The bosses’ boss: the head of the Institute of Directors

Simon Walker is an anti-apartheid campaigner turned free-market evangelist.

Simon Walker sounds almost apologetic as he leads me through the marble lobby of the Institute of Directors; one of his aims as head of the IoD is to attract more young members, so he’s quick to mention his plans to modernise its “grand” and “intimidating” Pall Mall headquarters.

On the morning of our meeting, the IoD had described government plans for men and women to share 50 weeks of parental leave as a “nightmare”. In recent months it has condemned a potential ban on zero-hours contracts as “misguided and extremely damaging” and labelled as “simplistic in the extreme” the TUC claim that if all employers paid the living wage this would save the treasury £3.2bn. But there was little in Walker’s early political career to suggest he would become spokesperson for an organisation easiest thought of as the union for bosses.

His first involvement in politics was as part of the left-wing movement opposing apartheid in South Africa, where he grew up. And when he first moved to the UK, in 1971 to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, he became chairman of the student Labour party. I had wondered if Walker would possess all the inflexible zeal of a late convert to the benefits of the unfettered free market but he’s more philosophical. He often illustrates his argument with quotations recited from memory. He reads a lot, he tells me at one point, and hardly ever watches television – apart from Borgen, the Danish series on coalition politics.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the media, politics and business, and if there were a Venn diagram I’d be happiest in that bit in the middle of all three circles,” he says. He’s applied this principle to a remarkably broad career. After leaving Oxford, Walker started work as a TV journalist in New Zealand. He became an adviser to New Zealand’s Labour Party in the mid-1980s, and then a lobbyist in London and Brussels before joining John Major’s policy unit in 1996. After Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory, he was appointed director of corporate affairs at British Airways, before moving to Buckingham Palace in 2000 as communications secretary to the Queen.

Walker says that growing up in apartheid South Africa had a decisive influence on his later career. He was raised in a left-wing household – his grandfather kept a picture of Stalin on his mantelpiece, and bound issues of the New Statesman with sections circled in red crayon and marked with comments such as “rubbish”. The left was the natural home for anyone opposed to racial segregation: “For many years the communists were the only political force that treated people equally,” Walker explains. When he signed up to the liberal, anti-apartheid Progressive Party, he felt like he was joining “a battle between good and evil”. “And it was. It was a truly pernicious system in a way that sometimes makes the arguments in Britain or New Zealand seem trivial in comparison.”

He found Britain in the Seventies a depressing place. “You did get the sense that Britain was going into a permanent decay, which I think was true,” Walker recalls. He didn’t hesitate when, during a debating tour to New Zealand, he was offered a TV job.

There is still footage online of one of his clashes with New Zealand’s prime minister Robert Muldoon in 1976. An almost impossibly baby-faced Walker doggedly questions Muldoon over Russia’s ability to carry out a strike on New Zealand, while Muldoon tries to read out prepared answers to a different set of questions. Even when Muldoon complains that he’s “not having some smart alec interviewer changing the rules halfway through”, Walker seems composed.

Off-air, he was also feeling increasingly opposed to Muldoon’s statist policies: “Over the next ten to 15 years, I lost all faith in the ability of the state to direct the economy,” he says.

Today he’d like to see the welfare state trimmed back and taxes lowered. He concedes that inequality is a “problem” and that there’s something “distasteful” about chief executives’ high pay, but he’s convinced that “if the government gets involved, it will just get it wrong”. This means that Ed Miliband’s plans to freeze energy prices and his comments on promoting “good business” haven’t gone down well. “The danger I see about more statist noise and left-wing rhetoric of a bygone era from a prospective Labour government is that it damages the attractiveness of Britain as an investment destination or a place to live,” he says, but he adds that the party’s “bark is worse than its bite”.

“The private equity market had no greater friends than Gordon Brown and Ed Balls,” he argues – Brown introduced the tax breaks that made it such a profitable industry and Balls “was extremely sympathetic to the problems of the City”. Boris Johnson, who the day before we meet had given his speech on why inequality is an inevitable consequence of unequal ability, has made an even better impression. London’s Mayor is “telling the truth and ultimately truth is the most important concept in politics, much more important than fairness or justice or other more subjective things,” he says. It is “obvious” that Johnson will be prime minister one day and he thinks that would be a good thing.

The only reason government should ever intervene in the economy, Walker tells me, is to set the rules and promote competition and transparency. When you don’t believe the state should intervene to redistribute wealth, promote good business practice or strengthen social safety nets, you need to display extraordinary faith in the markets, and Walker does. Underpinning his world view is a fundamental, unshakeable optimism. “Free market capitalism has made a greater contribution to human well-being than any political or social movement in human history.” Walker is promoting business with the same moral conviction with which he once opposed apartheid – a most unexpected journey.

Anti-Apartheid marchers in February 1990. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman. She is on Twitter as @SEMcBain.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism