• Fernando Gómez Herrero.

Jim O’Neill, Chatham House, Chair: International Cooperation does not Require the Same Form of Gover

Jim O’Neill, Chatham House, Chair: International Cooperation does not Require the Same Form of Government. Interview with Fernando Gómez Herrero (27th May 2020).

Transcript of the Interview of Lord Jim O’Neill (Chair of Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs) with Dr. Fernando Gómez Herrero, fernandogherrero).

Spanish version will come out in La Vanguardia, https://www.lavanguardia.com/autores/fernando-gomez.html.

Photos of Jim O'Neill unless otherwise credited used with permission of Jim O'Neill and Chatham House.

I interviewed Lord Terence James (“Jim”) O’Neill, Chairman of Chatham House, British think tank of commendable longevity and influence that is still strong. He has spent two years in the post (https://www.chathamhouse.org/news/2018-04-19-jim-o-neill-elected-new-chair-chatham-house). The global pandemic disrupted this year of 2020, which is the institution’s centenary. The lockdown was officially put in place by British government dictum in the final week of March and the institution was forced, along many others, to close its physical premises (near Piccadilly Circus in London) and adopt, also adapt to, a serious migration of its activities (administrative, scholarly, academic and business or corporate in general) to the virtual and digital domains. This may be the “new normal,” as the widespread expression has it. The recently deceased Paul Virilio, admired thinker of speed and politics, may feel vindicated vis-à-vis our global predicaments.

The full name of the organisation shortened as Chatham House is The Royal Institute of International Affairs and has the Queen as Patron. It is a not-for-profit charity with no political affiliation and includes corporate sponsorship among major multinational companies, such as Chevron, Open Society and Luminate among them. Chatham House enjoys a considerable brand-name recognition, “second to none,” in the words of the Chair, https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/jim-oneill who admits to the “healthy struggle with the dilemmas” of similar Western-style think tanks, including those in the Anglophone world, transitioning to a new game of global configurations, ever so gradually unmoored from the historical centrality of the continent of Europe and a dependable United States of America. Spanish-speaking Latin American thinking has been criticising this narrow conception of the “West” for at least a century and not only in international-relations domains. But never mind, Brexit and Covid combine in Great Britain to raise the bar to unprecedented levels of uncertainty for virtually all institutions, including short-term financial survivability. This is, at least for the time being, our immediate context.

The Chatham House rule, and there is only one, is well known, as it is made clear in the interview: it stands for the confidentiality of the proceedings in relation to the names of the sources and their (institutional, national) provenance in the said session, if so ruled. The rule seeks to underline the discretion in the handling of the (sometimes sensitive, inside) information, as well as the discussion around the issues in the session in question. Some sessions are on the record, some are not, some sessions are corporate-exclusive, others are open to members only, others are open to the general public and the media. A few video and zoom sessions are currently available on the site (https://www.chathamhouse.org/).

We conducted a conversation via Zoom on 27th May 2020, two months after the official March lockdown, as it begins to ease out into still limiting possibilities for association, work and travel. The Chair admits to the tug of war between Western and global at the core of Chatham House at this delicate moment, as hearts and minds will have to adjust gradually to a brave new world, i.e. an Asia-centric world order built around a powerful Chinese gravitational force. This adjustment will continue in the following months and years irrespective of Brexit and European Union negotiations, internal EU tensions and who the next occupant of the White House will be. International affairs, therefore, East-bound.

It is, no need to hide it, a cold-shoulder moment for the Chatham House, perhaps even an existential moment, where the organisation is caught unevenly between the Trump administration and the Boris Johnson government, irrespective of the clichéd “special relationship.” The peculiar (unwritten) “constitution” of the United Kingdom will travel through Brexit and Covid-19: where to? Its uneven “four-nation” ensemble will undergo, along with others, a series of continuities and changes, transformations and accelerations, inequalities and tensions. It is difficult to predict. If the nation-state level, or “scale,” is an inevitable dimension in relation to the international vistas afforded inside (un-)official circles, this interview also includes the intra- or sub-national level, with a focus on the unequal areas or regions in Northern Britain, let us call it "“Man-Sheff-Leeds-Pool."

Educated in Sheffield (BA and MA) and Surrey (PhD), Jim O’Neill is an economist by training and also by strong inclination. Known mostly as the coiner of “the BRIC” economies, the term “BRIC” emerges after 9/11, when he was working for Goldman Sachs. His professional career starts in banking with experiences on both sides of the Atlantic and extends not long before his tenure at Chatham House in 2018. The Chairman has a knack for acronyms and the interview includes something of this “letter soup” of acronyms around the grouping of countries, and middle-range countries at that, demanding our attention and investment (of time, thought, strategy, effort and money too). Will the middle-size powers do better when the big powers have failed in the business of the reform of international governance? Will the small-economy nations amount to much more? His scepticism of the current top configurations, G-7 and the G-20, particularly in the post-2008 crisis moment is in the open for everyone to see.

Still calling himself an “objective Remainer,” Jim O'Neill makes the case for an anti-Brexit argument in the example of Germany. His declared philosophy is one of fostering international relations and of governance irrespective of political similarity or identity with the liberal-West models, currently undergoing revisionism in a variety of countries, including Britain. The Chair advocates devolution within Britain and highlights the crucial factor of the inequality among the various areas and regions of Britain without going too far into differentialist nationalistic claims, Scottish or Catalan for example, within existing nation-state configurations (U.K. and Spain following the same example). Remaining tactful with conservatism past and present, he keeps his distance from it, also in relation to comparable figures such as Nick Timothy, right-hand man of Theresa May from whose government Jim O’Neill resigned early in the day.

Jim O’Neill's final proposal is that we live in a moment of transition from “shareholder capitalism” to “stakeholder capitalism.” Capitalism is, make no mistake, the name of the global game, also in our times of flux and uncertainty, upset or chaos, and the government may well be the strongest player or the main actor, at least in some settings not far away from the isles. It is thus not far-fetched to suppose that its Leviathan-like strength will continue being so in the following months and years to come, also in post-Brexit and Covid-through situations in Britain, as it thinks of its own place in this expansive brave new world, and likely moves away from recent attachments, in between the two big nations (U.S. and China) among other middle-size nations. There will have to be some degree of relative distancing from its biggest business partner, the European Union and Chatham House, it is safe to say, is not clapping hands. Neither is, if may put it this way, its Chair. But there is always business to get done. Are we seeing the emergence of different set-ups of democratic “clubs”? Or a membership in different clubs? Could we conceive of a Moebius strip of international relations responding to the vested interests in the most influential groups populating the various nations, no reason why one should not be in more than one nation at once, inside mutably adjustable configurations, say, seeking greater proximity or the opposite, the "socially-distancing" dictum that has become expression of the global pandemic day? We live in interesting times, in the quintessential English understatement of the Chinese dictum, and Jim O’Neill is an interesting man with an interesting trajectory that insists on looking at the next thirty years.

Campfire Convention, photo uncredited. 22/01/2018.

Jim O'Neill past includes conservative collaborations in the David Cameron and George Osborne years, where he was secretary to the Treasury, whilst he insists on the unaffiliated cross-bencher persona in the House of Lords, which he describes as a “very strange British institution.” A co-chairman of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (http://www.northernpowerhousepartnership.co.uk/), business organisation also linked to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Proud Mancunian from the suburbia of Gatley in the Greater Manchester Area, and a suffering Manchester Union fan, the interview includes comments about the honorific title of Lord and something about the inequalities embedded in the northern geographies of Britain, and also the midlands.

I dare say that Jim O’Neill is perhaps a salient example of the business of international relations in the post-imperial, post-industrial, perhaps also post-colonial, situations of Britain. This is foreign affairs with or without the emphasis on the neglected regions of England, the specific Greater Manchester area in this case. One may want to point out to the exclusive events offered to the corporate members of Chatham House as indicator of where the heart ticks (I say this as an individual member of the same institution that is not privy to such gatherings). The focus is with our Chair on the corporate potential or the business interests embedded in the discipline that we will call “economics” for short as it spreads its wings and travels with or without restrictions across the regions and the nations of the world, and we are sitting, at least momentarily, near past and present British government circles, and also pretty near the top tier and the “safe middle” of influential nations. There are no islands of exceptionalism and perhaps Covid-19 will upset some arrangements sooner or later.

This elucidation of international relations or its foreign affairs is, it seems to me in this case, mostly about the good-business potential in situations as they make them available, or not, ineluctably in the capitalist vein, mould or domain and here at least in this interview one can find light-brush touches, or rhetorical flourishes, of inclusive productivity and civic commitment. The capitalist system is in toto rarely called onto the carpet and one looks at the Chair and the "old-Lady" Institution for this double "benign neglect" (if this was an Italian organisation, one might wish to call it by the respectable nickname of the Juventus Football Club, "la Vecchia Signora"). No fooling around: this Britishness is not to be put in the relative-cultural clause among others, much less thrown out the window, and how could it be?, by our British Chair of this very British institution moving, largely, mostly?, in its home-grown territory, even when it is still undoubtedly professing a brand of internationalism that is brought into serious question by these difficult times for all. I am willing to take the Chair at his word and go out and about with Diogenes in his search for honest people and grab the candles to illuminate the good notion of “inclusive growth,” in the rich and deprived areas of the national geography of Great Britain and elsewhere. His (bad) example is, he says, his own club, Manchester United, a two-decade source of pain, failing to catch up with the incredible success of Messi’s Barcelona.

Jim O'Neill's Chatham House page includes a series of short position papers in relation to a variety of topics of great interest: a proposal for a people’s bailout due to the international scale of the covid crisis, the so-called “quantitative easing” (QE); a proposal to continue engaging with the giant of China, no matter what; his open scepticism of the G-7 and of G-20 post-2008 crisis, also the attempt to reach out to Japan among other developed countries in Asia. South Korea will surely come soon. Claiming a “centre” position in the Conservative-and-Labour configuration, a 2018 paper warmed up to a Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour possibility to shake up the status quo. If this came to nothing, his words may still resonate with the New Labour moment –or movement-- of the new leader, Keir Starmer. I have written a quick appraisal (https://www.lavanguardia.com/participacion/lectores-corresponsales/20200316/474111612980/retrato-sir-keir-starmer-candidato-favorito-lider-partido-laborista-reino-unido.html)

Fernando Gómez Herrero: What is the state of affairs at Chatham House? I mean it operationally in relation to the immediate covid crisis, and also philosophically if you wish, in relation to this 100-year-old “liberal-West” think-tank transitioning to perhaps to something unclear…

Jim O’Neill: From an operational perspective, Chatham House, like many other businesses, never mind think tanks, to a certain degree has to reinvent itself as a model. And we essentially transformed [it] online. And to our initial pleasant surprise, once we thought about it, I guess, it was not surprising, in sense of the events that we host, the attendance is significantly higher on average than before for all the events that we have hosted since we went online. And when you think about it, it is because a lot of people from around the world can connect with events a lot more easily than getting on a plane and come to London, and perhaps we can more easily attract participants in an event from the same kind of reasons. Actually, in [a] recent board meeting, we discussed the idea that even when we come back to being allowed to have a more normal kind of interaction with each other and when we come back to use our building, we will probably want to keep some of our activities permanently online. So, that part of the house has kept operationally rather well and in the spirit of never wanting a crisis go to waste, it is forcing us to think differently.

The big unknown which, I think I saw in your interview with Robin [Niblett], and as he pointed out, [is that] we do not of the consequences for the economy, what the environments will be like, for many of our supporters, particularly corporate ones, but also [our] individual supporters. And we are considering a number of different scenarios to plan for all eventualities as we go into 2021. But I would say we are so far in an o.k. position.

And philosophically?

Philosophically, I think Chatham House, frankly, epitomises the dilemma that all the best think tanks have struggled for a long time. Do you want to be a think tank that just promotes or represents the interests of [the] Western democratic ways or do you want to be a global think tank? And we have a healthy struggle with that dilemma. Having someone like myself as Chairman [is evidence] as to the internal and external intensity of the debate because obviously, given that I have “Mr Brics” stamped on my forehead, and the close association I have, particularly, with China, I am very aware of the dilemmas. We do not know the answer, partly because no one knows the answer where China and other non-democratic countries will end up and, of course, as exhibit[ed] by this crisis, the post-World-War-II world global framework of institutional governance is a mess. The whole reason why I became Chairman of Chatham House was [precisely that], and that happened before the crisis. I believe Chatham House is, at least conceptually, in a position to shape and create a better world, including [one] of global government, and that is one of our missions.

About the UK in the world: what would you like add, underline, highlight, perhaps modify, contradict or correct in relation to Robin Niblett’s comments to me? (Link to the interview here: https://www.fernandogherrero.com/single-post/2020/04/29/Robin-Niblett-The-More-Coherent-the-World-is-the-Less-Influential-Britain-will-be-Interview-with-Fernando-G%C3%B3mez-Herrero).

Robin Niblett speaks for himself. I would say two things as Chair, perhaps touching on what I have already said. Chatham House has an incredible brand. I am someone who has been associated with powerful brands for much of my career, and because of its history and the famous Chatham House rule, you know, Chatham House is in a position in which it is second to any other type of institution and we need to use that platform in a more focused and ambitious way and instead of just being a brilliant convenor of people to discuss whatever issues of the day people want to discuss, I think we need to weigh [in] our ambition and the influence of our research projects in order to shape a better world.

What are the pluses and minuses of Chatham House, its “virtues and vices” if you wish? In other words, what will this institution deliver and not deliver yet?

I have already answered this to some degree. As a convenor of discussions of world-class people and thinking, it is probably second to none. As soon as I talk to people, through travel or any other conversation about covid [or any other topic], as soon as I say “Chatham House,” immediately people say “Ah, the Chatham House rule!,” and in many discussions anywhere, people say “is it under the Chatham House rules”? and I say, “well, actually, I happen to be Chair of Chatham House, I just like to point out that there is only one rule.” If brand is a convenor, it is just second to none and we have to maintain that and somehow perhaps thrive even more. But where we need to do better, and this reflects the very high standards I might have, as a research person, I do not think that our research is impactful enough, as evidenced by other Western think tanks. If the purpose of our research and influence was as strong as it should be, then the world would not have the kind of problems that it now has got.

It would be second to the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, wouldn’t it? That would be the big sister, no?

I would not want to pick a fight as to whether who is the most influential. But we would see ourselves as players in the same sort of ballpark space or league as the Council of Foreign Relations.

I take note that you are not a registered Conservative but you have moved politically inside Conservative circles. What is happening to the Conservative Party since David Cameron under whom you served? What is going on here, taking a bit into account its immediate past (Thatcher / Major) and immediate present (May / Johnson)?

I do not know because I am not a member of the Conservative Party and never have been. Most people would think I was more politically aligned to the left-of-centre than the right. But I have never been a member of any political party. But, with that caveat, let me make two or three quick comments. First of all, the main problem the Conservative Party has got is that it has a very small membership. And it is highly representative of the elderly, aging, particularly male, white [middle] class. It is quite miraculous how it manages to stick to power with such a remarkably narrow membership base. The second point is the volatility, which is related to that. The volatility of policy direction relates to the twin dilemma of trying to appeal to its membership, that is the main reason why Boris Johnson was chosen as Prime Minister, but at the same time to try to appeal to the population of Britain, and obviously [it is harder for young people.]. I often joke that trying to find someone who under the age of thirty that would dare publicly admit that they voted for the Conservatives is a pretty hard thing to do. What you see with the variation and the remarkable shifts in priorities, given that it has been the same party since 2010, is the reflection of these two contradictions.

Getty Images / Bloomberg / Contributor

I do not want to make it a joke and compare a Brummie with a Mancunian. But I have Theresa May’s right-hand man Nick Timothy in mind in relation to the future of conservatism, when he calls David Cameron and George Osborne “ultra-liberals,” and distances himself from them. Does this make any sense to you since you have moved and are still close to Osborne in business circles?

Even though I am very friendly with George [Osborne], I have my own views. I agree and disagree with Nick Timothy. I would say three things. First of all, the whole decline of the liberal order in the past ten years or more might be simply regarded as a consequence of some of the failures of international capitalism because it has not delivered, particularly for low-income people, on any issues that have to do with [the diminution or amelioration of] inequality. It has not delivered in many aspects what in theory was supposed to. So, the rise of various parties, the Brexit party in the U.K., the Five-Star movement in Italy, Trump… They are all quite logical because the system has not delivered in the way the system is supposed to.

Second thing I would say, and contrary to the turn of many people, I am not sure how permanent that is. It is just an obvious [comment]. I would say in many ways democracy in particular is alive and well. [If] people do not like what they see, they want something else. If we find out, as there is already plenty of evidence, if you look at what is going on in the U.S., that some of these anti-liberal policies do not work, what that creates is an environment in which the liberal order may come back probably stronger and better. You see with the Labour party in the U.K. with the end of [Jeremy] Corbyn and the early stages of a new Labour movement [under Keir Starmer] which is most definitely already going back to the centre. As we have seen in the past week the popularity of this Conservative Party may have dropped dramatically, because of what has happened inside the party in relation to the relationship to the country. I do think that Nick Timothy is right, that it needs to be more focus on things that help more people, but I definitely do not think that means the end of the international order. I do not think Nick Timothy often understands the world in which he says things. My own view is that we are in the early stages of moving through a world that I call “shareholder capitalism” to one of “stakeholder capitalism.” But it certainly does not mean to say that what Germany describes as the end of the liberal order.

WPA Pool via Getty Image.

What is your assessment of the Boris Johnson Government so far?

It has not been in power very long so it is pretty hard to say. It is a question that is impossible to answer.

Chatham House produced a recent document titled, “Ideas for Modernising the Rules-Based International Order / Chatham House Expert Perspectives 2019.” Is this liberalism in shambles or at least for the time being in limbo, and in your view it is worth fighting for and defending, and what’s next?

It is worth improving. As an example of the shambles, look at the covid crisis, let us say, with three months into it in the Western world. And the contrast with 2008 is remarkable. 2008, the G-20 came into its own, because of President [George W.] Bush initially, and that of course British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And the contrast today is not good. The G-20 that took place soon after the annual International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings was very disappointing. They could not agree a plan on health cooperation and they failed to agree on an increase in the funding for the IRF. And whether it is the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO) of course, and even the United Nations (U.N.): all these major institutions are struggling to be as effective as they should be. But, does that mean that we just abandon the international order? No. It means we need to improve them. We need to have some kind of global rules of engagement.

Getty Images / WPA Pool / Pool

Let us look at the big picture of the international areas of the world. What is the (re-) configuration of the salient areas of the world in the present and immediate future? And here we will all be drowning in the happy soup of acronyms. What is happening to the BRIC countries (Brasil, Russia, India, China)? In the EU context, there are references to the “frugal four” (Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark), the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain). There is also the MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) or the MIKT (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey), and the two super-big clubs, the G-7 and the G-20, about both you have expressed public skepticism. What is going on? I suppose the looming giant of China takes over… Is your emphasis to highlight the mid-table nations as increasingly significant players versus the already more powerful (U.S., U.K., France and Germany)? Is that what this is in general about?

No. I would put it differently. And it goes right back to when I created the BRIC idea in 2001, which came on the back of 9/11. I think we need for the foreseeable future somehow [to see that] we live in a world where we accept that some countries will have a different domestic form of governance than others. And that is essentially what the initial BRIC paper, which I called the “Building Better World Economic BRICs” was actually all about, trying to reform and include the G-7 inside the international governance mechanism. And this is one of the reasons why the crisis of recovery in 2008 stopped us from going into [a] 1929-1930 (situation), because of the emergence of the G-20. One can argue that the G-20 policy response in 2008 is one of the best ever internationally coordinated policy responses, certainly in my lifetime. And China played its part. The US played its part. And people temporarily abandoned this obsession about only wanting to cooperate with countries that thought exactly like you.

And that is the reality for the next thirty years of how somehow it will have to be. China is China. And whatever the U.S. do, that won’t determine whether China keeps to a single-party nation. It would depend on internal Chinese dynamics. And similarly, many attempts by a number of people to pull apart the EU, you know, at the end of the day, Canada depends on France and Germany [and there are other cases]. For the purposes of international cooperation and international governance, my whole philosophy, and it is amazing to me that so many people struggle nearly 20 years after the BRIC acronym, including to some degree Chatham House, we need to accept that not everyone of the 8 billion people around the world wants to have the same form of government as perhaps you and I.

Simon Dawson / Bloomberg via Getty Images.

And that would not be a major detriment or major obstacle not to have business relations with them…

No [obstacle.] Not in the slightest. I immediately cite Germany, which, both linked to the Brexit debate, but also in relation to the more global debate. Germany until this crisis, at least from the previous three years, exported more goods to China than it did to Italy. End of story.

Mail Online, 23 Sept. 2016, photo uncredited.

Let us move closer to the U.K. in relation to the state of the Union. Official discourse insists on the “one-nation Tory.” The very idea of the break-up with Scotland is taboo, I would say. There is clearly an audience for these matters among readers of La Vanguardia. How would you explain the current four-nation configuration of the U.K.? Are these dilemmas and the competencies of the devolved government arrangement fateful or fatal, for the benefit not only of Catalan readers near Barcelona? Is Covid and Brexit having any type of impact in the constitution of UK (political entity with no written constitution)? There is disharmony in the handling of the covid crisis (easing of the lockdown rhythms, schools opening, mottos to follow, etc.).

There are three things combining to this complex situation. First of all, as we have touched on it, and I think it is more important than what people realise. While Britain has benefited in many ways from the strength of globalisation in the past thirty years, it has also suffered badly. The inequalities around the U.K. are huge. London and the South East are among the most prosperous areas of Europe. But many parts of the rest of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are very poor. That’s the first reality and to some extent the Brexit results were a consequence of that other than the consequence of the EU, but the EU will be regarded as symbol of this reality [of inequality] in the U.K. And in that sense, and I am someone who will regard himself as an objective Remainer, the EU has not delivered improving productivity. And it presided, at least for the U.K., over the past 50 years, among many other factors, increased inequality between geographies of the U.K. So, that is the first point.

Second point is, in addition to that, the U.K. has one of the most functionally round economies in the whole of the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in terms of government spending and government tax-raising. And it might be related to the first point. It may be a coincidence but if you look at the many of the more successful economies, they have a lot more autonomy in terms of local decision-making. So, in connection to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, I am a big supporter of aspects of devolution of responsibilities and policies within the U.K. It is not necessarily after resulting in the U.K. breaking down, which takes me to my third point.

If the Whitehall-Westminster bubble do[es] not recognise these realities, the social pressures about the U.K. remaining as one entity will grow. And it will grow inside England. The concept of the Northern Powerhouse is developed on pretty strong ground. Quite rightly, a lot of people in the North of England were demanding more responsibilities and more influence, and [also] in the midlands, of course.

Thomas Lee, photographer / Bloomberg

We are moving into the subnational or regional levels near the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which you chair with George Osborne: what signature projects would you highlight? Britain is a post-industrial, post-imperial nation heavily centralised in London and with strong and deep inequalities, as a whole strong on hospitality and tourism. The whole official talk is one of “levelling up,” of devolution to a certain degree… Do you see big infrastructure projects such as Huawei, HS2 going forward with Brexit and Covid?

Of course, because of covid-19, some conventional aspects of what you might regard as infrastructure may be different. I have argued before, but now I would argue even more strongly, that there should be more focus on human and social infrastructure rather than physical. As we see in some other countries, for example France, which has the most incredible high-speed trains, but it does not do on its own anything to fulfil the regions of France. And I think it is pretty clear, both from economic literature but also from evidence, that unless you do something for schools and education, it does not matter how much you spend on transport. And now, particularly, because of the whole issue of social distancing, the case to be spending as much on transport for very expensive transport projects on the premise that there was a capacity constraint is falling out as very weak. I was not the greatest fan on these projects anyhow: just getting people in and out of London even faster than they did before isn’t necessarily going to help the regions. And what we really need is more focus on specific policies to reduce this circular challenge of low-education, low attainment, poor skills, very poor productivity and low incomes. And that is what is going to be more about this “levelling up” agenda in my view going forward, than just trying to build new railways, although some of the transport things are also important.

Reuters / Benjamin Beavan

What pet projects of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership would you like to highlight?

I would like to say two things, one of these, contrary to what I have just said. Northern Powerhouse in its core is what I sometimes say is the acronym “Man-Sheff-Leeds-Pool” (Manchester-Sheffield-Leeds-Liverpool). All these places are shorter distance from the centre of Manchester than they are from the length of distance to the central-line tube station. So, if you could put in a central transport system which allowed all these places to operate as a single economic market, that would create a true Northern Powerhouse. So, that is much more important than HS2. Multiple more times more important. The second and the third things, and I am almost campaigning for them right now, is that we need to have a modern, more forceful version of what the Department of Education calls “opportunity areas.” (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/education-secretary-announces-6-new-opportunity-areas). And this is very applicable to the midlands as well, in a number of areas of significant economic challenge, you need to have a [whole] of interventions over a number of years aim at that particular area, so for example Blackpool, the very rundown coastal town of the North of England, or Oldham in Greater Manchester, or Bradford. These are clearly opportunity areas, but they are not really being done in as detailed a manner as possible. And the Northern Powerhouse Partnership is doing a lot of work on that. And I am a big champion of that. The third thing to say, and I have been in the media a lot in the U.K. about this in the past week, is I think the case for having regionally based investment funds, [which] you can think of them as regional sovereign wealth funds, specifically linked to investments and assets of those regions are something, I think, which offer a great opportunity for the government to undertake post-covid-19.

Since you are a football fan, this is a football analogy which I advance a bit provocatively: is the UK a bit like Manchester United after Alex Ferguson?

That is a very sensitive question coming from a Catalonian-based newspaper. In my opinion, in the past 20 years, Manchester United should have been at least if not more successful than Barcelona, honestly. I used to say in the early noughties, Man U is the best BRICs’ content playing in the world and annoyingly the Man U owners played on the advertising and marketing promotion of that brand, but they did not think about the football, the quality of the team. It is something which greatly pains me and it is one of the most distressing parts of my life in the past 20 years. But I failed at that, because arguably, it represents and highlights some of the problems in the U.K. as indeed we have seen during covid-19. We have two world-class universities that are leading the global search for a vaccine, which is fantastic. Yet, at the same time, the U.K. is the second highest number of countries in terms of number of deaths. And our much beloved health system has survived, but we have not been able to use technology, or preventive policies, to control this crisis because of the devastation that it has done. If you look at the index, one of the Goldman Sachs’, of sustainable economy development, it is no surprise that of the ten highest-scoring countries in the index of 180 countries nine of them have got the lowest rate of death per population in this crisis. And the U.K. or the U.S. or Spain are not in that top ten. So, it is not only surprising to me, and hopefully, the U.K. and the U.S. take away some big lessons in this crisis.

Mail online 2/2/18, photo uncredited.

Insisting on the football analogy: a certain global brand recognition does not play well in the league and does not render immediate benefits to the area or the region, would that be the point?

Yes. Correct. Policy makers need to think more about inclusive growth after big owners like the ones in Manchester United. It epitomises the worst of modern capitalism.

Why would anyone want to join the “life peers” in this day and age? I am not English and the question is genuine: isn’t this a very English scandal of antiquarianism and hierarchies and honours after the Life Peerages Act of 1958 updated later in the 1990s? David Cameron broke all records with 243 appointments… What’s exciting about it?

I have no idea. It is a very strange institution. And I only became one because to become a minister you either have to be a member of Parliament or a member of the Lords. So, I could not have been a minister any other way. So, let’s just say, and I am one who went to private school, but I often joke to people that the House of Lords is a bit like Hogwarts [School of Witchcraft and Wizardry], probably was in the Harry Potter series. It is a very unique and very strange British institution.

Do you get to participate in experts’ committees? Is that what the point of it all is?

More seriously. I am a cross-bencher for a start in the House of Lords, which means I have no political affiliation. I would say many cross-benchers as well as a number of peers from the major parties have more expert knowledge than most MPs [Members of Parliament]. And so actually the committees that undertake specialist recourse and advise are exceptionally strong quality and end up having quite a strong influence on British policy. And of course the House of Lords is its current construct is a chamber that makes sure it checks in further detail policies that the government wants to undertake and MPs have to vote on, so it has its purpose, even though it is a very strange place.

Final question, how was the encounter with Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Treasury Secretary, in one recent meeting at Chatham House (https://www.chathamhouse.org/event/lloyd-george-centennial-lecture-future-global-order-conversation-steven-t-mnuchin)? You worked together for Goldman Sachs. What is your sense of that session (it was covered for La Vanguardia? And we can be as polite as we can be. (https://www.lavanguardia.com/participacion/lectores-corresponsales/20200204/473272106540/entrevista-steven-mnuchin-secretario-tesoro-eeuu-donald-trump-chatham-house-londres.html).

The most important thing, to answer that question, is that was, I think, the Saturday of the week of Davos. Were you there? [No, is the answer, FGH]. So, if you check the proceedings, the most important thing to me is, as I said in my summary comments [in that session], in some sympathy of [Steven] Mnuchin, the whole attention had been on climate change, and as evidenced by this worrying outbreak of this new infectious disease in China, that was already to me evidence that, not for the first time, Davos was a reverse cyclically economic indicator, and as I said, here we are when Davos is even finished, and whilst Davos spent most its time, 95% of its time talking about, was not going to be anything that matters in the near future. And the results were no discussions. The only person that made some covid-19 comments that day was me and look at how life has been in the last three and a half months since then.

Thank you very much, Mr O’Neill. It has been a pleasure. I have really enjoyed it. I will be transcribing and translating this and I will send you the final version.

Thank you, very nice to speak with you, and if Lionel Messi ever leaves Barcelona, please let Manchester United have him.

I will see what I can do about it.

Express Online, 10 Aoril 2017, Getty, photo uncredited.

Maintained by Matt Dalton

© 2020 Fernando Gómez Herrero 

Connect with me on LinkedIn

Linkedin.png