive tools, more aggressive economic sanctions, and even supplying military equipment to Ukraine.

Q: And so what do you think the endpoint for this scenario will be?
A: I don’t think anybody knows. So there are two possible outcomes: there’s a hot war or there’s a cold war. At the moment, we are engaged in a hot war, meaning that there are people with tanks and guns shooting bullets and mortars and so on. At the moment they are shooting at the Ukrainians and not shooting at us, but at some point they’ll be shooting at our troops if we don’t stop them. I don’t know if the hot war will be containable, but in my mind the best possible outcome is a cold war. This is where everybody’s pointing their guns at each other, but nobody’s shooting. One thing which is not possible is what I call the status quo of three years ago, where everything goes back to normal.

Q: What do you think about the murder of Boris Nemtsov? Do you think that Putin had him killed?
A: I believe that Putin was the main person with the motive and the means to kill Boris Nemstov. Boris Nemstov posed a serious risk to Putin because there’s an economic crisis going on in Russia, and Boris Nemstov was calling for people to come out onto the streets. Putin is desperately afraid of losing power in the way Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych lost power, and it’s absolutely clear to me, having had my own experiences with a murder in Russia, that the law enforcement agencies are so skilled at cover ups, and all the facts of this case point to a clear cover up. If there are no external bodies involved in the investigations then the Russians will cover the murder up completely.

Q: For how long do you think Putin will be President (or act as puppet Prime Minister)?
A: I think Putin could be President for anywhere from two months to twenty five years: we could have a Mugabe situation like in Zimbabwe, where he runs Russia into the ground and just creates a nationalist frenzy where he’s able to stay in power, or we could end up with a Ukraine-Tunisia-Kyrgyzstan-type of scenario, where people rise up and throw him out. It’s dependent on two variables: one, how angry people get about his governance, and two, how scared they get of his oppression. And if the anger overcomes the fear, then they’ll rise up. If the fear overcomes the anger, then they won’t.

Q: Recently you’ve been working on bringing those who murdered Sergei Magnitsky to justice. What country has helped you most with this, how much progress have you made, and how much progress do you still want to make?
A: The possibility of justice in Russia was impossible to obtain, because the Russian government has covered up the murder. So we sought justice outside of Russia: we looked to obtain visa bans and asset freezes on the people who murdered Sergei Magnitsky, and the people who commit other similar crimes. We were able to have a law created, called the Magnitsky Act. It was passed in America, which was the first country to act decisively in this area. America has been the real leader here, but the real goal for us is Europe. The reason is that the Russians love coming to the south of France, they love coming to London, they love coming to Italy, and places like that, and if we have stopped human rights abusers visiting Europe, then it creates a real consequence for the first time. Europe is a much tougher place to get this law passed, because a lot of people enjoy the money that Russians bring, and so it creates a very big conflict of interests among certain people in certain countries, which has so far been impossible to overcome.

Q: What is Russia doing in retaliation against you enforcing these laws?
A: Russia have done two things so far in retaliation: one is to ban the adoption of Russian orphans by American families, which effectively is a death sentence for certain sick orphans, who are getting medical attention in America. That was a general retaliation against America, and there has also been a personal retaliation against me and Sergei Magnitsky: they put Sergei Magnitsky on trial three years after he died, in the first ever trial against a dead man in the history of Russia. And they put me on trial as his co-defendant, where I was sentenced to nine years in prison in absentia. Russia has since gone to Interpol to try to convince them to issue a Red Notice, which is the name of my book, for my arrest. Thankfully, Interpol rejected it.

Q: Finally, do you think that you will ever be allowed to re-enter Russia?

A: I should point out that they would love to have me back at any moment, to have me serve my nine year sentence! Having said that, I’m not planning on returning to Russia, but I’m sure that when the Putin regime falls, I’ll be quite welcome back into the country.

An Interview with Lord (Robin) Renwick

Lord (Robin) Renwick by Tim Bishop
Lord Renwick by Tim Bishop

17th March 2015

Robin Renwick worked his way up through the ranks of the diplomatic service, becoming British ambassador to South Africa in 1987. He served in this role until 1991, and was at the forefront of events during the dismantling of apartheid. He then became British ambassador to the United States, before transitioning to a career in business.

Q: How have you found the transition from the politics to business?
A: Actually I wasn’t a politician, I was an ambassador. But I did work closely for ten years with Margaret Thatcher, so I was regarded as a Thatcherite. And I am an unrepentant Thatcherite, because she provided real leadership. She changed this country and its economy in dramatic ways: we are a much more prosperous and efficient economy than we were before. She was also a major figure in foreign policy; she had a huge impact on the world. I was involved with her in Rhodesia, in the Falklands, in getting our money back from Brussels and the single European act to try to complete the single market, and in South Africa. She made an enormous impact in Russia through her support for Gorbachev. When I left the Foreign Service, many things had been privatised, so I had to privatise myself. I was contacted by Flemings, the bank, and they said they’d like me to join, and I said that’s absolutely fine, but I don’t want just a door opening job, I want a real job. And they said fine, you can be part of a big capital markets team, helping to raise money for mining companies and listed companies in London. So I worked hand in glove with Ian Hannam, who is very well known in the capital markets business. We brought Billiton to London and then merged it with BHP, the world’s largest mining company. We bought South African Breweries, which is now the world’s second largest brewing company, and others; we helped build up Xstrata, and so on. It was very interesting, and my experience was relevant because some of it was based in South Africa, and I had a lot of friends there. But you’ve just got to do it wholeheartedly, it’s no use looking back on what you were doing, you’ve got to throw yourself into what you’re doing now.

Q: But it’s quite exceptional that transition you’ve made so successfully, very few people have done it. What was the key to your success?
A: I was lucky, and Flemings was a very good bank, and then I had great colleagues. I formed a troika with Ian Hannam and a former mining engineer and analyst called Lloyd Pengilly, and we managed to get a lot done by specialising in this sector. So I really enjoyed it, and tried to make the most of it.

Q: What are you opinions about leaving the European Union?
A: I am a director of a think tank called Open Europe. We fight against overregulation, which is the absolute bane and could be the death of the European Union. For instance, for asset managers here, there’s a deluge of new regulations, which could cause some of them to move offshore, i.e. move outside Europe. Now this is a disaster, and I was Thatcher’s negotiator in Europe, so I know how the Commission operates. And we did succeed in getting a huge correction to the British budgetary contribution. But the Commission is a regulatory machine: it just goes on churning out regulation. And it used to be under some type of control by the European Council, but not any longer. The Commission regards itself as the European government. It will go on producing evermore regulation. The result is a Europe where you have huge youth unemployment: we have twenty million people unemployed across Europe, and that’s partly overregulation, it’s partly the effect of the Euro on the weaker Eurozone member states, i.e. deflation. Within this think tank, we are trying to get reform, we are trying to get deregulation, especially for small and medium sized businesses, which is where all the jobs are created. And if we can do that, we will say, right, better off staying in. If we can’t get any reform, people are going to have to consider whether there is a risk of another lost decade: for ten years, the European economy stagnated. Europe used to be an example to the world. It’s now regarded as an example of what not to do. So we have to see what the evolution is going to be over the next several years. If there’s a willingness to push the frontiers of the Euro-state back, it’s fine to stay in, if there is no willingness to do that, it becomes more problematic for us over time: do you want to be locked into a stagnant economic zone?

Q: Do you believe that the House of Lords has become overcrowded, and do you think it should become an elected chamber?
A: Firstly, it is wildly overcrowded: there are several hundred members. People have lost count how many members there are, several barely turn up, and the average age is around seventy. Clearly, something needs to be done. I favour having an elected chamber like the USA: it should be elected differently from the House of Commons. But once you try to do that, you run into difficulties. The people who are most concerned about it are the Commons, because they like to think: we are legitimate, you are not, therefore we must be supreme and you can’t be. So the Commons are very scared of an elected House of Lords, and there are other resistances, for instance, some of the Lords don’t want to leave. But I do think we’d be better off with an elected second chamber.

Q: What do you think the future holds for the Anglo-American relationship?
A: I wrote a book about the relationship called Fighting with Allies. Since World War Two, we and the United States have been the closest of allies; in all the big crises, we have made a big, effective contribution. I think the Anglo-American relationship will remain strong and close because of the many ties between the countries, including the intelligence relationship and the military relationship. The two front runners in the US elections currently are Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush, both of whom are Anglophiles and understand this country well. But I am worried about the decline in our spending on defence: when there is a crisis, our ability to help the Americans effectively is weakened, and that will have an effect. Over Ukraine and ISIS, we’ve seen quite weak leadership from America; Obama is not a great foreign policy leader. That will correct itself, the American electorate will do that for us, but we’ve got to get back to better, stronger American leadership dealing with threats like Russia and the Islamic State, and we need to be heavily involved in that as well. We need to keep our defence capability strong enough to do that.

Q: Do you think that South Africa has improved since the end of the Apartheid?
A: In terms of South African society, there’s a huge improvement because it is now a normal society: the country is genuinely multiracial, far more so than many other countries I can think of. Nearly all young South Africans have friends across the colour line. And it’s a dynamic society: people are hardworking, they’re entrepreneurial, there’s an emerging black middle class, and many people really want to get on in life. In terms of government performance, that’s a different story: we started off with Mandela, who was an extraordinary character. I knew him well, and I wrote a book about my experiences with him called The End of Apartheid. Not merely was he colour-blind, he believed South Africa could only succeed if all sections of society worked together. He was embracing, not divisive. Since then we’ve had Thabo Mbeki, who was good on economics but had this crazy denial of AIDS. We’ve had Jacob Zuma, who is an effective political operator but doesn’t really run the government, there’s corruption, and there’s incompetence too. And the incompetence, in a way, is almost more dangerous than the corruption. And you get much more divisive politics. Take, for instance, land reform: the only way to get effective land reform is to get the white farmers to help the black farmers become commercial farmers. You can’t do it by saying we want to take the land away from the whites and give it to the blacks. When it comes to South African society, I am very positive. But when it comes to actual government performance, many South Africans, black and white, are worried. The exception is the Cape, where the opposition is in control, and they are governing very effectively.

Q: How do you think the ANC will evolve, and who do you think will succeed Jacob Zuma?
A: There are two wings of the ANC: one is reasonably modern-minded in its attitude to economics, it believes in free markets and so on, and it also believes you have to respect the constitution. There is another wing of the ANC which is much more statist; it believes the state should do all sorts of things. I gave a lecture there the other day for de Klerk, in which I said, look, state control has been tried already. If a bunch of Germans can’t make it work in East Germany, how do you think you can make it work here? The state is very fragile in South Africa; the government itself recognises that it has great difficulty performing. So state interference in all these industries is not an effective route. There have been massive mistakes made around the electricity supply company, Eskom, resulting in daily blackouts, and that includes taking out the traffic lights in Johannesburg – you can imagine the effect of that. So the question is which side of the movement will prevail, the statist side genuinely believes that the party should be supreme over institutions of the state: it should be above the press, above the judiciary, all in the name of transformation. Well, that’s a road to disaster, obviously. So all of this is to play for over the next three or four years, we don’t know, nobody today knows, who is going to succeed Jacob Zuma. There are two leading candidates: Cyril Ramaphosa, and possibly, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who used to be married to Jacob Zuma. And we’ll have to see how this plays out. It’s a very important period in South African politics.

Q: Finally, who is the most interesting person you have met, and why?
A: You would have to put Mandela close to the top of that list because he was such an extraordinary person. I think that Thatcher was a truly extraordinary character too: when you think about what a dreadful state this country was in when she took over. She had to have willpower and political courage to do what she did. The thing about Thatcher that was unlike any other politician I’ve ever known, she said what she really thought, and did what she said. The political courage she had to show, she didn’t mind being unpopular, she wanted to be judged by results. So I think she was pretty extraordinary, and I’m cheating, but finally, I wrote a book about a woman called Helen Suzman who opposed Apartheid for thirteen years on her own in the South African Parliament. She was an extremely attractive person, she took no prisoners, and she was dealing with really threatening people; she gave as good as she got. When John Vorster, the Prime Minister, said he couldn’t see anything wrong with apartheid, she said ‘Why don’t you try visiting one of the townships heavily disguised as human being?’ She had this wonderful biting wit. So I have a few heroes I’ve met, and those are three of them.

An Interview with Lord (Jacob) Rothschild

Lord (Jacob) Rothschild
Lord Rothschild by Hugh Palmer

9th March 2015

Jacob Rothschild is one of the most eminent and accomplished financiers of our time. Extremely well connected, he has built up three significant financial businesses during his distinguished career.

Q: What do you see the future holding for independent investment banks?
A: I think that the big banks, certainly the UK big banks, do not have a great future, and you can see them shedding people. But the boutique investment banks, they have a future. The Americans have kind of outmanaged the rest of the world in that context by quite a big margin, but if you think about the smaller investment banks, whether it’s Lazards, whether it’s Rothschilds, whether it’s Evercore, whether it’s Moelis, they’ve all done well. The big banks are more in trouble because of the problems of 2008.

Q: What do you think of the current state of the market in Europe and the euro?
A: Well first of all, you have a very odd situation: financial engineering by central banks with fiscal policy way behind. This has caused stock markets to go up, because the combination of printing money and very low interest rates, has pushed stocks up. If you relate that to the economies and geopolitical situation of the world, it doesn’t make sense. Markets are too high? If you look at Europe, in a tactical context, last year you had markets which rose as a result of quantitative easing; and America, Japan, India, which all went up too. Now Europe is doing it on a big scale, European growth is a bit better. So if you have to choose at the moment between markets in different parts of the world, you would probably bet, in the short run, on Europe as quantitative easing driven.

Q: Where do you think are interesting places to invest in at the moment?
A: In the short term, in tactical terms, I think that stock exchange investment in Europe is probably more interesting than either the Far East or North America. In stock exchange terms, taking a 10 year view, I believe America is the safest place and probably the best managed place capitalistically. I would go for America.

Q: Your family have a long banking history. Did you feel pressured as a child to join the family tradition?
A: Some. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I went to Oxford, I did well in my exams, and was asked to stay on at Oxford to do a doctorate in History, and to take the All Souls examination. But I wasn’t good enough academically. The family bank said, we’d like you to join. No pressure, but as I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, I went for it.

Q: What is the most important thing that you have learnt about investing? Also, is there a strategy which you have found works best?

A: Perhaps you need two approaches, perhaps contradictory, to be a good investor: on the one hand extremely cautious and cynical, but on the other you have to be brave and to take risks. Now balancing those two is really the name of the game. I try to balance risk and reward, but to be on the cautious side.

Q: What have been the highlights of your investing career?
A: Well the highlight of my investing career was when I left our family business. It was a difficult time for me, virtually starting from a low base, with a £5 million investment trust. It is worth today just short of £2.5 billion. So that was a success; and then I helped to start two financial services businesses: one was Global Asset Management, which remains a very successful money manager today, listed on the Swiss stock exchange and with a market cap of a couple of billion Swiss francs. I also started, with Mark Weinberg and Mike Wilson, St James’s Place Capital, which is a FTSE 100 company and probably the leading retail financial service business of its kind in this country. So I think those are two initiatives I am most proud of.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you have met?
A: The most interesting person, there are too many people that’s the trouble. Warren Buffet goes through my mind, I did a conference with him about twelve years ago. As a capitalist, he has of course been infinitely more successful than me. There’s also Jimmy Goldsmith who is interesting in a different way, as a kind of investor speculator; he started with very little. He was so interesting, not the greatest capitalist I’ve ever met, but he was as interesting a character as anybody.

An Interview with Lord (Anthony) St. John

Lord St John
Lord St John

23rd December 2014

Anthony St. John is one of the longest serving peers in the House of Lords, having been a member since 1978. He is affiliated with the crossbenchers, and is one of the 90 remaining hereditary peers. He is the 22nd holder of the title Baron St John of Bletso, which was created in the mid-1500s.

Q: You’ve been in the House of Lords since 1978, how has it changed since then?
A: When I joined the House of Lords, it was full of hereditary peers. There were over 750 who had the right to sit because of inheritance, and I believe this was wrong. In 1999, they reformed the House of Lords. They abolished hereditary peers, and one in ten survived. So there were 75 hereditaries who became elected, fifteen others became deputy speakers, and two remained by virtue of being the higher of the food chain, for example, the Duke of Norfolk remained. I was one of those who survived the cull. So to put it into perspective, in the House of Lords, which is very different to the House of Commons, we have the governing party (the Government), we have the Opposition, we have the Liberal Democrats and then we have a strange breed called the crossbenchers, of which I’m one, and we’re independent. The crossbenchers created 28 hereditary peers to remain in the Lords, elected from 280 hereditary peers in the House of Lords at the time, and when they were elected, I came third. I don’t know why, but I was lucky enough to remain part of those who stayed behind. But in answer to your question, the House of Lords has changed in that it is a far more professional chamber. There are far too many members, and they ought to cull the numbers by at least 40% in my opinion, but it’s an effective chamber for revising and examining legislation. The unique feature of the House of Lords, compared to any other executive chamber in the world, is that it represents all interest groups: you have doctors, you have lawyers, you have accountants, you have ex-politicians. Whatever subject is being debated, you have those there who can speak with authority on the subject.

Q: You are a crossbencher. What do you think are the advantages of being a crossbencher?
A: The crossbenchers are a unique group, and I think I must make it quite clear that we are not part of Farage’s UKIP: we are independent minded individuals who have no bias; in fact, we vote as much for government as we vote for opposition. Being a crossbencher does not make us subject to the whip. (The whip means that you can be told by your party that you have to vote.) No one tells us how to vote. The crossbenchers are made up of an extraordinary selection of those who have been head of the armed forces, those who have been head of the police, those who have been head of the diplomatic corps, ex-judges, independents. It’s a very eclectic group, and very stimulating, and a great crowd to be with.

Q: Have you been dealing with any interesting bills recently?
A: Certainly. We’ve just had two private members’ motions. I should perhaps differentiate between a private members’ bill and a public bill. Public bills are those bills which come through because of the Queen’s speech, and in their manifesto, they lay out the legislation for the forthcoming session. For example, we’ve just had the modern slavery bill, which sounds an extraordinary bill to be going through parliament, but that’s part of the election manifesto. And then we have two bills that I’m working on. One is the Medical Innovations Bill, which is a private members’ bill created by Lord Saatchi, in which he’s trying to expedite the time period it takes to allow experimental drugs to be used, particularly in the treatment of cancer. Then we have another bill I’m personally involved with, called the Divorce Financial Provisions Bill, which is trying to change the law so that lawyers don’t gain from the unfortunate situation when partners get divorced. It’s trying to make the law clearer, and more defined. These are two situations which are very much in the public interests, but which are not part of the election manifesto. The chances of these bills becoming law are very slim, but nevertheless, they are two issues that I’m involved with, and which other crossbenchers are very involved with as well.

Q: What’s your view on the proposed referendum to leave the European Union?
A: I think it is very risky to have a referendum in 2018. I should declare my interests right from the start: that I am pro-Europe. I think it is in our interests that Britain is part of the European Union: we have a population of barely 65 million, and we have a European Union which has in excess of half a billion people. Europe is a complicated issue. It is complicated because many people don’t understand the exigencies of the membership rules. It’s complicated because we have different cultures. It’s a very new concept. I think business wants to be part of Europe, and I think the public are increasingly scared of being a member of Europe, and I’m not entirely convinced that a referendum is the best way to decide whether we should be in or out of the European Union. So, risky is how I would put it, just like the Scottish referendum. In retrospect, the Scottish referendum was a good thing, because it made people debate in a very logical fashion the pros and cons of being part of the United Kingdom. And in actual fact, it worked out that it had a happy ending, but I’m not convinced with the European Union that there will be a good result.

Q: Finally, how do you think that the House of Lords will change in the future? Would you please elaborate on your thoughts about a cap being introduced on the number of Lords.
A: I think the House of Lords has to go through another stage of reform. I’m not a believer in an elected upper house: if you elect an upper house you’ve got to give the House of Lords a lot more power, and it should become a form of senate. One of the unique features of the House of Lords is that it has persuasive powers rather than directive powers, and by that I mean if you have directive powers, you have the right to veto. If you have persuasive powers, you don’t have the right to veto, but you have a consortium of wise men and women who have the knowledge and expertise to persuade Parliament. I do stress women, because the House of Lords up until 1959 had no lady members, and now we have almost 30% of lady members. And I think the House of Lords has evolved in time, but it does need more reform. In answer to your specific question, it does need to reduce its numbers. We have well over 900 members, there is seating for about 400, and frankly, membership of the House of Lords should only consist of those who are active: there’s no point in having members who are peers by virtue of simply having a title and are not taking part in activities in the House, in Select Committee work, and in the very functions of the House of Lords. So my belief is if you have a title, and you don’t take an active role, you should be forced to take leave of absence. Equally so, I’m not convinced that if you get to a certain age, you should retire: I believe that many of the wisest members of the House of Lords are the senior members, those who are in their eighties and nineties who speak with enormous experience, and enormous knowledge, and enormous wisdom, and I would hate to see that part of the House of Lords being lost. So it is evolving, it’s a political hot potato in that the Liberal Democrats would like to make the House of Lords a fully elected chamber, Labour doesn’t know what to do, the Conservatives are playing a game of cat and mouse: they pretend that they want to have it fully elected, but they don’t want it fully elected. So I think a partly elected, partly nominated house is the best solution, but it needs to evolve, and there is an old expression ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and that’s my answer.