What's It Like to be a Guest on Question Time?

21 Apr 2018 at 14:00

So, what was it like? That’s the question I’ve been asked a lot over the last 36 hours. Everyone wants to know what it was like to be a guest on BBC’s Question Time. Well, on Thursday I appeared on it for the first time. I’d done ANY QUESTIONS on Radio 4 quite a few times, but had never been invited onto the TV version before. Given that I’ve been on every other political programme I had often wondered why the invitation for QT had never come. Well, on Tuesday morning I got a text asking if I would be free to do the show on Thursday. I was half excited and half filled with dread. Why dread? Well, quite a few people have made complete arses of themselves on Question Time, in a way that’s more difficult to do on Any Questions. There’s that constant fear of gulping like a goldfish when you get a question that completely throws you. Or you have a row with another panellist and come off worst. However, I talk for three hours every day about subjects I may know very little about or am not interested in personally, so over the years you develop an ability and a confidence to talk reasonably fluently about anything that’s put to you. But you do have to have some self knowledge. For instance, although I could be reasonably confident of doing OK on Question Time, I would certainly not have the confidence to do a show like HAVE I GOT NEWS FOR YOU. I’ve learnt over the years that although I am capable of being funny, I’m not hald as funny as I like to think I am! Would I turn it down? I’d like to think I would, but maybe the ego would get the better of me… Anyway, I digress.

My main problem with saying an immediate Yes to Question Time was were the logistics of doing my radio show and then somehow getting to Chesterfield. We solved that one by me travelling to Nottingham on Thursday morning and doing my show from Global Radio’s Nottingham studio. Nigel Farage kindly took over an hour early, so I could get to Chesterfield for the requested time of 7pm. Or so I thought. Instead of turning up at 6pm, the cab turned up 20 minutes later, with the cab firm having told me at least three lies in that time as to where the driver was. I was not very gruntled. Exactly the wrong mood to be in, 90 minutes before I was to face the TV cameras, where I was determined to be calm at all times!

Anyway, the driver drove rather fast and we arrived at the Winding Wheel venue in Chesterfield, close to the famous crooked spire, at around 7.10. The train carrying the others was running a but late so it turned out I was the first to arrive. The other panellists were Vince Cable, Liz Truss, Emily Thornberry and Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik. It was also Nesrine’s first time.

There then followed an hour of chit chat, briefing from the producers and make-up. David Dimbleby swept into the room at around 7.50 and made a great effort to sit down and talk to Nesrine and I individually. He was incredibly charming and put us at our ease and encouraged us to interact with the audience and the other panellists, and not to be shy to interject.

“Do you know the questions in advance,” is the second most often put question I’ve had and I can categorically say no. However, let’s face it, you have to be a bit of a dunce if you can’t predict the subject areas of at least two or three questions. It was obvious that Syria and Windrush would figure. I didn’t think anti-semitism would, as it had been on the programme last week. I had thought there might be a question on violent crime and the situation between North Korea and the US, and I was right on the first one. I thought the Customs Union might feature and given that HS2 and fracking are big issues in Chesterfield, they were also possibilities. What I hadn’t counted on was the final question on whether the Labour Party might split.

By the time we were called to go into the auditorium I had exactly the same feeling as I always have before ANY QUESTIONS. I become a nervous wreck, convinced that I am totally underprepared and won’t have a thought in my head to express when David Dimbleby calls on me.

Some panellists go on stage with no notes, others have reams. Nesrine didn’t have any noted, which I rather admired. I just took on small cue cards with 5 bullet points on each subject. I also had a newspaper article which I would have used against Vince Cable. had Brexit come up. But it didn’t. The notes are a safety valve. In the end I don’t look at them very often, partly because I have to take my glasses off to do so. If I don’t have the glasses on I can’t see individuals in the audience. If I have them on I can’t read anything. I know someone who was on QT recently and they looked over at their fellow panellist’s notes and every potential answer on every conceivable subject was more or less scripted. Too many notes, Mr Mozart!

And so the time came. We all stood in the wings waiting to be called in by David Dimbleby. I was first, as I was seated on the far side of the stage. I walked in and smiled at the audience before taking my seat. All the others then took theirs. Emily Thornberry got a very loud cheer, which made me think it would be a very pro-Labour audience. In fact, it was a very fair audience and devoid of some of the usual frothing at the mouthers that there have been on the programme in recent months. The whole set is much smaller and more intimate than it seems when watching on TV. You’re much closer to the audience than the TV pictures show.

The warm-up question was a complete surprise. “Was the Derbyshire Chief Constable right to order the Police Male Voice Choir to change its name and include women?” I always think the thing to do in a warm up question is to make the audience laugh, which I tried to do, although I now can’t remember what I said. In fact, to be honest, the audience members gave far better responses than any of the panel. And with that it was off. David Dimbleby pressed his stop-watch, turned to face the camera and introduced the panel.

It flew by. I won’t go into every answer here; you either watched it at the time or can watch it above.

I didn’t go in with any pre-prepared lines because I think it rarely ever works. Having said that, I had thought carefully about what I would say if Liz Truss tried to minimise the Windrush issue and play party politics with it. In the end, her total apology knocked any wind out of those particular sails.

One bit of advice Piers Morgan gave me in advance was to make sure you give a direct answer to the question. He reckoned too many people skirt around the original question, forget what it was within thirty seconds, and then go on a tour of the whole subject. It was good advice and I think I did answer every question directly.

The biggest dilemma is to know when to interrupt another panellist. On a debut show you don’t want to be too much of a shrinking violet, but then again you don’t want to appear too dominating. I know from previous experience of being on a panel that I always come off the stage thinking I didn’t have enough of a say, and yet when I watch it back I’ve probably spoken more than anyone else. Sometimes less is more. If you ramble, you know you’ll be cut off by David Dimbleby. On Thursday I reckon Emily Thornberry got about twice as much air time as Vince Cable, Liz Truss or Nesrine Malik. I think I spoke more than them, but not nearly as much as Emily. She constantly complained about being interrupted by David Dimbleby or me, yet she still got far more airtime than the rest of us. Some people are never satisfied.

I adopted a policy of only interrupting when I really had something to say. I’ll leave it to you to be the judge of whether that worked.

And then it was all over. I had assumed we would stay on and talk to the audience afterwards but we were quickly ushered back stage. I don’t know whether they do that because there have been some bad experiences in the past, but I’d have liked to have had a word with some of them. We then went back to the green room for a few minutes before being whisked off to a local restaurant for a late dinner with the production team. Bear in mind that the programme, contrary to what a lot of people think, isn’t live, it is recorded from 8.30-9.30 or thereabouts. So by the time we were tucking into our main course, the show was just about to go out on BBC1.

At around 11pm the cab arrived to take Emily and me back to London. There has been quite a lot of social media comment about the fact that this must have been a rather uncomfortable journey. I just don’t understand why people think that just because we are individuals with differing political opinions we therefore wouldn’t get on on a personal level. I’ve always liked Emily and got on with her. The journey back took around three and a half hours due to the M1 being closed on one section, and I can assure you there wasn’t a cross word between us. In fact, there were a lot of laughs. We’re adults.

I’m long enough in the tooth to know when I’ve performed well on a programme and when I haven’t. I knew when I came off stage I’d done better than I thought I would, so I was quite content. Reading through the tweets in the car on the way home I was astonished at the praise I was getting. In fact, there was barely any criticism at all. That only started the next morning when the Left decided the best way to bring me down to earth was to retweet the video of my incident on Brighton Beach in 2013 with the anti nuclear protester. And then the abuse really started. Hey ho. All’s fair in love and politics and social media, eh?

All I know is, that I am very sad that my mother didn’t live long enough to see me do Question Time. I know how proud she would have been. And you know, that’s all that matters to me.

PS I genuinely couldn’t decide whether to wear a tie on the programme. I took one with me – a Duchamp, which I felt compelled to show to David Dimbleby! Nicholas Soames was up in arms on Twitter in reaction to my suggestion that I would wear a tie. However, when I ot to the green room I started going the other way. I asked Vince and he was definitely wearing one, but all three women panellists advised me not to. In the end I didn’t want to feel all formal, and given that I very rarely wear a tie to anything nowadays, I thought I’d feel far more relaxed if I didn’t. Decision made.



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ConHome Diary: The Consequences of Windrush & Spinning the Local Elections

20 Apr 2018 at 10:43

Back in 2006 the then Labour Home Secretary John Reid described his own department as “not fit for purpose”. Twelve years on very little seems to have changed. Even after eight years of Tory occupation, six of which were controlled by Theresa May, it is still the department which is most likely to embarrass the whole government. And so it was this week over the so-called Windrush children. It’s tempting to blame incompetent and cack-handed civil servants in this situation, and to an extent that is true in this scenario. However it is spun, though, in the end the buck has to stop with politicians, who can’t say they weren’t warned. Jeremy Corbyn even raised in in PMQs on 14 March. Didn’t someone bother to actually check what was going on? I know several Tory MPs who say they had also warned that something wasn’t right, but no one pick up the ball. Amber Rudd has always had a reputation as a safe pair of hands. Caroline Nokes made an impressive start in her job with a very feisty interview with Sarah Smith on the Sunday Politics, but both these ministers are now on probation. If they don’t sort out this situation and ensure that the Windrush children are treated properly and with respect, they will suffer the political consequences.
As if most of us didn’t know it before, surely the last seven days have proved why Jeremy Corbyn would make a disastrous prime minister. As Theresa May pointed out, he would effectively give Russia a veto over our foreign policy. Even a dolt can see that if you commit to going through the United Nations in every aspect of your foreign policy, you give the Russians a de facto veto. Jeremy Corbyn denies he is a pacifist, yet has never been able to give a single example of where he thought military action was ever justified. I’d have more respect for him if he just came out and declared that he was a pacifist after all. At least that’s an intellectually sustainable position. Sort of.

The Pound reached the dizzy heights of $1.43 this week, and EUR 1.16, the highest since the EU referendum. Just so you know, seeing as so many people seem to think it is still 20% lower.
There are only 13 days to go until polling day in the local elections. Not that you’d know it. I haven’t seen any local activity at all, either where I live in Kent or in London. Maybe it’s different elsewhere, but I doubt it. The common consensus seems to be that the Conservatives are in for a drubbing in London, including the possibility of losing control of every single council they control already, including Westminster, K & C and Barnet. However, all is not bleak. Academics seem to think that there will be some gains in the Midlands. I wonder how many of us remember 1990, when the Tories had a terrible night but party chairman Ken Baker appeared the next morning with his characteristic beaming smile outside Central Office declaring the night had been a triumph given that against all odds his party had retained control of Westminster and Wandsworth. Amazingly h got away with it, albeit the prime minister resigned five months later. I can see Brandon Lewis learning from history…

I’ve been trying to think of a more queasy sight than Emmanuel Macron trying to nose his way as far up Donald Trump’s arse as he can possibly get. And I’ve succeeded. Justin Trudeau dressing him and his family in Indian clothes during their visit to the country. Sick making. Trudeau and Macron are two peas from the same political pod. Ghastly show offs, but with little to show off beyond Colgate smiles and an ability to virtue-signal.
On Tuesday I interviewed Neville Lawrence. Sunday will mark the 25th anniversary of his son Stephen’s murder. He told me that his rediscovered religious beliefs had given him the ability to forgive his son’s killers. He admitted that he had wanted revenge and was full of anger for a very long time. Who wouldn’t be? But he realised that anger was destructive. He also said he would meet his son’s killers if they wanted to see him. I will admit that I was nervous about doing this interview, but I had no need to be. Dr Lawrence is one of those people with an inner calmness and serenity that is so impressive, you just want to listen rather than interrupt with another question. I will be thinking of him and his family on Sunday.

I made my debut on Question Time last night. As I’m writing this a few hours before the programme, let me tell you if I had a brick in my arse, I’d be shitting it. I’ve done ANY QUESTIONS quite a few times, but never Question Time. It’s always rankled in a way, but I have to say I am immensely looking forward to it. My only sorrow is that Diane Abbott has pulled out. Was it something I might have said…?


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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale talks to Joyce in Erith... And Cries

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Is Donald Trump “morally unfit” to be President? That was one of the comments from former FBI Director James Comey.

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Iain Interviews the Palestinian Ambassador

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: In Conversation with Nigel Farage

16 Apr 2018 at 09:00

This interview took place in October 2008.

It’s actually very hard for Nigel Farage to give a bad interview. He is the kind of character who always has something interesting to say. Indeed sometimes he says far too much for his own good. Politics needs characters like Farage. He clearly adds to the gaiety of our political life, but he’s also the very definition of a conviction politician. Yes, like any other politician, he has an ego, but he is refreshingly honest about the fact that he likes a drink and has an eye for the ladies. I’m not sure if I can think of any other politician who’d front up like that.
Nigel Farage’s trouble is that he is trying to do the political equivalent of herding cats. His party was once described by David Cameron as being full of ‘fruitcakes and nutcases’. Cameron may have been exaggerating for dramatic effect, but there was an element of truth in what he was saying. Fringe parties are always open to fanatics being able to rise to positions of power very quickly, because they are often the only ones with the time and the money to follow their passion. They can be obsessive in pursuing their agendas and can be hugely disruptive and destabilizing. Nigel Farage’s first term as UKIP leader was full of instances where senior UKIP figures tried to destablise him. Eventually, he decided enough was enough and left. There were other reasons too, but that must have been an important consideration.

How do you think the role of UKIP has changed in the last five years?
The increase in MEPs we got was across the water. In terms of what we have done in the European Parliament we are without doubt the leaders of the Eurosceptic movement in the European Parliament. Our two biggest achievements were firstly the French referendum, and secondly the Irish referendum. We played a big part in both. The role in the Irish one was rather bigger than people have yet realized.

In what way?
The eight page info booklet we, as the Independent Democratic Group, sent to every household in Ireland had a big effect. It was very well put together and very strong. While Declan Ganley is being portrayed as the CIA funded bad boy [by the Yes campaign] we’re not terribly popular either. I was quite happy when the Taoiseach got up in the Dail and said that I and my fellow bunch of ‘extremists’ had subverted the political process in Ireland.

So you weren’t part of Ganley’s No Campaign?

Doesn’t that illustrate the problem the Eurosceptic movement has always had, in that it is so splintered?
Quite the reverse. For years we have been told that you can’t fight a referendum campaign unless you are all under one big tent. And then there’s the argument about who is the person with the biggest ego who is going to lead the umbrella group. What the Irish campaign proved is that this view could not be more wrong. We had Sinn Fein doing their own thing, getting their vote out on the simple question of Irish nationality, you had Ganley fighting a completely brand new type of campaign in Ireland, talking about an overregulated European model, globalisation, the fact that the Treaty takes things too far and appealing to a business and conservative audience. You had the InDem campaign and we campaigned chiefly on the lack of democracy but we also went into the Charter of Fundamental rights because of the abortion issue. There were lots of different campaigns and degrees of cooperation. Ganley and the InDem group had discussions but they were separate campaigns and it worked a treat.

So in the unlikely event of a UK referendum do you think that would be the model here?
I am convinced now that there is no problem if we have four or five different No campaigns. The PPERA also allows for more than one campaign. What is your prediction about what will happen now to the Lisbon Treaty and what do you make of the Conservative stance on this? It’s funny, isn’t it, that David Cameron is doing what we expect the Conservatives to do – to try and sound skeptical enough to keep people in board.

Do you not believe that he is a Eurosceptic?
God, no. You must be joking! You’ve got to be having a laugh! I remember being on Eurostar when the Tory leadership election campaign was on and Dan Hannan was on the train. I told him I couldn’t believe he would support Cameron. I said we all know what David Davis believes in private and really is on this and many other subjects – localism and liberty etc. I sa ‘why on earth are you backing Cameron?’ He sa ‘Nigel, because Cameron has made the one deliverable promise. Not some vague idea about what might happen when he is PM, but a deliverable promise which will happen within weeks or months. He ratted on it and he’s saying it will happen after 2009.

Which is why David Davis never matched the promise – because he knew it wasn’t deliverable.
It ain’t going to happen after 2009 either. Secondly, we saw Cameron abandoning the Tory pledge to withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy. Howard had been quite strong about it. I had pointed out that you can’t do it without unanimity, but at least he was strong on it. Apparently, Cameron says we are now going to negotiate the CFP from within. Well, the very best of British to him. He presents again and again things which he would do as Prime Minister, which are completely outside the jurisdiction of the British government and British Parliament. Never once does he ever say that in fact all of this is covered by EU law. So I don’t believe he is Eurosceptic. If he was, then he could kill the Lisbon Treaty today.
I think you are missing the Realpolitik of this. In his heart and in his gut he is indeed a Eurosceptic, but because of all the traumas the Tory Party has gone through over the last 15 years, it is a subject which dare not speak its name. I can understand and sympathise with that. There’s nothing to be gained by him making a big song and dance over it at the moment.

Other than he has the power to kill the Lisbon Treaty. If he had said we do not recognize the legitimacy of it because the Labour government was elected with a specific manifesto pledge to have a referendum, he could kill it.
We can agree on that, but legally it was a different document even though the substance was the same. The Labour manifesto didn’t say the ‘EU Constitution’, it said the ‘EU Constitutional Treaty’. How can anyone argue that this is not a constitutional treaty? Cameron has had the option of killing the treaty available to him for the last six months.

If Cameron wins the next elections with a big majority he will have a mandate to do just that – and be far more trenchant than he could be with a small majority?
Look at his track record and the type of people he has close to him. I see no evidence to have confidence in that point of view whatsoever. He believes in EU membership. That’s where we part company. Your definition of ‘eurosceptic’ means come out of the EU, whereas the normal definition does not mean that. The world has moved on. We could have been having this conversation in 1992 and I would have accepted that view. Nearly two thirds of Britons say no to political union and yes to alternative trading arrangements. If Cameron says we should be part of the EU and says no to alternative trading arrangements, then how is that different to the LibDems or the Labour Party?

If you aim is for Britain to withdraw from the EU you will never achieve that with UKIP. You are never going to form a government and you’re not likely to get MPs.
There are more ways of winning great political battles without forming a government.

But why not admit that UKIP is a pressure group, not a political party? The only way to achieve your aim of withdrawal is to do it from within one of the other political parties.
Oh Lord, that hasn’t worked terribly well, has it? None of the pressure groups in this area have achieved a damn thing. The only person who achieved something was Jimmy Goldsmith. If he had worked from within the Conservative Party we’d have joined the euro in 1999. Because he worked outside the system, he put the fear of God into the Conservative and Labour Parties, got them into a half nelson so they promised there would be a referendum before we joined the euro. It was that, and that alone which kept us out.

I can see the logic of that, but surely you would accept that the Conservative Party overall is a far more Eurosceptic party now than it was in 1992?
If UKIP hadn’t been there, the Conservative Party probably wouldn’t have reached that position. UKIP’s achievement has been to take an argument that was considered to be mad and bad and to turn it into a mainstream political argument.

You talked about the mad and the bad. Were you talking about some of your own MEPs?
When you go from a small number of people to a larger number you attract a few people you would rather not have had.

You mean, 20% of your MEPs? How did they get selected in the first place?
Well, I’d rather we got rid people who have transgressed than do nothing. It’s part of the weakness of being a small, grassroots based party where a con man can come along and con people. We have to accept what the weaknesses are. It’s also the weakness of being a totally democratic party. We are completely one man one vote. There is no preferential treatment for existing MEPs or party officers.

So entryism is quite easy? You face it at the moment with the BNP don’t you?
Entryism is one of the biggest dangers we face and we have to be very alert to it. We have had problems with the BNP but in terms of scale it is minute. If it was greater we would know. There is plenty of intelligence out there. We have been successful in dealing with the problem but it is depressing that the problem keeps coming back.

But people have been quitting UKIP because they say it’s not the party they once joined and has been taken over at a grassroots level by people who do not have views they can associate themselves with.
I haven’t seen much of that. I think I know what’s going on in the party at grassroots level. The BNP issue is there, and I know it’s there. We have made it clear that nobody with any past links or associations with the BNP is going to be a candidate or party officer for UKIP at any level. No exceptions, no exemptions. We have said to a lot of people, no, we’re not having you. End of conversation. We are a non racist, non sectarian, pro libertarian outfit. We are so far away from the image of the authoritarian right on issue after issue.

Apart from Bob Spink [the Conservative MP who defected to UKIP]…
Bob is an individual and that’s fine.

What about the new Libertarian Party? That is a threat to you. You have lost people to it.
[shrugs]. Of course. People join organizations and they think that they are destined to lead these organizations and when it doesn’t work out they seek pastures new. You get thwarted ambition. Outside the three main parties you find this all the time. It tends to be people who have got a lot of time and the reason they have got a lot of time is that they are no use at anything else. They haven’t got a proper job, they have never achieved a damn thing in their lives and they see joining a political party as a way of putting something on their headed paper. It’s human nature. When they find they don’t do as well within UKIP as they ought to do, they are happy to go off somewhere else. You’ll never stop that. We have suffered as a party from the angry old man syndrome – people with too much time on their hands and have a wholly negative view of the world.

But isn’t that a good description of many UKIP members, certainly a few years ago? Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells?
That’s right! When UKIP started, it was exactly that! We were dominated by half colonels and the Second World War generation. They were fantastic people…

But they’re not libertarians, and that’s the point I am making…
And that’s how the party has changed. You go to a UKIP meeting or the conference and you will see that the party has changed in quite a big way, especially in the last two years. Not in terms of numbers, but the type of people. It has become a lot younger and more professional. We have a youth wing now and we’re setting up groups in universities. There will always be a libertarian-authoritarian division. I am encouraged by the quality of the people we are now attracting. I am 44, the chairman is 31 and the General Secretary is 27.

It’s a very male dominated party, isn’t it?
Too much so. I was critical of the Cameron approach to the European candidate selection and I have always felt positive discrimination was demeaning, but when I looked at our results I began to wonder whether we should have done a bit of it ourselves. Marta Andreasson is the one female candidate we have in a winnable position. There are other women on the lists and there are more women on the NEC, so it is changing, but not fast enough… I have tried very hard to get us away from being negative and constantly outraged. I think I have achieved some of it but we have further to go. I have to think about this a bit more.

Is it a problem for you that you are the only recognizable face of UKIP? You’re the only one who gets any media coverage.
Not quite true, but yes, it is a problem. If in the punter thinks it’s a one man band it’s a problem, but it’s also a problem in the organization.

Have you ever thought to yourself since you became leader in 2006: why am I doing this?
Every month when I get my bank statement. What keeps me going is that I genuinely believe in what we are doing. The longer I go on, the more I see the true nature of the EU, the more I feel that someone has to stand up and shout about it. I believe if you want to change things and have an influence over public opinion you won’t do it from within a major party. I could have said to hell with this, I want an easy life and go and rejoin the Conservative Party and bite my lip. But I believe in what I am doing.

Do you get a fair crack from the media?
From the broadcast media, when it’s related to Europe, yes, I think we do. If the News at Ten are doing a European question then they will come to us. They wouldn’t have done that ten years ago. But the media can be very ignorant on European issues. I rang the Today Programme about the European Arrest Warrant recently. The researcher hadn’t a clue what it even was.

What personal strengths have you brought to the role of leader of UKIP?
The ability to work hard, the ability to communicate. Getting round the country doing meeting after meeting is hard work. Being able to enthuse. Hopefully, the ability to speak clearly and put arguments across that people can understand.

What about your weaknesses?
I have many of those [laughs]. I think … er… there are some within UKIP and outside who say that, well, he’s a drinker and a smoker…

You have been in the papers a couple of times with regard to your drinking. Is that an issue?
No, not really. I live the way I live. To hell with it. If people don’t like it… If I can’t go for a pint or two after a hard day’s work, then something’s not right.

If I can delicately point out that there have been stories of it being slightly more than a pint or two…
[giggles] Well, these things happen. There was one incident when I fell asleep in bar, yes, but in my defence I had genuinely not got home until 1am the previous night after a meeting in Hampshire and been up at 3.15am to get the first plane out and I was done for.

Do you get embarrassed by those sort of stories, or just think, oh sod it?
I don’t let it worry me too much.
I can tell. Sticking on the leadership question, there seem to be some plots to oust you at the moment. Is this BNP inspired? Why do people want rid of you.
Not totally. But there are people who think the BNP should move on from the immigration issue to take over the anti Europe argument too. So some people are doing whatever they can to destabilize UKIP. There are many in the BNP who believe that if UKIP disappears the BNP will be the main beneficiary. In truth, it would be the Conservatives, or the Don’t Votes. So there has been a campaign, chiefly through email, to undermine everything we do. And they have managed to pick up one or two useful idiots along the way. It has been a problem and I could give you a couple of names of people who are not UKIP members but they are doing this and fomenting discontent from within. But what do you do when the person causing the problem is an unemployed and unemployable misfit? I have a reputation for ignoring it and getting on with the job, but there are other people in the party who it has really upset.

You were delighted when Bob Spink defected to you, but he doesn’t share all your views, does he?
No. Absolutely not. We had a long conversation before he joined and I wanted to be clear about what we were getting. I knew his stance on 42 days, but we are not a party that wants to whip everybody so there are issues where Bob and I don’t agree, but there are many where we do.

Is he a rival to you?
I don’t know, is he? If he is, that’s great! If we have some proper competition within UKIP, that’s great. We need it.

What are your realistic expectations in the 2009 European elections? You got 16% and 9 MEPs last time. You’re not seriously expecting to beat that, are you?
That depends. The potential to do it is there, because there are a greater number of people out there who agree with the stance that we’ve got. We have been around for a few years, people have seen us in the local papers. It’s too early to say. The biggest single factor is whether we can raise enough money, early enough, to fight the right campaign.

Now, a very important question. Have you and President Medvedev ever been seen in the same room?
This is a great one, isn’t it? I wondered how long it would be. When I first saw him I knew what would happen.

He’s not exactly a libertarian, is he?
Not exactly! Although I am very strongly opposed to the policy we are pursuing towards his country, This desire to expand the EU and NATO to take in the Ukraine and Georgia is mad. I have felt this ever since the wall came down. I am not a supporter of Putin or Medvedev but we shouldn’t be trying to provoke them.



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WATCH: CNN Talk - What Would Military Action in Syria Achieve?

14 Apr 2018 at 11:20

I post this twelve hours after military intervention started, but this was our discussion on CNN yesterday lunchtime.



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Iain interviews Baroness Trumpington

Jean Trumpington talks about her autobioigraphy

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UK Politics

On the Gender Pay Gap in Airlines...

12 Apr 2018 at 21:24

In last week’s ConHome column, I wrote about the gender pay gap and used airlines as an example. A reader emailed me afterwards and I thought his email might be interesting for people to read…

On April 6th, in regard to the gender pay gap – specifically airlines – on your regular column on ConservativeHome you wrote,

“…airlines complain that they have a big gap because most of their employees are cabin crew, of which 70 per cent are women, and much lower paid than pilots, only three per cent of whom are women. Perhaps they ought to ask themselves why only three per cent are female, and then do something about it. There’s no intrinsic reason for women to shun the opportunity to train as pilots.”

I feel, as an airline pilot of 15 years, there are intrinsic reasons. As you have commented on the subject, I wish to provide you with more information on my line of work, having flown for both of the top two worst offenders in the airline gender pay averages.

1) It is my position that there is no reason why, if a woman pilot does no take a long time off for any reason and performs to the standards required by the airline, she could not reach the same rank and pay as her male peers. However, women may not wish to become pilots when they research the job, which is their choice to make. Factors that women may wish to consider are as follows;

2) Flying isn’t a particularly good choice if you want a stable lifestyle. It involves highly irregular shift work, extreme early or late starts/finishes, very long (10~12 hour) days cut off from everyone but the person sitting next to you. If more women want to do this line of work that is fantastic, but it really isn’t for everyone, especially if you prefer having a social life and are thinking of having children at some point. I’m not sure how many people go into a job thinking about the long term, but training to be a commercial pilot is a huge commitment, both in terms of time and money. It takes around 18 months to become a pilot and costs the better part of £100,000, with no guarantees of success. In my current airline, a pilot (who by coincidence happens to be female), hit tail first on landing and was let go. She was only just out of training. Try having that incident on your record and looking for a decent job. I may have disagreements over my company’s handling of this, but I raise it to highlight the risk that these trainees are taking on. It is not a free ride – you have to be committed to the career. That means recruits often come in knowing the long term implications and have accepted the risk, (something I’ll come back to later). Most female pilots I have met (they do exist) have had fathers who were also pilots and have accepted the nature of the job; however their careers may not progress as far as a male’s due to the next reason, pregnancy;

2) This is possibly the biggest factor why there will always be a pay disparity between men and women pilots. A pilot who is pregnant cannot medically subject her body to the repeated pressure changes (0-8000-0 ft cabin altitude every sector), the increased cosmic radiation levels at high altitude (which are monitored by the company), and the lower oxygen and humidity levels in the aircraft, possible time-zone transits (fatigue), not to mention the air pumped in from the engine compressors which may contain harmful pollutants (this is still being investigated); to do so would be dangerous for her unborn child. That being so, most airlines find other work for their pregnant pilots, often as gate staff or at check-in, but at reduced pay, which leads to the next associated reason why there will always be an average pay differential between male and female pilots;

3) Commercial airline promotions are based on either seniority, or hours flown, or a mixture of both. While a pregnant pilot is stood down from flying duties, her placement and experience is frozen, which means other pilots – the majority of whom are men – will overtake her for promotion. Unlike most other jobs, in aviation there are few promotional steps and a large pay differential between those steps. For example, in Ryanair, the top offender, there are basically two positions for pilots – First Officer (c. £30,000 rising to £55,000pa), and Captain (c. £100,000 ~ £150,000pa). Someone taking time out from flying, of whatever gender and for whatever reason, will lose the experience needed to apply for captaincy. Once the captain positions are filled there is usually a long wait until another opens, fast expanding airlines being the exception to the norm. Obviously, this affects the career of a pilot who becomes pregnant. I sometimes fly with a female FO who, now having had a child, has decided to take a part-time contract (which makes sense as her husband, who is a Captain, earns more). This means she is on far lower pay, and will build less experience which will further impede her career progression. This is their choice – but a wholly rational one, which is also made by many other female pilots in the same circumstance.

4) Your article regarded getting more women into flying to begin with – may I remind you of the case of James Damore, the Google Software Engineer who was sacked after he proposed more ways of getting women into software engineering and was lambasted by both his company, his colleagues and the media for suggesting men and women often want, and are interested in, different things as a by-product of biology. While on average there is plenty of overlap between men and women, at the extremes there are obvious differences. Flying an airliner is no exception to that. The job is extreme in many ways, and it is a testament to the industry that we make it look as easy as it is (cock-ups at Eurocontrol and baggage handling accepted). Women would be wise to look at the long term implications of losing a social life that they might enjoy outside of work (this goes for men too, but on average we are less sociable creatures – especially in aviation), and the implications of raising a family with the possibility of slipping on the career ladder, which are pronounced in commercial aviation.

5) Plenty of women also fly as cabin crew – so why not pilots? As above, the barriers to entry are high. It takes a lot of commitment and once committed you have to be prepared to sacrifice the career progression for family as a female (less so as a male). Cabin crew take around 2 months to train and the cost, if borne by the individual is anywhere between £1000 and £7000 (no guesses for who charges their crew that last one). Cabin crew also have time out if they become pregnant, but as they are less committed (in general) to staying with the career, they will, in my experience, often take large time-outs to do other similarly paid work that is more suited to raising a family before returning to flying once their children are better able to look after themselves. A pilot, who has constant (and costly) evaluations in the simulator to keep their licence valid, cannot easily do this.

6) Should a woman avoid a well-paid job knowing it has social and familial downsides, and accept a less paid job that avoids these instead? I would say this comes down to the individual, doesn’t it? On top of the social engineering we are already engaging in with these virtue-signalling devices, should we be taking a line that women – or people in general – get into jobs that might not fit them, just for the money? Does having a family and having the time to care for that family mean less than shoe-horning women into roles they might decide aren’t for them?

7) Men, in general (and presumably by nature), are less risk averse. Perhaps another reason why, given the above disincentives to become a pilot, men flock to it while women do not. Even once doing the job, it is still sometimes inherently risky, even though the industry has made great strides to increase safety. Based solely on the few women I have flown with, both Captains and First Officers, empirically I would say women are far more conservative (flying-wise) than men. Often that is a good thing, but in commercial aviation margins mean everything – you can’t be too conservative, but nor can you feel too deficient in your role. Again, from my experience of flying with only six females, I have had two of them hand over control to me (once at the very last second) because they did not feel adequately skilled to perform the landing, compared to zero instances in flying with many, many more males. That isn’t to say those ladies weren’t actually skilled enough – just that they felt they weren’t. If there are not gender differences in risk aversion, then I don’t know quite why this disparity would exist.

I hope this provides more information to you as to why it may not be as simple as promoting the job to women and hoping they come to it. I think it is a fantastic career, even given its downsides, and there is plenty of scope for more women to do it. However, I feel this is less about my industry (which is welcoming to all) and more about the way women see their ability to do these roles in the first place. It seems to be more indentured with psychology (to which I am not qualified to advise) than simply throwing money at the problem or trying to engage in a positively-discriminatory practise, which could negatively affect the industry. Why are there not more female engineers, racing drivers, sailors, oil-rig operators etc, all of which are very well paid? I really don’t think it is up to the industry to tell women they should do it. The question should be, if they know they can do it – why aren’t they?

Kind regards,
(Captain at a fantastic, non-discriminatory, UK airline).



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LBC Book Club: Iain talks to June Brown

Iain talks to June Brown, aka Dot Cotton, about her autobiography

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Twenty Things I Did For the First Time...

11 Apr 2018 at 09:00

First Job
Mucking out my Dad’s pigs on a Saturday morning for 10p an hour

First Real Job
Researcher to Patrick Thompson MP 1985-7

First Role in Politics
Chairman of UEA Conservatives in 1981

First Car
An orange Ford Cortina Mk III, lovingly nicknamed the Big Jaffa. I wrote it off on my 20th birthday.

First Record
Long haired Lover from Liverpool by Jimmy Osmond. The shame lives with me still.

First Football Match
Cambridge Utd v Westham in a 1972 testimonial at the Abbey Stadium

First Concert
Darts at a free concert in Harlow in 1977

First Country Visited
France, on a day trip to Boulogne at the age of 7

First TV Appearance
Multi Coloured Swap Shop in 1978

First Political Speech
April 1982 during a debate on the Falklands at my university. It all started there…

First Girlfriend/Boyfriend
Rachel Elliott at Ashdon County Primary School. She had a runny nose.

First Encounter with a Famous Person
Cyril Fletcher from That’s Life at a pantomime in the Arts Theatre Cambridge ca 1973

First Brush With Death
Hitting a Transit Van head on at 50 mph in the days before seatbelts. The long bonnet of my Cortina Mk III saved me – and my two sisters.

First House/Flat Owned
70 Howard Road, Walthamstow, in July 1988 – probably the worst time ever to buy a flat.

First Film Seen at a Cinema
Sound of Music at Saffron Walden Cinema, which is sadly no longer there.

First Time on the Radio
On the Radio One Breakfast Show with Mike Read in 1981 on Beat the Jock. I didn’t.

First Politician I Met
Shirley Williams who spoke at my school in 1977

First Book I Remember Reading
The Secret of Spiggy Holes by Enid Blyton

First Visit to the London Palladium
1978, to see the reunion of Cliff & the Shadows!

First Election
1985 Norfolk County Council election, Catton Grove Ward. My finals were the next day. Had to be postponed after I suffered from shock having knocked a motorcyclist off his bike on polling day and breaking his leg. He was a Labour voter…


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Iain Hosts a Discussion on Whether Psychics Are Genuine

Fascinating discussion

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My Speed Awareness Course Experience

10 Apr 2018 at 09:00

This is from September 2009.

This morning I attended a two and a half hour long speed awareness course, having been caught doing 37 mph in a 30 limit in Brixton at 3am one morning in early June. I will admit to being slightly sceptical of what it would entail, but I have to say I found the whole thing very useful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was enjoyable – that would be going too far, but it held everyone’s attention and people approached it with an open mind.

Twenty of us gathered in a rather odd building next to Bromley Station. We were encouraged to arrive by train due to “limited parking”. That was of course a complete lie, as there was free parking right about 50 yards away. As I was buzzed through the door, six or seven others were waiting to be let through another door in an ante-room. “It feels like queuing up to be processed in a prison,” I blurted out, causing a small titter from the others. “Not that I would know,” I added quickly.

What surprised me was the social make-up of the twenty people present. Twelve were women and virtually everyone was over 40. There wasn’t a boy racer in sight.

We all had to do a computer test to start with, which proved to be an interesting experience for the two female pensioners who thought a mouse was something to be frightened of. It included some videos where you had to click when you thought you were the right distance away from the car in front, or when you spotted a hazard which could cause an accident. Most of the questions were designed to see what kind of driver you are. It won’t surprise you to know that when I got the results, I was rated as driving ‘very much faster than average’, even though I hadn’t had a speeding ticket within the last three years and haven’t had an accident either. I also drive further away from the vehicle in front than average. I have a faster than average reaction to potential hazards, which will come as a great surprise to my partner, who specialises in trying to brake even when he is a passenger in a car with me as he thinks my reactions are very slow! I have a slightly higher than average ‘emotional reaction’ while driving and can become easily distracted. I have an ‘extreme tendency to sleepiness’. So the lesson is, if I offer you a lift home after doing a late night paper review, say no!

The main point of the course was to drive home the difference between driving at 30 mph and 40 mph, and from that point of view it was highly successful. OK, it stands to reason that the faster you drive, and you hit someone, the more likely they are to die. But when you are told that at 30 mph the person has a 90% of chance of surviving, while at 40 mph they only have a 10% chance of surviving, it does make you think. Everyone on the course had been caught doing between 30 mph and 40 mph.

We were all asked why we had been caught. In my case, I hadn’t realised I was over the limit. One person said she was rushing someone to hospital. The course leader said that 15% of people who drive too fast to get someone to hospital, end up there themselves through having an accident.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic was when we were told that if you break down on the motorway and decide to sit in your car on the hard shoulder your life expectancy is reduced to 12 minutes – 12 minutes!!!

Here’s something else I didn’t know. We were asked what percentage of collisions occur on urban roads, rural roads and motorways. I guessed 50-30-20. The true statistics are 71%% on urban roads, 25% on rural roads and a mere 4% on motorways. In terms of deaths 40% occur on urban roads, 54% on rural roads and 6% on motorways. It’s because if you have a serious crash on an urban road or motorway you are likely to be taken to hospital within an hour, whereas on a rural road it may be hours before someone even finds you.

How many speed cameras are there inside the M25, do you think? Most people thought between 2-5,000. The number is actually 651, with another 187 at traffic lights. Each one costs £40,000. The course leader was at great pains to point out that they were only erected in places where there had been four accidents causing serious injury or death. I still find this assertion difficult to believe, thinking of the location of some that I know. I questioned whether it would not be better to spend the £40k on eight of the flashing speed signs, which I have to say have a much better effect on my driving than speed cameras do.

So, in short, I am glad I attended. The course held our attention throughout, even if at times people probably felt as if they were being spoken to as if they were naughty children. But it never felt as if we were being lectured at. Perhaps the least credible part of the course was when the course leader asserted that she never, ever speeds. No one believed her. Until she told us that five years ago her 13 year old daughter had been hit by a motorist doing 37 mph in a 30 limit. She survived but is still receiving treatment for the injuries she suffered.

We all stared at our feet. As well we might.

A thought occurs to me. Why don’t we make everyone who takes a driving test take one of these courses before they can drive on the roads? Charge them the going rate so there’s no cost to the taxpayer. Wouldn’t it be better to get them young, rather than wait till they have transgressed?



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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale Hosts a Phone in on Male Attitues to Rape

Is rape something only a woman can understand? WARNING: Listeners may find some of the content upsetting.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: In Conversation with Adam Boulton

9 Apr 2018 at 08:00


Adam Boulton is a legend and I have huge respect for him. He probably spends more hours live on air than any other political journalist. He has an incredible knack of explaining complex political issues to the Sky News viewers, he can be combative and is also increasingly opinionated. He’s been at Sky News since its launch in 1989 yet shows no sign of being bored or complacent. It was he who was the driving force between the Sky News campaign for prime ministerial debates and he is a constant source of innovation on the channel. One of the most striking TV scenes of the 2010 post-election period was the moment when Adam Boulton completely lost his rag, live on air with Alastair Campbell. Having conducted this interview with him only a few weeks prior to that, it didn’t especially surprise me. There’s clearly little love lost between them. His interviewing style is the opposite of that of Jeremy Paxman, but he arguably gets more out of his interviewees by allowing them to speak without being interrupted every two seconds. Boulton clearly loves politics but carefully maintains his independence from the politicians he mixes with. I’m a fan, as you can tell.

How did you get into politics and journalism in the first place? What sparked your interest?
I realised when I was late teenage years, that I wanted to be a journalist. It was largely because, looking at my general interests, I thought analysis, précis and having a wide range of subjects you could deal with was good for my talents. What really made me do it was that one of my best friends’ fathers was a Sunday Times insight journalist and to be honest, it sounds like a terrible thing to say, I’d not really thought about people who went to university who were educated becoming journalists. I suppose I had a rather sleazy image of a bloke in a dirty mac bothering people.

Hey, that’s you!
I suddenly realised it would be consistent with going to university and studying things so I did English at Oxford and then I did a degree in America in international relations. And by that stage, I decided I wanted to go into broadcasting rather than print, because I wasn’t interested in doing partisan journalism. I was lucky that I came at the ‘80s from America at the time when the new television channels were starting out, Channel 4, TVam and others. So I didn’t have a political grounding but the ‘83 election came along pretty soon and I got involved in that, so after that I tended to be asked to do politics.

So you didn’t actually go into it saying “I want to do politics”?
No, or news strangely enough. I think if you’d asked me, I’d have seen myself as a kind of a Panorama producer or something like that – doing detailed reporting. But what I realised very quickly was that that the technology was rapidly undercutting current affairs. When things like Channel 4 News and Newsnight came along you could do fairly detailed work on the day also I was interested in, having been in America in what you could do live. In 1983 when Greg Dyke was running breakfast television, I worked on the election with people like Diane Abbott, Marks Damazar and Jackie Ashley. Immediately after that, simply because I’d done some work with live outside broadcasts, I ended up doing By the Seaside with Chris Tarrant. So it was a fairly mixed if chaotic learning on the job type apprenticeship.

Have you ever thought about going to the other side, because a lot of journalists do drift into politics. Has that ever crossed your mind?
No, it hasn’t. Genuinely it has not crossed my mind. I do see what I’m doing as analogous a bit to being a sport commentator. There aren’t many sport commentators who qualify for a premiership side. Something dies inside me when I see a journalist becoming a candidate.

Do you think the Westminster lobby is an outdated institution?
I don’t really. I’ve been chairman of the lobby, and I’ve defended the lobby on occasions. We’ve had to fight continuously for access to the Commons and elsewhere and I feel if one said “Okay, well the lobby’s a terrible idea, let’s try something else” we’d be worse off. I think it’s certainly the case that the whole process has got a bit debauched during the New Labour years. There are some people who say that dated back to Bernard Ingham, although I would say he was straight operator compared to what came afterwards. There’s also a question about who is admitted to the lobby, because you’ve now got new media appearing. Since I’ve been in the lobby, it’s always been a fairly organic institution and people or organisations who were big figures in the lobby have faded away and new ones have come in. I know we’re just starting to see some of the online people come in, but I think the principle of having right of access on behalf of your news organisations to parliament because a lot of people often think it’s a deal between the government and the lobby, it’s not. The lobby is a parliamentary institution, it’s not a governmental institution. I personally think that is quite important, and I’ll be honest with you, I am one of those journalists who thinks that in a lot of areas that we can afford to lift our game. By which I mean that I would say there’s quite a significant chunk of my colleagues who I think are not primarily interested in politics, the decisions which parliament is taking, how it’s going to affect individuals. They’re interested in Westminster as a source of gossip and secondary stories. Sometimes I think we do need to think “why are we doing this?”

You said you thought that print media was more to blame for this than broadcasting. Couldn’t you also argue that 24 hour news channels are to blame because they’ve got so much time to fill?
Sometimes I think you get bushfires, but I do think if they’re not very significant they tend to burn themselves out quite quickly. I think what we can do on 24/7 media is do things in more depth. Likewise we can show 20 minutes or half an hour of a news conference or a statement to parliament. That is how we fill the time.

You’ve been at Sky News since the beginning, how has your job changed in the years you’ve been doing it?
Over time, the nature of television news has changed. The formal two or three or minute package has become rarer. You do more stuff on the hoof so over time on air I’ve really evolved to doing almost exclusively live stuff, live interviews, presenting programmes and live commentary and building this machine. We’ve gone up from four people working in Westminster when we started, and we’ve now got about 30. It’s always changing, we’re now going to completely revamp and rebuild our offices for HD and change again, so I think it’s almost the restless nature of it that’s kept me in the same place. The other thing that happened is that we’ve gone online. There was a period in the middle of my period at Sky, where I was practically illiterate. I didn’t write anything down. But obviously with the growth of online I’m now writing much more really than I ever have done before in my career, in various forms. So that’s been a rediscovery of a lost art.

How do you see 24 hours news developing in this country? There are one or two people at Sky who would like it to develop into much more of a Fox news operation – much more opinion than straight reporting. Is that a route you’d like to see Sky go down?
I think there are big questions about television as a whole because the bar to entry has been lowered so much by digital technology. There’s a lot of competition coming. If you’re going to continue to be influential in the cacophonous marketplace, you need to have very strong relationship with your audience. You can go in different ways on that. In America, Fox News has identified a section of the audience, a section of the electorate and it caters to their needs and because there isn’t one dominant broadcaster providing its signal for free, you can make a great deal of money that way. While people want greater choice, they do want to look to their news providers for authority. Opinion polls show they trust broadcasters. I think if you just became another voice in this news market, in this news culture, I think you would rapidly disappear. It’s noticeable that – not at Sky – when other people have tried to do very strong opinionated news, they haven’t taken root to the extent that in other cultures talk radio has.

I certainly think that you and Jon Craig in particular have become slightly more opinionated. I don’t mean in the party political sense at all. I just mean that you do give your own opinions more than you did ten years ago, or am I imagining that?
I think there’s an element of truth in that, and I think that’s partly presuming on the relationship of trust you’ve built up with the audience, that they can take it. But one of the problems in political broadcasting is that we’ve grown up in a culture where balance is a bit from Labour, a bit from the Conservatives, a bit from the Liberals. I’m very conscious of trying to be fair, but sometimes the nature of the debate does involve being more explicit, and I think there are some areas where you can take a different position. Jon Craig is of the old school of “snouts-in-the-trough, how can MPs behave like this, let’s expose them, they deserve what they get” and that’s fine. But when I’ve been doing commentary I’m more concerned to try to explain to people how this had happened and almost to relate to it as human beings, how would you behave if you’d been in those circumstances.

Would you agree that the media often operate as a herd? We’ve all seen examples of Nick Robinson, you, Gary Gibbon and Tom Bradby expressing views and the print media falling in behind you all. Do you think that’s healthy?
I had a very bumpy relationship with Alastair Campbell, but he did say to me once that the difference about you – i.e. me – is that if you express an opinion you try and attribute it. I do see that as being quite important. I wouldn’t go on air and say “that David Davis speech, I was falling asleep” I would go on and say: “That David Davis speech, I saw quite a lot of people in the audience falling asleep.” They amount to actually pretty much the same thing, but I do think there’s a difference. Nick and Gary and Tom and I, we do work in isolation and we don’t actually see that much of each other because television tends to take you away a bit from the pack a lot of the time. But there are certainly occasions when big things are afoot where we do just in the margins in either side of going live at Downing Street, just say “what do you think, how soon do you think this is?”

So it’s like the sketch writers cartel where they basically sit together and decide how to carve it up!
No, we don’t do that and actually quite often, we might bump into each other and we might say “how are you doing it” which is a kind of reality check. It doesn’t mean we just sit down and say “right, definitely take this line.” And I think it’s been noticeable at the moment as elections come on that the BBC does have this quite strong balance tendency. It’s been pretty clear that ITN for quite a long time or ITV News has wanted to be very vigorous or very characterful in what its saying. And I would say, we’re somewhere in the middle precisely because in 24 hour news you are always a marketplace.

What’s the competition like between you? Because 10 years ago, Sky and all the BBC felt they had won if they got a story on the screen quicker than another. Whereas I get the feeling that now that’s changed and the competition is a bit more subtle than that?
I would say that we’ve always wanted to get things on first, but we’ve always wanted to get them on right in the sense that we would break a story, but we wanted to qualify it with saying “this is the best information we have at the moment” or “more on that story”. I think there was a period when Roger Mosey very much wanted to just compete on that basis as to who is doing things first. And I think it got a bit slack with people just rushing to break things all the time and getting things wrong. I would say the BBC got it wrong more than we did. I think the BBC News Channel is probably less of a priority for the BBC than it was a few years ago and that therefore has given us a bit more space.

How much influence does Rupert Murdoch have in what you do? How often do you see him or speak to him? Does he ever ring you up?
No, I’ve never been rung up by Rupert Murdoch. I’ll now be dropped from the Guardian’s 100 most influential people in the media! The truth is that I think in more than 20 years at Sky, I’ve probably been in the same room as Rupert Murdoch about half a dozen times. And I’d say I’ve probably had three conversations with him.

Do you ever feel used by politicians?
I do think that’s part of the deal, at one level. John Lloyd said that journalism has three functions: it has reporting, it has analysing and it has commenting, and a lot of 24 hour news, a lot of the news business is reporting. It’s getting to people, finding out what they want to say, pushing them that bit further to say what they really mean and getting that across. So you know, politicians don’t have a right to get on the airwaves, but part of our job, I think, is to facilitate them and to say what they’re doing. But if politicians lie to me I do remember it.

Give me an example.
Well, I always resented the fact that Nick Raynsford lied to me about running for London mayor. I had asked him in an interview: “If Frank Dobson comes into the race, you’ll pull out in his favour, won’t you?” He flatly denied it and then I think eight days later he opened the Frank Dobson campaign with the words “everyone’s always known I would always support Frank if he came into the race.” I just feel that kind of thing is unnecessary. If someone flatly denies something and says “that’s not true” and subsequently you read in their memoirs or somewhere “tough interview but I think I managed to brush him off” that annoys me.

You must get that every day though? What about Alastair Campbell’s briefings? You only need to read his diaries to see how many times he would mislead the lobby.
While I have admiration for a lot of Alastair Campbell’s professionalism, I think the problem was that he introduced a culture where it was OK to lie. There were occasions when he actually said to me, while he was still in the job, “Oh, sorry about that Adam, but you know why I did it” and I just think there are some lines you shouldn’t cross. And I think that became a culture which is satirised brilliantly in The Thick of It. It’s not just Labour but there are some people who think the job of press officers or spin doctors or special advisors is to lie. Call me naive, I don’t think that is the job and I think it’s corrosive.

The Sky campaign to get the party leaders to debate each other has been a massive success for Sky. How did it come about?
Well, we also did the BBC and ITV a favour as well. Had there not been the Sky campaign concentrating minds on all sides, I personally don’t think the debates would have happened. That’s me beating Sky’s chest but I think you can ask other people and they might well agree with that. It was quite simple. John Ryley, the head of Sky News, is a thinker and he sent round a paper saying that he was concerned about the lack of political engagement which we can see in the decline in our audiences for elections and obviously you can see it in voter turnout and all the rest of it. He canvassed ideas for what we should do about it and I think we concluded that it wasn’t our place to campaign for turnout or to run celebrities saying “use your vote” or whatever because that would be a kind of intrusion in the market place. We ended up with a campaign which basically was us saying “listen, we think there should be a debate, we’re going to stage it. Be there or be square” and of course Cameron and Clegg said very quickly they would take part.

Will the debates dominate the whole campaign? Each debate will probably take up three days’ news agenda – so it’s 9 days out of the campaign which will be dominated by them.
I don’t know. I think we’ll have to see. But the print boys are quite sulky about the whole thing. I’ve been surprised talking to the parties how little they are varying their timetable of battle busses and news conferences.

Are you surprised the two main parties agreed to let Nick Clegg in on all of them. Because I’ve been told by someone on the Liberal Democrats negotiating team that they didn’t expect to be let in on all three of them and that they would have been happy with two, but the other parties didn’t even mention the possibility.
I was surprised that it wasn’t such an issue. As you said it wasn’t basically discussed and I give credit frankly to the other parties on that. What I think happened was that separately, everybody looked at what the possibilities were and basically concluded that realistically within the bounds of possibility on the basis of number of seats contested, shares of votes, credible shares of votes, that there were only three people who could be Prime Minister after the next election and everyone seemed to have reached that same conclusion therefore there wasn’t that much discussion of it.

Do you think it’s a shame that the format is so rigid and there are so many rules? Would it not have been better, at least in one of them, just to plonk the three of them on the stage, have no moderator at all and let them have a dialogue with each other and the audience?
Listen, it’s taken us fifty years to get here! Certainly for Gordon Brown and David Cameron, it has involved conceding quite a lot of ground or potential advantages certainly passed in the direction of Nick Clegg. Therefore, I think it’s only right that there should be a bit of a softly, softly approach this time round. Secondly, as I’ve said, just to get it done and to get it done away from the election campaign there was a strong desire to negotiate with the broadcasters as a block. Therefore I think it’s understandable that this time around people have gone for similar formats. What I think will happen is that the debates will look and feel very different. ITV, BBC and SKY have very different styles in the way they do things. I think that will come through. I think once people become more familiar with what’s going on there will be developments in what goes on. The big issue that we’ve had this time around has been the issue of the audience. People are used to BBC Question Time and regional shows which basically end up pitting the audience against the panel and I do think it’s a different concept this time around. You don’t want them forming a panel against an angry public. So I think that’s a new dynamic which we’ve got to explore.

You’re moderating the SKY debate. Do you still get nervous about these things like that or do you take them in your stride?
Oh yeah. It certainly gets the adrenaline going. It’s a big gig. You always wonder when you first open your mouth if there’s going to be a dreadful croak which is going to come out. And for me personally, because it’s been a SKY campaign and I’ve been very invested in trying to get debates going, I desperately, desperately want the debates to succeed and to be successful and useful and informative, and all those things are things which are going to be on your mind.

What kind of campaign do you thing we’re going to have this time. Do you think it’s going to be a very dirty campaign?
I think we’re going to have a personalised campaign partly because there is big convergence between the parties in a lot of areas and almost where they are most different is in the personal contrasts of David Cameron and George Osborne, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. So I think there’s going to be a lot of that. What I hope is going to happen is that it’s going to be less gimmicky because there is a sort of yawn yawn factor now when there is another poster launch or even another clever internet viral, or whatever, and what I hope the debates will do is just engender a culture of people and politicians actually trying to sit down and tell people how it is and what the consequences are going to be. I’m not sure that that is necessarily going to happen.

Where do you stand on paid for political advertising? If parties can buy slots in cinema why shouldn’t they be able to buy slots on SKY News?
Well I think SKY has a position on this which is that we’re not opposed to it, so that is where I stand. I do think that money is a big issue and if you allow a total free for all then I don’t think you necessarily improve politics, particularly in a system where we’ve got such a strong party structure. Would the world be a better place if instead of spending 20 million pounds each party spent half a billion pounds? I just think there might be better things to do with the money overall.

You’ve got a problem though after the next election though whoever wins because there’s going to be between probably 250 and 300 new MPs. How on earth a) will that effect what you do and b) what kind of parliament do you think it’s going to be?
Well we thrive on change and actually where I think SKY has been good and where hopefully I’ve been good as well is actually trying to make sense of what’s going on rather than going by any preconceived notions of who matters and who doesn’t matter, so in that sense it’s going to be a bit of free-for-all – I’m looking forward to that. I think we do need fresh blood and different types of people. And one thing that we’ve been doing at SKY is meeting quite a lot of the PPCs from all the parties. I do think they are different types of people who are coming into politics and I that’s a good thing. The era of the special advisor becoming a cabinet minister is drawing to a close and I think that’s probably a good thing. In the end I do think that all politicians would be well advised to work towards a system where Parliament and the government are slightly more separate from each other and Parliament has slightly more of a scrutinising role. I detect that a lot of the new people coming in just won’t accept as many three line whips.

How many hours a week do you work when Parliament is sitting?
I’ve not quite worked it out. I don’t know sixty? Something like that.

Whenever a big job at the BBC comes up, your name is always in the mix. I’ve always thought that you’d hate to work at the BBC because you wouldn’t have the opportunity to do what you do at SKY.
Yes there’s a lot of truth in that. I’m not at the BBC am I? I would say that there are three people, all men I regret to say, that have jobs as good as me, in the totality of what they do. And that would be Jon Snow, David Dimbleby and Jeremy Paxman. This job is as good as that, but it obviously means that there are a lot of people who might say ‘why don’t you go and do that’ but I’m just not really that interested.

Do you prefer reporting presenting or interviewing? At the moment you’re doing all three, but which do you get the most kick out of?
Well presenting and interviewing they go together. I like all three. To me what is good about what I do in whatever form I do it is that it’s raw and it’s first hand. I think there’s been a slight problem, it doesn’t bother me, but perhaps in people assessing me, in as much as we’ve tended to have this hierarchy that you know you’re a reporter and then you graduate and you become a presenter and an interviewer and so its seen as a step up, whereas I’ve managed more in the American style to mix the two and therefore I don’t really have that strong a preference. Probably the television skill I’m least good at is reading the autocue.*

*I’ve always thought it’s really weird on your Sunday show when you’re not there they don’t actually have another one of the political team doing it. They seem to pick random people to do it. Or in fact they don’t even do a proper programme they just make it into a news programme – I’ve never quite understood the logic of that.
Well it’s always good knowing that you haven’t got a great substitute.

When you married Anji Hunter did you find that you had a bit of a problem with Conservatives at that point because they felt that maybe that was a signal that you were closer to the other side.
Not to my face. No I never had any problems. When I met Anji I think I did have an independent track record doing what I’m doing. In fact the day that all the gory details were all over the front page of the Mail on Sunday, I was interviewing Ian Duncan Smith, then the Tory leader and you know before we went in I said, ‘you might want to see this’. And he said ‘it doesn’t make any difference to me. I know you, I know what you do, and I hope it works itself out’.

Some people, and you read this a lot on blogs, think that SKY News is a New Labour dominated institution and there are other people that think it’s completely right wing. The lazy answer is to say that you must be doing something right to have offended both sides…
Yes, that is the lazy answer. Or another answer is that everyone knows that New Labour was very right wing. Look I think that I would have two answers to that. One is the standard sticks and stones answer. But the other one is when people make criticism of you, at least to entertain it. As I’ve tried to explain, I don’t really think in party political terms personally. My view about New Labour, as I said in the book I wrote about Blair is that so far it’s been the political story of my lifetime. I’ve known these people all the way from before they were cabinet ministers and before they were in Parliament all the way through to when they’ve become ex-cabinet ministers. And so inevitably I’ve known a lot of people in that world, I’ve known a lot of New Labour people. Likewise, in terms of my background in public school and Oxford and all that, it’s not as if Tories are an unknown species to me and, or Liberals either. So I just think that you have to take it on. I think it would have been a bit different if I’d married Alastair Campbell.

Completely different. For all of us.
I think Anji has an independent record of her own and she’s been out of politics since 2001.

What does she make of your book? I remember going to the launch and she said that she point blank refused to talk about the book while you were doing it. I assume she’s read it.
I’m not sure she’s read it cover to cover. She respects the book. I said to her right at the beginning that it might be difficult for us and I could not do it. She said ‘no, I think you should do it’. A lot of the things in it she got quite cross about. She was very unimpressed when the paperback serialisation went to the Mail on Sunday. And I told her on the Saturday before the Saturday.

I can imagine her being unimpressed by that.
So she generally supports me in my work as I support her in her work, but people find it hard to believe, but she doesn’t have much influence beyond that.

Is it an issue do you think sometimes when journalists can get too close to the political set? I don’t know whether you have or not. I know some journalists have spent the night at Chequers for example… have lunch…
I’ve spent the night outside Chequers. You can be drawn in. Journalists are only human beings and I think you can be drawn in to something and I think that New Labour was that kind of entity. It was quite intoxicating at one stage. People did get… I’m not saying you did, but I think some journalists did get drawn in too much. I think there is a fact that you could want to be…. you get so close to people that you want to be a cheerleader for them and all that. You have to be aware of that.

That’s enough about Kevin Maguire…
One of the things I’ve noticed as the election has got closer is that, without blowing smoke up your arse, I would exempt your site, but actually a lot of the Tory sites, or Tory leaning sites I think have become a lot less worth reading. I think Guido has been poor, Coffee House has been poor. I think ConservativeHome has become poorer than they were 18 months or two years ago. Because clearly they have an investment in this outcome.

What did you get out of your time in America last year? To me, you did something very different in that period where you were doing mini documentaries. I thought they were absolutely first class. Did you gain an appetite to do more of that sort of thing?
Well I know people won’t believe this. It wasn’t my idea to go to America. It basically came from the editorial people at SKY who just said that Obama was a big story and they wanted some way to marking it. They asked me if I thought that we would have an election at the beginning of 2009 and I said no chance and so I was very happy to be asked to go there for four months and it happened to coincide with Anji being between jobs so she was able to come too. I always relish doing things which take you out of your comfort zone and which develop new skills. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoy doing sport and entertainment interviews on my Sunday show. Would I like to do more of that? Yes. I think varying the pace of what you do if you have the opportunity is always exciting. But you have to remember that this is a competitive environment and you don’t want to give up the day job. A special project is normally one stop from the door.

When you had that blow up interview with Gordon Brown last year, when he stomped off in a huff, what went through your mind at the time?
What you want to do when you interview someone, particularly politicians, is to make a connection. Because politicians are interviewed all the time and the last thing you want to see is them walking out with their advisors and saying ‘that went well…. there was nothing in it’. What you’re trying to do is to make a connection which involves pushing them away from the line to take at a certain time and getting under their skin and within that you have your own style. What I want to do is to ask them a question that makes them think and to give me a reply that isn’t premeditated. Therefore, with Gordon you could see I’d made a connection and so I was pleased by that. When he said I’d become a campaigner I was also quite interested in that as well but there is a certain kind of way in which journalists are conniving little bastards. If you’re interviewing someone and they’re making a fool of themselves, it’s not your job to stop them. If they’re given the opportunity to express themselves or they’re losing their temper, again, it’s probably not good if you lose your temper as well. It’s best to keep them calm. In that sense, I just felt that it was an interesting interview. I was sure that there was some outside thing not to do with me but to do with the fact that this was the morning after The Sun had switched its allegiance. If I get a response from someone, I don’t blame them for it necessarily.

Did you think “we’re never going to get an interview with him again”?
No. I didn’t think that. I didn’t think he’d think that either. The only person who won’t do interviews with me is Prescott. But in Prescott’s case it seems to be more to do with the fact that we broke the story of the punch. I still think that a deputy Prime Minister shouldn’t go around belting the electorate. It still seems to annoy him.

Who do you find the most difficult to interview?
The most difficult class to interview are people who don’t want to engage. People who just basically turn up and say “I’ve got my message I want to get out”. Consistently the most difficult class of people to interview are actors, because in their own right a lot of actors don’t actually think a great deal for themselves. They’ve waited for someone to write the script.
When there’s been some awful disaster or awful tragedy, it’s actually not that difficult to interview people. Bizarrely, people do want to talk about it. I hope I’m a professional interviewer, I don’t find it extraordinarily hard to interview people. Just occasionally you might be doing an interview with someone and you just realise that you’re basically on completely different planets that they are worried about their next meal, the roof over their head they don’t really know who Gordon Brown is.

What’s the worst moment you can remember live on screen when something went wrong or someone said something that they shouldn’t have?
I love live television and I think that when things go wrong, the autocue goes down, the lights go out all of that pumps the adrenaline. It’s never a good moment when you get someone’s name wrong, or you say “Mr. Johnson” and he says “no, actually it’s Robinson” or when you’re interviewing someone and you’ve just got to the key question, so you say to her “are you going to resign” and they give you an answer but you don’t hear it because someone says in your ear “one minute to go Adam” and then you have to recover from that. One disaster was interviewing Sarah Myles and asking her if her memoirs were true and she started crying. This was a moment where you felt that perhaps this has not been a triumph.


What book are you reading at the moment?
Game changer – about the American 2008 campaign.

Your favourite view?
Probably somewhere in Northwest Norfolk, on Brancaster beach or something like that

Favourite food?
Peanut Butter

Favourite holiday destination?
I want to go back to Sicily

Best friend in journalism?
This is a chance to offend millions of people. Probably Michael Brunson

What is the music that makes you dance?
I’m not a great dancer. Usually those things that it’s compulsory to dance, like Scottish reels. Agadoo, I’ve always liked Agadoo.

Last film you cried at?
I know people think it’s terrible, but the Burning Issue, the Sandra Bullock film has its moments.

Ever thrown a Nokia?
Yes, by accident. I was doing a “quick draw” on my phone out of my pocket and sent it flying. So yeah. I’ve gone through a few Nokias in my time, but more in sorrow than in anger.

Favourite interviewer?
I do think Melvyn Bragg is a very good interviewer.

Journalistic hero?
Sam Donaldson

Favourite hate figure?
There’s a classics don called Mary Beard.I think she’s the worst of kind of modern liberal. Or you could widen it to the London Review of Books

And finally, guilty pleasure?
Strip cartoons



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LBC Book Club: Iain talks to James Cracknell & Beverley Turner

James Cracknell and his wife Beverley Turner talk about their new book.

Listen now


FROM THE ARCHIVES: In Conversation with Alex Salmond

8 Apr 2018 at 09:00

This was the first In Conversation interview I did for Total Politics, back in July 2008, nearly ten years ago. I met Alex Salmond in his House of Commons office and talked for close on two hours. It was a strange experience as he twice had to go to vote, which meant that we continued the conversation walking through the Commons corridors with me holding my recording machine under his mouth. We finished off the interview in full public view just off Central Lobby. Alex Salmond is a politician’s politician. He’s deeply tribal, yet maintains genial relations with many people who don’t share his views. He’s got a very well-developed sense of humour and this shines through here. The interview created quite a storm when it was published, mainly because he committed the treasonous act of maintaining that Margaret Thatcher wasn’t all bad. The Scottish media went into full ‘outrage mode’ and the story led the Scottish news agenda for a couple of days. It was difficult for Salmond to maintain he had been misquoted because the interview is a verbatim transcript. When I saw what was happening I almost doubted my own recording so I went back and checked that the transcript was 100% accurate. Luckily – for me – it was.

When was the last time you said sorry for something?
Personally, I said to my wife on Saturday morning, the holiday we’ve just booked, may well have to been unbooked. I didn’t say sorry once. I said it a hundred times. When you’re First Minister you probably don’t find it wise to own up to mistake after mistake…

But people quite like a politician who has the guts to say sorry, don’t they?
That’s right. If you do change your mind on something it’s best to admit it. I haven’t had many disagreements… Macmillan once got into some dreadful trouble with the Tory Party and kept losing the Conservative whip until he became leader. After that, things became considerably easier. People didn’t try to expel him any more.

It didn’t quite work for Iain Duncan Smith.
Well, it’s been my experience in the SNP. I was always getting into trouble before I became leader. And then my troubles stopped! I got expelled from the SNP in 1982 as a rather brash young man, and probably rather insensitive to other people’s opinion. I’ve often reflected that there was a considerable amount of fault on my side. In 1988 I was given a seven day suspension from the House of Commons and all I was doing was intervening in the budget speech. I thought I was hard done by and it was very unfair…but I just got on with it. I lived to fight another day.

You are probably more forgiving now than others were to you at the time, possibly?
Yes, I’ve often reflected that you should avoid political disciplinary action for political reasons. Fine, if people run off with the church funds, you’ve got no choice in the matter, but wherever you can you should avoid using procedures of the party as a means of suppressing political dissent.

Why were you expelled?
The formal reason was for forming a political group within the SNP. This was called the ’79 Group. We tried to get round a ban on this group by forming the Scottish Socialist Society. Seven of us were expelled – most of them have done well since! Being expelled can be no bad thing. It didn’t stop me becoming leader.

Let’s talk about leadership. When you decided to return to the leadership, did you really think you could end up as First Minister?
Oh yes, absolutely. I certainly thought it wasn’t odds on but I thought we had a fair chance of winning.

How do you think you have changed as a leader second time around? You seem a lot calmer, a lot more at ease with yourself. You’ve shed the chat show Charlie image. You had a reputation for enjoying life, being the life and soul of the party, whereas now we see a slightly different Alex Salmond.
Older and wiser. Certainly not sadder! Things could not have worked out better, but this was not calculated. Nobody calculates “I shall resign”. I resigned when we were ahead in the polls, but I felt ten years was long enough. With the press reaction to the SNP, I was becoming the issue – they weren’t seeing past me. Despite the fact that every newspaper was fiercely anti SNP, they had never quite managed to stop me and I got the feeling that I had become a block on the SNP getting a fair shout. I thought someone else might get a fair shout. Actually, I was quite wrong because John [Swinney] got treated far worse than I was. Even Neil Kinnock used to moan about the papers but at least he had the Mirror and the FT on his side. We had nothing. I thought someone else would get a honeymoon, get a better press and it would be better for the party. I didn’t calculate “I’ll resign, come back again, win the 2007 election”, nobody can calculate like that.

You came back and stood for a seat for the Scottish parliament which you might easily not have won. That, if I read it rightly, has given you far more of a mandate than you might have dreamt of.
I said I’d stand for a seat in the North East of Scotland – so it’s very familiar but it was the kind of seat we had to win to win the election. I thought we could win the whole thing and if I won my seat we’d do just that. I thought the party needed a fillip. We’d lost a lot of elections and we needed a boost. Winning Gordon would give us that boost. If I stood there it would encourage everyone else to believe we could win overall. I started from third place, after all.

When you walked into the First Minister’s office for the first time what did you think? When Boris walked into the London Mayor’s office for the first time, there was this slight sense of disbelief that he had done it. Did you have any of that or did you immediately sit down and start barking out orders?
It was a bit different because it’s not until 12 days later than you’re elected by the chamber. That moment of saying “my goodness, we’ve done it” doesn’t come till some time later. Even though I knew there was no combination to stop us, it’s not until you get the vote read out that is the defining moment. That’s the equivalent of Boris going into the Mayor’s office.

Emotionally, how did you feel? Euphoric? Tearful? A proud moment in the Salmond family…
My family were up the gallery.

If it was me, I wouldn’t have been able to look up to them as it would start me off…
My wife, my wee sister and my Dad were there. My Dad had never seen me speak in a parliamentary chamber. He didn’t really approve of me setting foot in the House of Commons. My mother often came down, but it was the first time my Dad had seen me in the Scottish parliament chamber.

So proud on two counts.
Oh yes, very. It was a hell of a moment.

Were you daunted at all by the job? Most politicians, although outwardly self confident, have elements of self doubt. They think: “I’ve got the job now. Am I up to it?”
I don’t do daunted. The one moment I would say in my year in office that I did feel a bit daunted was the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport. It was the day of the Royal opening of the Parliament on 1 July. I had gone back to Bute House with a few friends, with Sean Connery actually, and was watching TV coverage when it came on. The daunting bit is, you might watch events but with this it wasn’t just about watching, I was expected to do something about it. The civil service are very good at telling you ‘what happens now, this is what you need to coordinate’. You don’t have too much time to fret about being daunted. The decisions you have to make are quite interesting. You have to think about the consequences of what happened and how the rest of society is going to feel about it. So you take decisions like going to the airport the next day – something which wasn’t universally applauded, but nevertheless you have to go, and then going from the airport to the central mosque in Glasgow with leaders of every religious group in Scotland and Strathclyde Police, making sure society doesn’t fracture as a result of a terrorist assault. That’s the daunting bit, when you realise it’s not some other person that’s behind the eight ball, it’s you. It’s not really a moment you can go and consult your special advisers, you’ve just got to get on with it. I suspect if you asked the present Prime Minister, or his predecessor, or his predecessor’s predecessor [John Major] who was a nice guy, I suspect their ‘daunted’ moment was to do with war, deploying troops.

I suspect with Tony Blair it was Princess Diana’s death, because if he had got one word wrong he would have been characterised by that for the rest of his term in office.
Quite. On the Glasgow attack, I did interviews at the airport and I wanted to get points across as carefully as I could without prejudicing the investigation that the perpetrators were not part of the fabric of our Asian community in Scotland. It was a vital message to get across as early as possible to prevent any stories of ‘the enemy within’ developing.

The SNP gets quite a lot of support from Asian community, doesn’t it?
We get huge support from them, but whether we did or not, that message had to be put. It was the duty and responsibility of the First Minister to communicate it in the interest of public order and the fabric and community of the realm of Scotland, regardless of what any junior Minister in London might think.

Is there any kind of turf war in these circumstances between Edinburgh and London? Gordon Brown was seen to have reacted well to the incident, but it was on your territory.
None whatsoever. The transfer of the suspects south of the border was a law officers’; decision, nothing to do with politics.

Did you and Gordon Brown talk?
Within seconds of it happening. He was literally just in office, his first few days. He arranged the COBRA meeting. I arranged our equivalent meeting in what we now call the Resilience Room. It was called the Emergency Room but it’s very difficult if you are trying to be calm to do an interview in a room in front of a bloody big notice which says EMERGENCY! We now have a Scottish Government Resilience Room!

How much contact do you have with Gordon Brown and how do you get on with him?
Quite a lot. Most recently during the fuel dispute at Grangemouth, but initially we had quite a lot of contact. More than I had with his predecessor. If you remember, he didn’t phone or write when we took power.

You must have found that quite insulting.
No, I found it great. Another miscalculation. I thought for the master of presentation it was an extremely foolish thing to do. Maybe it was because he was demob happy so he didn’t care any more.

Your relationship with Brown is presumably businesslike rather than particularly friendly?
You wouldn’t expect us to be bosom buddies, walking arm in arm to the pub for a wee snifter. Let’s put it that way. You wouldn’t expect us to be bosom friends when we both have high stakes to play for. On national emergencies there’s no question you have to operate together. There has never been any suggestion that I have noticed north or south of the border that – well, maybe the odd junior minister in the Scotland Office, but for everybody serious, political differences get put to one side. Secondly, there are genuine political differences. I believe in independence for Scotland, clearly the Prime Minister doesn’t. No amount of words or meetings or rapprochements will bring us together on that issue. And that applies to a range of other issues too. We have a genuine political disagreement. The best we can do is let the people decide that. There is also a third area, which is why I have been keen to get the join ministerial committees back, which is policies which are not essential to the ethos of either government. An example is the Marine Bill. Both governments believe in environmental control, clean seas. No one argues it is a bad idea, so for these things you need an institution which gets agreement where agreement can be got. I am anxious to avoid unnecessary disagreements as they are a complete waste of time. The Joint Ministerial Committee hasn’t met for six years but it met again recently under Jack Straw’s chairmanship and it was a good meeting. I am not expecting great things but I am hoping for progress in a range of areas.

If he loses the Glasgow East by election, do you think he’s toast?
I think there are people in the Labour Party who will be less than supportive of him in these circumstances.

I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ then…
I have seen many people carry on under the same circumstances and even recovered so I am very wary about being certain. I think the problem is not so much, is Gordon close to his party, it’s whether he’s close to the electorate. That’s his underlying problem. There are aspects of Labour just now which look to me like John Major in the 1990s, and for some of the same reasons. I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but I suspect that Gordon is very aware of the problem he’s got, with a track record stretching over eleven years. When Major came in at first, although he had been Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary nobody seriously believed he had been at the epicentre of the Thatcher project so he was almost there without form.

How many seats are you aiming to win in the next Westminster election?
A minimum of 20.

That’s a fairly high bar, as you have never got more than half way there.
Not quite true. We got 11 in 1974. As an economist I am good with figures. I think that is a reasonable objective.

From your agenda of independence for Scotland, what is the best result of the next election?
A hung Parliament. Absolutely. Let’s call it a balanced Parliament.

It seems to me that the Conservatives are cosying up to SNP in quite an overt manner in many ways and that you are showing a bit of ankle yourselves. Would I be correct?
[affects to look affronted] Showing a bit of ankle?! We don’t use such terms in Scotland!

I’m sure you have your own phrase!
It is certainly true that of the other parties in the Scottish Parliament the Greens – who have been very constructive – and the Conservatives have been the opposition parties who have understood best the advantages for opposition of minority government and they have got most out of the political situation in my opinion. The Labour Party have just been heads down and charging and usually missing, bypassing the matador and heading into the crowd somewhere. And the Liberals? I just cannot fathom the Liberal Party, but that may be a statement which can be applied generally. But in the Scottish Parliament I have no idea what they are doing. I don’t think they do either. In politics you are either believe for good reasons that circumstances will change in your favour at some point in the future and that principled opposition will get you whatever reward you are looking for or alternatively you take the opportunity for administration because you believe you can help change things for the better. The Liberal Democrats actually managed to turn down administration in three Parliaments in the space of a few weeks.

Some sort of record.
They turned it down in Scotland, they turned it down in Wales, and depending on how you interpret the Ming Campbell/Gordon Brown meeting, they turned it down in Westminster as well. It would tend for me to indicate some sort of psychosis going on within the Liberal Democrats.

Your party has traditionally been very antagonistic towards the Conservatives but there has definitely been a change of mood. Is this because you can see David Cameron, to quote the famous phrase, as someone “you can do business with”?
I have spoken about the Tories in the Scottish Parliament, where they have been more constructive than other opposition parties, but I think you wouldn’t have to scratch very hard in London to see real anti-Scottish antagonism from many elements of the Conservative Party – there’s a whole range of quotations, so I don’t think the leopard has changed his spots.

Cameron has been very pro Scottish in some of the comments he has made.
Maybe the wrapping has changed somewhat but I think the leopard is still there.

But if there is a hung Parliament where the Conservatives are the largest party, is there any conceivable circumstance where you could see SNP MPs going into coalition with the Conservatives?
None at all

So you completely rule that out.
We have a policy on that. We don’t have a policy preventing a formal coalition with the Labour Party but I don’t see circumstances where we would be in a formal coalition with the Labour Party either, right now. In a hung Parliament we wouldn’t be trying to enter a coalition, we’d be trying to exert influence. Believe me, the best way to exert influence in Westminster is not to be in a formal coalition.

So it would be on an issue by issue basis.
Yeah, you would maximise your influence. A good example of what is possible is to look at the DUP on the 42 day vote. The SNP could not have done a deal on this because we had a principled objection. You can’t mortgage your political soul but the DUP weren’t in that position. They could make a good argument for being in favour of 42 days detention. But without the engagement they wouldn’t have been in favour of it as they turned out to be. Even in a Parliament with a majority of 66 circumstances can arise where a small party can be extremely powerful in a vote to save the Prime Minister’s bacon. In a Parliament with a much smaller majority or no majority at all it is going to happen more often, and that’s what we would do.

I perceive that the SNP has changed a lot in the last ten years. The Conservatives were seen as a terrible enemy by you and the SNP was seen to be a very left wing party by the Conservatives. It seems to me that you have copied Bill Clinton – I’ll be careful where I go with this analogy – and tried to create a big tent for the SNP, so you can attract ex Conservative voters who had previously felt put off by some of the more left wing ideas of the SNP.
I suppose I have tried to bring the SNP into the mainstream of Scotland. We have a very competitive economic agenda. Many businesspeople have warmed towards the SNP. We need a competitive edge, a competitive advantage. That side of SNP politics – get on with it, get things done, speed up decision making, reduce bureaucracy. The SNP has a strong, beating social conscience, which is very Scottish in itself. One of the reasons Scotland didn’t take to Lady Thatcher was because of that. It didn’t mind the economic side so much. We could see the sense in some of that. But we didn’t like the social side at all. One of the most famous phrases in Scottish history is the ‘Community of the realm’ – I used it earlier. This idea that there is a community of interest stretching across the population. It’s a very Scottish concept and Scotland doesn’t like people who regale against it.

Doesn’t that illustrate the problem that Scotland is seen as having quite a big public sector, a bit too much of the Nanny State, and as the country of Adam Smith it is no longer seen as the country of enterprise. Or am I betraying English prejudices by even daring to suggest such a thing?
I think you are betraying Adam Smith. He was not just a friend of economics. He was a moral philosopher. Margaret Thatcher had only ever read the Penguin edition of Wealth of Nations and she missed out the moral sentiments. I would absolutely defend the reputation of Adam Smith against the Adam Smith Institute.

You’re a better man than I am.
I said to Eamonn Butler [Deputy Director of the ASI], if Adam Smith could sue, you’d be in real trouble.

*What can you do as a government to ram home the message that Scotland wants the world’s business? We only ever see in London, mainly because the London media rarely reports anything about Scotland unless it’s bad, things like the Donald Trump incident where it seems he wants to take his bat and ball home because he can’t get planning permission for a £2 billion golf project.
He hasn’t quite taken his bat and ball home but I am conflicted from commenting on it because it’s in my constituency and I am “cup-tied”. I can’t prejudice the results of the public inquiry. But on the broader point I don’t think Scotland has an international projection problem welcoming business. We’ve had a very good reception in the US. Against a very difficult investor climate we have done spectacularly well in key sectors. That will be exemplified even more in our Year of Homecoming, and we expect you to take part in this, Iain. This is for first, second, third, fourth, fifth generation Scots.

I am a quarter Scottish.
There we are, we’ve got you. There are 100 million Scots around the planet.

I am a descendant of one of Robbie Burns’ bastard children…
Iain, you are perfectly positioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of your ancestor. That only happens every 250 years!

Therefore I am instructing, nay commandeering 100 million people to come back to Scotland at some point during 2009 to enjoy the festivities.

Preferably not all at once.
No, because we have stretched the events from Burns Night to St Andrews Day. We have five themes. Burns himself, Scottish history of enterprise and innovation, the enlightenment, Adam Smith, Golf, Scottish history, genealogy, the gathering of the clans to Edinburgh. All the transatlantic flights have already been booked.

It’s all becoming clear to me now. That’s why you want the referendum in 2010 so you can sweep to victory on the back of this tide of nationalist euphoria which you will unleash in 2009.
You’ve got it. You’ve seen through me again.

That’s why Wendy Alexander wanted it now. Now I get it!
I didn’t get to the fifth theme, whisky.

We’ll gloss over that one. I don’t drink.
Can I welcome the change in direction of the Conservative Party, but I have to say the Conservative affection for whisky was about its only redeeming feature.

Don’t take me as typical of the Conservative Party, in oh so many ways!
I think I had already worked that bit out, Iain.

What is the future of the bases under an independent Scotland?
One thing that never comes up when you talk about the Barnett Formula, in public expenditure terms, Scotland gets 7% of defence expenditure, so if you held defence expenditure at the same level, you could generate more jobs. We won’t have the next generation of nuclear missiles. Hans Blix wouldn’t have much trouble in coming to Scotland and finding Weapons of Mass Destruction. He’d have managed that in an afternoon. I don’t think it’s reasonable to have that for the next forty years or so.

Nuclear power?
We’re against any renewal of nuclear power for Scotland, but we’ll have it until 2020.

The UK government is going hell for leather for nuclear power.
We’re going hell for leather for renewables. We’ve also just signed a contract for £700 million with Scottish Coal. Scots coal will now be burnt in Scots power stations. We can get the clean power investment we’re looking for. And at this rate we can get down to zero carbon emissions using clean coal.

You’re not going to waste money on wind power, are you?
We’ll have comparative advantage in wind power, lots of wind. Offshore wind has a lot going for it. In the Murray Firth we have a utilisation of 53% – I don’t know of any land based wind turbines with more than 30%. But we also have a comparative advantage in wave energy and tidal energy. It’s going to be big in the future. The Pentland Firth is the Saudi Arabia or tidal power, potentially. I notice Gordon Brown has nicked that phrase – very naughty of him. I launched the world’s largest innovation prize in Washington in April, the Saltaire Prize, which will be judged by scientific luminaries throughout the world. You have to demonstrate the device in Scotland. You can enter yourself, Iain

Hmmm. I can demonstrate good use of wind, but let’s not go there.
The idea is to establish Scotland as the marine renewables centre of the universe. We had a full page headline in Fortune Magazine – Scotland Rules the Waves. I loved that! My view on energy is that you position yourself where you have a natural competitive advantage. We don’t have it in nuclear technology. We’d have to buy it from France or somewhere else. We’ll get to 30% renewable production, 50% by 2020 and bigger after that if the technology fits into place. It will because the economics are dictating it. And we have to address to the outrageous entry costs to connect to the grid.

Is it a frustration for you being First Minister than you only have powers over certain areas and not others. For example, you don’t have full control over economic policy. You have limited tax raising powers which you choose not to use…
Once upon a time they were called the Towering Heights of the economy…

You mean Commanding Heights…
Indeed. Yes, it is a frustration, of course it is. Can you do nothing about the economy, no I don’t agree with that, but you are boxed in to enterprise policy, business incentives and supply side initiatives. However, we have done something dramatic for small businesses with the elimination of business rates for example. But for Commanding Heights intervention on adjustment of tax then you are heavily restricted and that is a real frustration, of course it is.

Do you think you will ever use the tax raising powers you’ve got?
I don’t see that in the foreseeable future.

A subject dear to my heart is an English Parliament, which you presumably approve of…
I am right behind you. I’m surprised at Ken Clarke’s lily-livered report.

Are you? It’s a compromise, isn’t it?
I was being ironic. Certain compromises you can muddle through, but if I was producing a way to protect the essential integrity of the United Kingdom – which, I’m not – I wouldn’t produce that. This in and out rubbish is a lot of nonsense. You have to think about the whole constitutional structure and come up with something a bit more elegant.

Do you agree that there is a resurgence of an acceptable form of English nationalism and that a lot of English people feel disadvantaged?
I have huge sympathy with the political argument. As you know, by choice, SNP MPs have abstained from every vote on English legislation which dies not have an immediate Scottish consequence. And when we have intervened it’s usually on the side of the English majority. If you’re asking me should people in England be able to run their own Health Service, their education system and a variety of other pieces of legislation then my answer is yes. They should be able to do it without the bossy interference of Scots Labour MPs. We had this in reverse through the 1980s. Because I believe in independence for Scotland I also believe in independence for England. I know there are a lot of doom mongers who say that England couldn’t stand on its own two feet. I deprecate that sort of talk.[laughs]. I have great confidence in England’s ability to be self governing.

  • We are so grateful!*
    Sometimes it helps for people to see the wood from the trees to talk like that. Nothing makes me more angry than people who deprecate the abilities of their own country, their own people. You can’t deprecate a country’s abilities without having an effect on the people within the country. It’s insidious and damaging. Patriotism is said to be the last refuge of the scoundrel. The reverse is the last refuge of the scoundrel in politics.

Does it irritate you when you read things in the English newspapers – and I get it all the time on my blog – about what a miserable Scottish bastard Andy Murray is? How the English shouldn’t support him because he said he didn’t want England to win in the World Cup?
I don’t think that the plain people of England would think that. The sort of people who think that are the sort of people who go on your blog! [roars with laughter].

Thank you! But let me put the reverse point to you. I always want Scotland to win at any sport. It’s partly my country too. But there are plenty of Scots who revel in an English defeat of any sort – even against the Germans, for God’s sake!
I have form on this matter. You’re not talking to the First Minister who supports other teams against England in the world cup – that was my predecessor [Jack McConnell]. I think that individuals have every right to a bit of banter.

But it goes beyond banter.
When you become national leader you’re under a different set of rules. Anything I say can be interpreted as the view of the country. People should back your own country. No one is obligated to support anyone else, but I don’t think you should get your kicks and thrills by some proxy. It’s pathetic. I have never indulged in it. If you go into a TV room in the House of Commons when England is playing, all you have to do is look at the phalanx of Scottish Labour MPs cheering on whoever they are playing against. And you think to yourself, there’s the Scottish Unionist Party. These are the people who want to have their country run from somewhere else!

In May 2011 you will be up for re-election. What do you want the Scottish people to be thinking about your four years in government. What will guarantee you your re-election?
Remember we will be having a referendum in 2010. I want our record in government to reinforce the popularity and trust in the SNP. By our deeds we shall be known. People do not expect miracles. They do not expect a minority government to have transformed the country in the space of twelve months but most people seem to be happy with what they have seen so far. The trust in government as expressed in the Social Attitude Survey has risen by twenty points – from 50% to 70%.

It was important for you in the first year to display competence, I suppose, as none of you had any experience of running a government department!
The SNP Cabinet has people in it who have worked for Standard Life, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Scottish Amicable. They’ve done a few things.

It must be a relief to have got through the first year with a reputation for competence.
It was a desirable objective. As you probably have noticed, I am not short of confidence, so relief is the wrong phrase, but I was determined that that should be done. So much so that I banned their holidays last Summer and said look, you’re Cabinet Ministers, make your mark. And they did.

My point is that the Scottish media is against the SNP and apart from the Labour Party most other people in politics have said quite nice things about you.
If you get complimented by your critics then that is better than just being complimented by your friends. But we have a lot of achievements to be complimented on. We have a new style of government. We slashed business rates for small companies, freezing council tax, abolished tolls, saved the hospitals, reduced prescription charges. We’re now trying to get to some of the more underlying structural challenges – reshaping the relationship between central and local government. If we can do that, there will be a big gain. We’ve already abolished more than 60 ring fences. We are attacking on the binge drinking culture, which is an even bigger problem than it is in England. This is difficult because we are tilting against vested interested, the power of which you would not believe.

So how do you think you’ve done overall?
Well, I’m not going to do a Wendy Alexander and give myself ten out of ten [laughs].


James McAvoy or Sean Connery
Has to be Sean Connery, but I would never pit two fantastic Scots against each other.

Oatcakes or Haggis
Oatcakes win, but only marginally.

Favourite View
Culloden Bay. If you haven’t seen it, you must. A couple of Tory MPs have holiday homes there. It’s fabulous.

Wendy or Douglas

Last time you cried
[pauses] I shed a tear recently. There was an episode of Star Trek that was particularly poignant [collapses in giggles].

What music makes you dance?
My guilty secret is that I like country and western music. I am a devotee of Tammy Wynette. I went to Scottish Ballet recently. Wonderful, but in the interval I had to give a speech. I told them it was the first ballet I had ever been to so they were thinking I was a complete philistine. I then told them I was the only frontline politician who had once starred in an opera, and it’s true. I had a lead role in an operetta. My musical tastes are wide. I have also done a duet with Sandi Thom.

Favourite food
In the early part of June you can get Duke of York potatoes, fresh sea trout and Scottish asparagus. Usually they are out of sync, but sometimes you can get them all in season together.

Favourite comedian
Elaine C Smith, the wife of Rab C Nesbitt.



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