Have you ever made a decision that has turned out to completely alter the course of your life? Forks in the road or sliding door moments, call them what you will… Without them, you know your life would have been completely different. There have been quite a lot of those in my life over the course of the last thirty years. If several of those decisions had gone a different way, I wouldn’t be writing this blog now. I might well be working on my Dad’s farm, teaching German, writing about insurance or perhaps even running the country! Here are a few of the decisions in my life, which have had consequences for the rest of it.
1972 – Won’t! Shan’t!
I was ten. I kept being taken by my parents to some private school in Cambridge to take exams. I didn’t really know what they were, but they turned out to be entrance exams. Apparently I passed. But I just couldn’t work out why my parents wanted me to go to a completely different school to my friends at Ashdon Primary School. So I put my foot down. I refused to go. As a consequence I ended up going to Saffron Walden County High School, the local comp. My mother had wanted me to go to private school as it would “help me get on in life”. She also suggested that I should hyphenate my second name and surname for the same reason. I never did work out whether she was being serious. Iain Campbell-Dale. Has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it? Bet I’d be a Tory MP if I had taken her advice. Lol.
Anyway, why was this such a crucial decision? Because had I gone to the private school, I doubt if I would have taken up German, which I did to great success at the County High, entirely due to the brilliant teaching of Mr [David] Lewis. I wouldn’t have studied German, I wouldn’t have gone to UEA, got involved in Norwich politics, then got a job in the House of Commons… and then… and then… and so it goes on.
1987 – Any Port in a Storm
I spent two years working in the House of Commons after leaving university in the summer of 1985. I was working for two Tory MPs, Patrick Thompson (Norwich North) and Robert Key (Salisbury). But after the 1987 election I decided I needed to make my way in the wide wide world and get a proper job. But before that I went to the States for a month to visit Mark Milosch, an American who had interned in our office a year earlier. He was studying for a Masters at the University of Michigan in the lovely town of Ann Arbor, just west of Detroit. We spent most of the time at his student digs but also spent 10 days travelling 3,000 miles around the States – out west to Utah via the Badlands and the Dakotas, south to Phoenix, across to Dallas (I insisted on visiting Southfork, much to Mark’s disgust), up to Memphis and back to Ann Arbor – all in a 15 year old Buick. It was the experience of a lifetime.
As the time neared for me to return to England I started worrying about the fact I had no job to go to. I had applied to be PR Manager for the Hockey Association, but came second. “We think you’d be bored,” they said. I came second for a similar job with the Law Society. “We think you’d be bored,” they said. A pattern was developing.
Anyway, a week before I came back I went to the university library and flicked through a copy of The Times, where I saw a job to be Public Affairs Manager for the British Ports Federation. They wanted someone to coordinate a lobbying campaign against something called the National Dock Labour Scheme. Never heard of it. Anyway, nothing ventured, nothing gained so I sent off my application, highlighting the fact that Patrick Thompson had been a PPS at the Department of Transport. That turned out to be a key reason why I got the job. I hadn’t the heart to tell them that I had never set foot inside the DoT, let alone knew nobody there. Hey ho. I beat 170 people to the job and thoroughly enjoyed my two years there, in which I did indeed (along with others) persuade Margaret Thatcher to get rid of the NDLS. Why was this life changing? Because the guy that hired me was Nicholas Finney. He and I then went on set up The Waterfront Partnership in 1990, and six years later he sacked me from it (we’ve made up since), meaning I started Politico’s Bookshop, leading to me doing a lot of radio and TV work and so on…
1990 – Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The abolition of the NDLS occurred in mid 1989 and I effectively did myself out of a job. I got a payoff of £7,000, which at the time I thought was a massive amount of money. It rather paled into insignificance when I later found out how much money some of my colleagues made from privatising the ports. I very nearly became Special Adviser to Norman Fowler, the Employment Secretary, who had been impressed with my work for the port employers. But he the went and resigned to spend more time with his family. They asked me if I’d be interested in working for Michael Howard, his successor. “No,” I said. “I don’t think we’d get on.” I could have been David Cameron…! I was then offered the job of Dame Shirley Porter’s re-election campaign manager. They wouldn’t pay me what I wanted so I declined. A narrow escape. I then had three interviews with Ian Greer Associates. I shall never forget a giant poodle walking into the room during one of the interviews. I was offered a post, but there was some instinct that told me it just wouldn’t work. Another narrow escape. The next job to come along was as a consultant at the giant PR firm Charles Barker. I was charmed into taking the job by Evie Soames, a doyen of the lobbying industry. Nick Herbert was her star employee at the time. I hated it. I hated being used as a pimp. Vauxhall Motors were a client. All they wanted to do was be photographed with the Transport Secretary Cecil Parkinson. Strangely arranging things like that didn’t give me a great deal of job satisfaction. I would sit at my desk bored out of my mind, willing the clock to get to 5pm. After two months of total frustration I quit. I had no job to go to and hadn’t got a clue what I would do. I rang the editor of Lloyd’s List, David Gilbertson, for some advice. “I’ve always fancied being a journalist,” I said. He invited me in and the upshot was two weeks of work experience. I took to it like a duck to water, and at the end of it, much to my astonishment he offered me a job as Insurance Correspondent, with the promise I could contribute to the diary column and write columns on politics. I bit his hand off, All went well, and I discovered I could write 1500 word columns on subjects I knew absolutely nothing about. Even by the time I had left I had still not worked out what Reinsurance was, but could quite happily churn out learned columns on it, and no one seemed to notice my complete ignorance. But eight months later, I was faced with a real quandary. My old boss at the Ports Federation, Nick Finney, rang me and asked if I would be interested in setting up a new specialist public affairs consultancy, based on transport issues and clients. To be honest I didn’t know what to do. I was enjoying my time at Lloyd’s List and was getting more and more confident in my writing and in my ability to get good stories for the paper. But I was being offered the prospect of a stake in a new business and quite a lot more money in salary. I must have changed my mind twenty times in a week. In the end I decided to leave the paper and join Nick. I spent six years building up that company, and it became quite successful, but in 1996 we had a massive falling out. I decided to resign, but before I could, I was sacked. I knew I had right on my side and I could probably have taken him to the cleaners in an employment tribunal, but I couldn’t stand the thought of months of acrimony. I left with a £20,000 payoff, when it should have been many times that. I ploughed the money into starting Politico’s, which opened its doors to the book-buying public in February 1997. But I often wonder where I would have ended up if I had stayed at Lloyd’s List. I certainly wouldn’t have started Biteback or been on LBC, that’s for sure.
1995 – Princess Diana Played Cupid
It was stunning. I had always loved Audis, but this Cabriolet, on the forecourt of Dovercourt St John’s Wood was simply magnificent. Six months old, four thousand miles on the clock, white leather seats. Turquoise. Every Essex boy’s dream. But why would someone sell it after only 4,000 miles? The salesman smiled. “It belonged to Princess Diana,” he said. “Yeah, right,” I replied. But it turned out to be true. Right place, right time. So I bought it. A few days later i had the roof down, shades on, and was driving around Trafalgar Square when a motorbike pulled up alongside me. The man on it had a camera in his hand. “Are you Diana’s new bloke then?” he shouted. I floored the accelerator. I had never been papped before. A couple of months later I was in a Compuserve chat forum – OK, I admit it, it was a gay forum – quite a novelty in those early days of the internet. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I had a one nighter with a nice chap who wasn’t into cars at all, but he said he had a friend who would love to see it – yes, and the car, haha. A week later he brought this friend to London from Tunbridge Wells and we met up at a bar called Kudos, long since gone. I think I had had a bad day because after having shown them my car I scarpered and didn’t invite them back for coffee (and that’s not a euphemism for ‘threesome’). But John (the car enthusiast) clearly had designs on something other than Vorsprung durch Technik, because he phoned later. It was clear that I had pulled without actually trying very hard. And 23 years later we are still together, and now happily married. But I wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t made that phone call. Would I have met and settled down with someone else or continued my somewhat slapperish lifestyle? Thank God for Simmo!
2003 – Wrong Place, Wrong Time
“So, Mr Dale,” said the chairwoman of Barnet Conservatives, “Is there anything about your private life, which might be an embarrassment to the Association?” I’d made a really good speech, answered the questions well and was feeling really confident. It was the first seat I had applied for and I wanted to win the selection. I made a spur of the moment decision. “Well, it’s not embarrassing to me, and I hope it won’t be embarrassing to you, but I should tell you I am gay.” I went on to make a joke and say it was probably more embarrassing for them that I was a West Ham supporter. Most of them laughed, but a couple sat there stony faced. But it seemed to have gone OK and it was as if a burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I left the building feeling quite confident. But the party agent ran out after me. “What the hell did you do that for?” he shrieked. “You’ve just lost several crucial votes.” I drove home feeling disconsolate, sure I hadn’t got through to the next round. But I had. Again, I gave a good speech and answered their questions well. I was confident of getting through to the final. But I didn’t make it. I needed two more votes. Had I got through to the final, chances are I would have made it, as I would have been up against two women, and in those days a man against two women would more often than not win. The eventual winner, Theresa Villiers made the cabinet.
Scroll forward a few months and I applied for North Norfolk, a LibDem marginal with a majority of 483. I was at the LibDem conference in Brighton and was taken aside by Lord Rennard. “You really don’t want to get North Norfolk, Iain,” he said, looking very serious. “Norman Lamb will get a 10,000 majority at the election.” I laughed and assured him I knew different. I genuinely thought I could win it. History proved him right, something he often reminds me. Had I taken notice of him and deliberately fluffed the North Norfolk selection I am pretty sure I would have got a seat I would win. Being selected for North Norfolk was one of the proudest moments of my life. Election night was one of the most devastating. But I had a great 18 months and really enjoyed it. But somehow it just wasn’t meant to be.
So, those are five decisions that affected the course of my life. Share some of yours in the comments. For the avoidance of doubt, I have no regrets about any of the above including North Norfolk!