Hi Iain, Thanks for sitting down to chat with me about UK politics, your upcoming books, and plenty more besides.
In the 1980s you served as a Parliamentary staffer for a Conservative MP (a role similar to my own current job), after which you went on to hold several other roles prior to opening Politico’s Bookstore and publishing company. What inspired you to make the change from Parliament to publisher, and later to radio?
I never looked at the parliamentary job as long term. I could easily have stayed for longer than two years but I felt at the age of 24 I needed to do a ‘real’ job. So I spent ten years in the world of political consultancy in the transport sector, mainly. I also spent six months as a financial journalist. But one day I was faced with the prospect of unemployment when I had a big falling out with my business partner. I was about to resign when he sacked me. It was at that point I decided to develop some existing plans to open a political bookshop. I did that in February 1997 and spent seven very happy years in the world of bookselling and publishing. I’d always wanted to get into radio though and eventually did that in 2010 more by like than judgement. Radio gives me what politics used to.
Politics is quite divisive at the moment, more than usual at least. It seems to me that many people are viewing it as something of a zero-sum game in which people are either on their side or they’re traitors. But as both of us work in politics we know that it doesn’t work like that. There isn’t a total split down the middle, instead people actually have to come together and cede ground to one another in order to actually get anything done. Which is why I think the podcast you do with former Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is so important. It shows people that even in these divisive times Left and Right can come together, not just politically, but as friends too. ‘For The Many’ is a show that sends a really heartening message during these trying times, but how did it come about?
In the 2017 election campaign I did a daily podcast with Shelagh Fogarty and it had a similar lightish nature with lots of diversions off the subjects we were supposed to be talking about. I wanted to continue it but the timings of our respective programmes meant it was difficult. So I decided to go ahead anyway and decided that Jacqui would be ideal because we had built up a good chemistry over the years on the Sky paper review. 180 episodes later, we’re still going!
It’s fair to say you’ve seen a number of political titans come and go during your time in politics, and given your voracious appetite for consuming political content, what do you think the current crop of MPs from all sides could learn from the politicians of yesteryear?
That’s a really difficult question to answer. I think too many politicians seem unable to think for themselves and go into interviews just parroting what their PR advisers have suggested they say. People like straight talkers, not politicians who just mouth a load of meaningless soundbites. The trouble is, the PR people will rightly say that if you say the same thing over and over again it gradually seeps into people’s minds, and they have a point. I think also, the most successful politicians are those who are themselves. i.e they don’t try to act ‘the big I am’.
As the former Editor of Politicos you commissioned a great wealth of books, a number of which sit upon my own shelves, and have written or edited almost 50 titles too. You’re soon to release your new book ‘Why Can’t We All Just Get Along’, what can you tell us about it?
It’s really a plea for a less tribal approach to everything in public life, but especially on social media. As you say in the first question, everything is all about black and white. There is little sense of nuance or shades of grey in any discussion on the internet. Any sense of lack of sureness leads to accusations of weakness, or worse. So I’ve used lots of examples from my life to urge people to think about how they behave online and in politics and in the media.
I’ve not been back to the UK in the thirteen years since I left, but I always keep a very close eye on politics over there, and things have certainly gotten quite divisive in recent years. Something not helped by the rise of Corbyn and the debate around Brexit, not that either of these phenomena are new (after all, anti-EU sentiments have long been a problem for the Tories and the fight between centrism and the far-Left has also long raged within the Labour Party), but the fact that the two came to a head at around the same time is perhaps why we have seen an increase in attacks on politicians, institutions, and rising hostility in British civil discourse. Your book aims to show readers a path out of the mire and towards a more tolerant politics, what one tip would you give us all to help lift us out of this intolerance?
Think before you type. Count to ten before replying to a tweet that you take great exception to. I’ve been as guilty as anyone in having Twitter spats but two years ago I felt that my Twitter personality was becoming very different from my real personality. Someone said that on the radio I am a very kind and gentle person, and on Twitter I was an absolute beast. And they were right. I’m not perfect now, but I do try to ratchet down the temperature. I call people muppets now, rather than t***s!
I think that’s something we would all do well to remember; I look forward to getting my hands on a copy. And as I say, in these politically divisive times the message of unity is all the more important. That doesn’t mean we can’t disagree and have fierce debates, but these debates should not degenerate into personal attacks. As Margaret Thatcher said “if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.” I know that, like me, you’re a great admirer of Mrs T, if you were in a position to reintroduce one of her policies, what would it be?
It’s 30 years since Margaret Thatcher lost office. Her policies were right for the time, but you can’t just lift one policy from 1987 and insert it into 2020. But I would like to see her language and policies of encouraging an enterprise economy make a comeback. Our current politicians don’t seem to understand the concept. It takes entrepreneurs to make an economy successful and they have to be able to operate in an environment that helps them rather than puts barriers in their way. Look at IR 35 or the Loan Charge. They would never have happened under a Thatcher government.
Mrs T is, in my opinion, perhaps the greatest Prime Minister in history, and one of three centuries worth that you will be chronicling in your other upcoming book ‘The Prime Ministers: Three Hundred Years of Political Leadership’. What do you think sets your book apart from other recent books of its kind (such as those by Andrew Gimson and Steve Richards)? And what can readers expect from it?
Steve Richards only covered PMs since Harold Wilson. The Gimson book is a great introduction to each PM and very whimsical. This book has profiles of all 55 PMs and they are written about in detail by experts on each of them. Each essay is between 1500 and 6000 words. It’s not a book you read cover to cover, but you dip in and out and read about PMs you’re most interested in. As a bit of a political geek I have learned so much about our PMs that I didn’t know before. Indeed, there were several PMs I had never heard of.
You’ve contested several elections and were on the Conservative Party’s candidates list for some time, but in 2010 you made the decision to remove yourself from this list, what factors influenced your decision to do this? Would you ever run for office again? And what advice would you give to people aspiring to hold elected office?
Running for any political office is a noble thing, and used to be viewed as such. When I told my mother in 2010 that I wouldn’t stand again she cheered. Think about that. She ought to have been proud that her son wanted to be an MP, and in many ways she was. But she knew politics was a dirty game, and I think she thought it might change me, or I might have innocently got caught up in something like the expenses scandal. I took myself off the Candidates list in June 2010. I knew that by the time of the 2015 election I’d be 52 and if you want to be successful in politics now, you need to get into Parliament in your 40s, ideally your mid to late 30s. I’ll always regret that I never made it, but timing is everything. But at least I had a go. I’m now 57 so I won’t be having another go!
As an author, political journalist, broadcaster, ex-candidate, and former political staffer, you are (and have been) in a position to see some of the best and worst aspects of political life, with the exception of the intolerance toward different perspectives, what do you think has to change to make politics more effective?
I do think we need to attract better people into politics. You look at the cabinet and shadow cabinet and can we really describe them as full of Grade A politicians? There’s a smattering but there are too many journeymen politicians who wouldn’t have got near a Thatcher or a Blair cabinet. Politics is attracting too many people who seem to want to be politicians without really having any idea about why, or what they want to achieve. They want to be rather than do.
I know it’s something of a tradition on ‘For The Many’ to make predictions, so what do you predict politics (and the world) will look like this time next year? Will Trump still be President? Will Hillary run again? Will Jacinda Ardern win reelection? Will the Conservatives do well in the UK’s local elections? And will Iain Dale finally get his peerage?
I hope to God Trump loses in November. Sadly his opponent is Joe Biden, so Trump may well triumph. Biden is a dreadful candidate and it seems to me he’s losing some of his faculties. No, Hillary won’t run again. It would be astonishing if Jacinda Ardern wasn’t re-elected. And I can assure you that you have more of a chance of getting a peerage than I do!
Thanks for chatting with me, I know that your schedule is immensely busy, and so I greatly appreciate it.
If you want to see more from Iain, you can follow him on Twitter @IainDale and you can find the ‘For The Many’ podcast on Spotify.