A NEW CAREER. George Osborne is a British Conservative politician who was a Member of Parliament from 2001 to 2017. He served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under David Cameron from 2010 to 2016. He has been Editor of the London Evening Standard since May 2017.
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You left politics and went back to your previous interest of being a journalist. Now you are Editor of the London Evening Standard. How do you feel about this?
I saw it as a new profession, although one I’d always been interested in. For ex-politicians it’s quite often difficult to work out what you do next. Being only 47 I was looking for a new career, and there are similarities between editing a paper and being a topflight politician. A strong government is able to give a whole range of things a tone, so that people know what the government stands for. Similarly a strong effective newspaper might be covering lots of different topics, but all of these things need to have a character so that the newspaper has an identity. The job of the editor, having done the job for two years now, is to try and create that character. It’s like a very good orchestra with lots of brilliant players who are unique and unlike any other orchestra; they could play for a long time without a conductor, but the conductor gives the whole thing an identity.
The Evening Standard is a special paper. It comes out in the afternoon and now it’s free. How come?
The Evening Standard has been around for over one hundred and ninety years. It is one of the longest existing newspapers in the world. It is as much a part of London as the red bus or the black taxi. I remember from my childhood the Evening Standard seller shouting out the headlines, but that newspaper was different. It told you what was happening during the day in an age when there was no other way of finding out, and if you wanted the newspaper you had to buy it. When the new owners bought this paper ten years ago they made a very brave decision, and said that instead of getting people to pay for it we are going to hand it out for free.
How many copies do you distribute?
On the last day that it was sold it had around a quarter of a million copies. Today we print around a million copies. The circulation has quadrupled in ten years, the opposite story to most newspapers.
Where are your read?
We only distribute in London, but the physical newspaper is carried on trains by commuters to a much wider area. With our owners we’ve been putting a big investment into the online product, so we now have readers in America and continental Europe and the rest of the country, and just last month we went through 100 million page views, which is big. The paper product is still very accessible, very convenient, easy to read, and gives you a lot of information very quickly, but we have to also develop the online presence of the newspaper.
Who are your readers?
We have a mass readership of many more readers than the broadsheet newspapers in Britain, and a very diverse audience because it’s free. This is the youngest newspaper readership in the country. The average age is in their thirties, from all sorts of different backgrounds, so it’s got to be entertaining. I also want it to be informative, to have an opinion, and to be influential by telling people what’s going to happen next. Amongst members of parliament it’s gone from being the fifth or sixth most read newspaper to the number one spot. I want this paper to shift the national conversation. I’m unapologetic about that and the way I come at it, because of having such an unusual background. No one in Britain has ever followed my career path. I am not beholden to anyone. I’m not interested in going to Downing Street because I used to live there. As the Editor I’m interested in saying it as I see it.
“Brexit is very bad news.”
You were part of David Cameron’s government which brought about the Brexit referendum?
I absolutely share the responsibility for that. I strongly wanted to stay in the EU and I was from the first against the referendum, but in the private discussions we had with David Cameron and other Conservatives I was outnumbered by those who wanted to have a referendum. In the end almost the whole parliament of all parties voted for it. When I left politics I didn’t want to walk away from the discussion about what happens next, and going to edit a newspaper is a way of continuing to try and shape that conversation. The paper has been a strong voice against a hard Brexit and for a more liberal approach on immigration, for a close relationship with France, Germany and our other neighbors.
You were probably unprepared for the emergent populism that started to show itself in that vote?
Lots of people, including some members of my family, voted for Brexit. I respect their view, but I just think they’re wrong. I studied history at university, and looking back at this period as a historian you see a lot of similarities between Brexit, Trump, Salvini, and the Gilets Jaunes, and also find it quite easy to explain why. We had an enormous financial shock ten years ago that created a big impact on our political system and society, and at the same time we had a revolution in technology, with the creation of companies like Facebook and the iPhone, that completely disrupted the business of politics. Donald Trump became President using his mobile phone. If you want to organise a demonstration today you can do it with social media, and so the barrier to entry has changed. When I started in politics you needed big political parties and organisations and structures. You can do it now with much less money and the technology in your pocket. That doesn’t mean that it all heads to the extremes. I would argue Emmanuel Macron has shown that you can use similar disruption to run to the center, to be a radical moderate.
Is Brexit bad news?
It is very bad news. It’s worse for the UK, because we are tearing up our economic and security relations with our nearest neighbours and allies, and bad for Europe and the European Union which is losing one of its biggest economies which has a global view of the world and a voice for economic reform. To my mind there is no upside to Brexit at all. It’s all downside.
How can the damage of the Brexit vote be mitigated?
We should be aiming to remain in the Single Market, in the Customs Union, in the economic and other aspects of the EU that British Conservative governments helped to build. The mistake was to try for a hard Brexit – to come out of the Customs Union, out of the Single Market – to drive for a more distant relationship with the EU than for example Norway or Switzerland had, even though they are not in the EU. That was a big mistake by Theresa May, and she’s been unable to deliver the policies she pursued.
If you were still a politician would you stand with those people who left Labour and the Conservatives to create a new Independent Group?
I am a Conservative. I was a Conservative MP for many years, and a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer. If you are a Labour MP it’s much more difficult. I have many friends who are Labour MPs, and their problem is the hard left has taken over the Labour party and it’s really difficult to see how the moderates or the social democrats can take back control. In the Conservative party it’s different, because there will be a leadership change no later than December. My friend William Hague, the Foreign Secretary when I was Chancellor, said to me that “the Conservative Party is a monarchy tempered by regicide”, and that means we can still change the direction of the Conservative Party. If it’s to be a success the Conservative Party needs to be again modern, compassionate, metropolitan, socially liberal, pro-business, international, as it was when I was in office. These things helped the Conservative Party win in parts of the country where it had not previously been so successful. The winning formula is also the right thing for the country.
How can you even have a Labour leader like Jeremy Corbyn, who is a notorious anti-Semite?
It’s a tragedy for the Labour movement. I spent my whole political career against a set of socially democratic Labour politicians who wanted slightly more public spending and higher taxes, and that has changed. The Labour Party leadership today has jettisoned 100 years of history of moderation and trying to achieve change through parliament. They’ve discovered that there are in this country about half a million people who are anarchists and communists and Trotskyites, and those people have captured the control of the Labour party and its membership. But these aren’t more than half a million people, so they are actually standing in the way of the aspirations of very large numbers of people who would like a really credible alternative government.
Are you for a second referendum?
The first task is to see if you can deliver a very close relationship to the EU outside the EU, like what’s called ‘Norway plus’, and inside the economic decision making of the EU. That’s not so dissimilar from the membership Britain had inside the EU. If that fails, then you can look at a second referendum. You have to show the country that you haven’t tried to prevent the first result and have also tried to implement it fairly. One of the mistakes was that although the margin of victory was small – the country only voted 52 to 48 to leave – the Brexit people have tried to deliver a 100 percent to zero percent result. A more sensible approach is staying in areas of the EU that worked for us and not in parts that didn’t.
“I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and that’s a winning formula.“
Do you consider yourself a moderate?
I’m a centrist who doesn’t believe in the extremes of the left and the right. That doesn’t mean I’m for the status quo. Strong societies are always changing and improving and reforming. I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and that’s a winning formula.
Only recently England was the best possible European country to be in, with London as its hub. Suddenly we came to a period of uncertainty, and now people don’t invest here anymore because the uncertainty worries them.
The tragedy is we were the poster child, the go to for sensible rational government. We were the country that attracted all this investment and talent from around the world, and the vote to leave the EU has thrown all that up in the air. I’m a patriotic person who still believes there are always going to be huge advantages to coming and living and working here, but they would have been greater if we had stayed in the EU. Ultimately I want Britain to be at the table where the big decisions are made. I want our positive voice to be heard in the world, and now that will be a bit less the case.
Many people don’t realise how great it is that there’s been no war in Europe since seventy years and that there are so many human advantages that the EU brings. Is the whole concept of Europe under threat?
Don’t underestimate how much is invested in making the EU succeed. Some people thought Brexit would start the disintegration of EU, but that has not happened. The EU is a remarkable achievement which created this Single Market of 500 million people. In everything from trade negotiations to climate change negotiations, Europe’s voice is amplified. But Europe’s politicians, especially in Britain but this is true in other countries, don’t explain those benefits. Every country blames Brussels for all of its problems, but going forward how we make sure our voice is heard in a world of the United States and China will become a stronger and stronger argument, and a more attractive one.
A single European voice?
Yes. Let’s take the regulation of American or Chinese technology. Is it more likely that the big American tech companies in Silicon Valley are going to pay attention when the European Union takes action, or if Britain alone, or France alone, or Germany alone, takes action? Those of us who believe in international cooperation and European cooperation need to make more of an effort to explain those benefits. One of the problems with the referendum was that for two generations British politicians of all political parties had blamed the European Union for red tape, for budgets not being properly audited, for bossy interference in Britain, without pointing out all the enormous benefits. Not just the economic benefits of the single market and no borders to goods, but also the security benefits.
But our security is still secured by NATO?
Of course NATO is very important, but the EU is a vital part of the Western alliance. One of the British mistakes has been to think of the EU just as an economic alliance, but it is much more than that, it’s part of a Western security alliance. Ask yourself the question: Is Estonia better protected from Russian aggression because it’s in NATO or because it’s in the EU? It’s because of both. I don’t want to diminish the importance of NATO, but the European Union has meant that even when you have real tensions between countries, as we did a couple of years ago over the mass migration across the Mediterranean and from Italy into Austria and Hungary and into Germany, those tensions, which in a previous era could have led to border clashes and possibly even conflict, were inside the European Union. However messy and complicated and bureaucratic, it is dealt with peacefully around the negotiating table, and that is a huge benefit. Sometimes in life, and it’s certainly true for countries, you forget things that aren’t happening. The absence of war is a real achievement.
Does Britain still have nostalgia for an empire that no longer exists and therefore doesn’t look at the future?
Britain is today a very divided country, where you have this argument about whether we are an open society or a closed society, and a similar conversation is happening in other countries. For example, the Gilets Jaunes are quite like UKIP, quite similar people as a generalization. This dispute is still to be resolved in Britain, and I’m not prepared to accept defeat. I’m not prepared to accept that the ‘little Englanders’ and the people nostalgic for empire have won. The battle is still on, and I’m using the newspaper to advance this really important fight. This city does not accept that the battle is over.
Some people who invest in England are now more worried by the possibility of a change from Conservative to Labour than by Brexit?
Both Conservative Brexit people and Jeremy Corbyn make the same argument, that globalisation has failed you and the system has left you behind, so we need to completely change the way we have run the country for the last fifty years, so we should leave the EU. The people who supported Brexit and funded Brexit were opening the door to Jeremy Corbyn, who says let’s introduce radical socialism. It’s not too late, in part because people are repelled by some of the views of the Labour leadership and the anti-Semitism that is prevalent, but the Conservative Party also needs to change quite dramatically to avoid defeat, to re-engage with modern Britain rather than hankering after the past or pandering to the far right.
When people are fed up don’t they just vote for change?
I was part of two successful election campaigns: one we were the change and we were the new thing; and then the second election we were the establishment, but we persuaded people this was not a time to change. Most elections come down to ‘time for a change’ versus ‘stick with the devil you know’. That’s the normal way you can characterise a western election.
What if Boris Johnson became the new head of your party?
I quite regularly see Boris and have text exchanges with him. I worked really well with him when he was the Mayor of London and worked very hard to get him elected. I don’t agree with him on Brexit, but he knows that. Some of his instincts on things like immigration used to be quite liberal, and I would like to see more of that Boris and less of the Brexit Boris.
In England nobody talks about anything else but Brexit. One wonders what politicians are doing about so many other important issues?
That’s one of the tragedies. We’re spending so much time and effort and energy and resource in our political system talking about how we can have outside the EU what we already enjoy inside it that we’re not really addressing the big issues that are out there in the world. How do you make sure that people adjust to technological change? How do you regulate that technology? How do you make sure that there are decent returns to people’s labour as well as to the capital that they have? How do you make sure that the West has its voice heard? These are the really big questions which we should be tackling, but we’re completely preoccupied. Even knife crime in London, a very serious issue which we cover in this newspaper, gets squeezed out of the political agenda that is consuming all the energy of the country. That’s why I was against having a referendum and against leaving the EU. I’m not saying I predicted everything, but I certainly foresaw that leaving the EU would be a huge disappointment for the people who voted for Brexit and would never deliver what was promised.
In the case of another referendum, who do you think would win?
Another referendum would be close. On balance the country probably would change its mind, but don’t underestimate that in politics, as in life, it’s very easy to blame someone else. So instead of people saying “I blame Brexit”, they go “I blame Theresa May because she’s not doing a good enough job getting a Brexit deal,” or “I blame the European Union for not being fair to us.”
Young people didn’t vote to leave the EU, and parents voted against their children?
The vote for Brexit was a combination of ‘the insulated’ and ‘the insecure’. The insulated people were pensioners who own their own home and are insulated from what’s going on in the economy because they already have some assets. They voted for Brexit, often for reasons of nostalgia and wanting to take back control and all this. Then there were the insecure people, in and out of work, on low incomes, who felt that in their communities they had not seen the benefits of the global economy. Those two groups of people came together in that referendum. As a generalisation, the people who voted to remain were working people in cities across the country. People in Manchester voted to remain, and people in London voted to remain.
George Osborne presenting one of his Budgets to Parliament. He was the Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2010 to 2016.
George Osborne introducing himself as the new Editor of the Evening Standard in May 2017.
The Evening Standard is now distributed free. Londoner George Osborne remembers from his childhood the Evening Standard seller shouting out the headlines.
The front page of the Evening Standard on 6 February 2019.
Christian Adams is the main political cartoonist at the Evening Standard.
The front page of the Evening Standard on 6 March 2019.
“If the Americans decide they want a new Cold War with China that’s a tragic mistake.”
Is Britain heading to economic recession?
We know that Britain is already poorer because of the vote to leave. The currency devalued, and the official estimate from the government is that our GDP is around two and a half percent smaller than if we’d voted to stay in the EU. This is before we actually leave. We haven’t even left the EU yet! Certainly the flow of people coming from Europe is smaller, although the flow of people from around the rest of the world is still very high. Even the promise the Brexit people were made on immigration is not going to be delivered.
Do you see a risk of a new global recession?
We’re now in the tenth year of this expansion of economic growth, and the law of economics is that you cannot abolish the economic cycle, so you would expect a downturn. But because the crash was very deep, a financial crisis, the recovery is very long and it might be a much longer economic cycle than normal. A downturn will come at some point, but that doesn’t mean it’s around the corner.
How do you feel about Trump?
There are some things that Trump has done that needed to be done, and because people hate Trump they don’t give him any credit for it. The business tax cuts in America have been pretty effective, and I did something similar in Britain. Trying to get peace with North Korea is a good thing. There are some things Trump does that are good, but unfortunately there are many things he does that are bad. The fundamental problem, particularly from a European perspective, is that he’s not a reliable ally. You don’t know what he’s going to say, you don’t know how he’s going to react. He quite often attacks his allies, or tries to erect trade barriers with his allies, and if you’re a European, whether you’re British, French or anyone else, that means that your principal security partner in the world is unpredictable, and you don’t want your partner to be unpredictable. But the way he uses social media and the bully pulpit of the presidency is very effective, and running against him is very hard.
What about the US trade talks with China?
If the Americans decide they want a new Cold War with China that’s a tragic mistake, because the Chinese are one fifth of the world’s population. They are the longest established civilisation on the planet, and if we cannot find a way to peacefully coexist with a country that is once again becoming the largest economy in the world, which it has been for 18 of the last 20 centuries, then we are heading for a confrontation that could be very painful and damaging. A much better approach is to see China, even though it’s a different political system and not a democracy, as a partner in global stability, and try and work with China to support things like the UN and the IMF and global trade. Instead of confronting we should be cooperating. That is not an original policy of mine, that was Henry Kissinger’s policy fifty years ago when I was born, but it seems to me that in the space of eighteen months the American system has ditched fifty years of policy. I’m worried about the emerging Cold War in technology, where the Americans are saying we don’t want any Chinese students, we don’t want any Chinese telecom companies involved in anything, we want to freeze China out. At the same time there are nationalist forces in China saying that everything should be made in China, we want no cooperation with the United States. That’s a bad situation for the world, and we should be trying to avoid that polarisation. In Europe we don’t want to have to choose between the two blocks. America is our great ally, but we also want to do a lot of business with China. It’s a mistake to think that Europe would simply go with the American line. It would be much better if this confrontation was not emerging, but when you have a rising power often the world is very bad at dealing with it. Britain was very bad at dealing with the rising power of Germany a hundred years ago. You have to try and learn from history and avoid repeating it. China didn’t do a huge amount to shape the modern world order, but it can be a big partner in the future. When I was Chancellor I worked hard to make sure that Chinese policy initiatives, like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, had British support; that we attracted Chinese investment here; that we made London a place where the Chinese currency was traded. The more you bring China into the world system, the more it’s got at stake in preserving that system.
What about Putin and Russia?
All Europeans have learnt that Russia is not going to disappear. It’s a very long established, proud nation, which has made enormous sacrifices in the past. The frustrating thing is that with goodwill there have been several attempts, including by the government I was part of, to have a stronger relationship with Russia and find a way of dealing with it, and every time some completely unacceptable thing happens, like the attempted and real murder of people in Salisbury, or the poisoning of Litvinenko in London. These things happen, and they just put relations back into the deep freeze, because obviously we can’t accept that Russian agents are trying to kill people on British soil. It’s a real tragedy because we could work with Russia on combating Islamic extremism and trying to provide some stability in the world. The Russian government makes that very difficult.
Does military might make a nation strong?
A nation is strong from its people. Unless you have a vibrant society with lots of new ideas and the economy that that creates, you will not be able to afford a military. Military might is only an outward sign of strength. That’s why Russia is facing long term decline. I wouldn’t measure the strength of Britain just by the strength of its army, but I would measure it by the strength of our people, our society and the economic activity that that generates.
What title would you give Britain?
I would borrow a title from a great British philosopher Karl Popper and say this is a battle between ‘the open society and its enemies’. The one thing we were pretty good at is having a lively democratic debate, which is what’s happening again today.
Isn’t democracy weaker today?
Polls say amongst the younger population that they don’t value democracy, but my experience of younger people is that they feel very strongly about the country’s future, and they take to demonstrations, in favour of action on climate change most recently, in order to fight for that.
At the end of the day are you optimistic?
There’s never been a world where there are no risks, no conflicts, and where democracy has been unchallenged. Every generation has to fight these battles. Yes, I am optimistic. I look at the world that I was born in and the world today, and there are hundreds of millions of people who have come out of poverty who are enjoying a better life. This year there will be fewer people who die of disease, fewer people who die of hunger, fewer people who die of violence, than at any point in world history as a proportion of population. Humans advance, if we let them.
London, March 12 2019
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