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19 December 2013

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

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

By Sophie McBain

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.”

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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.

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