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.

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