MH: Iain Dale, welcome to my blog.
ID: Nice of you to invite me!
MH: This must be a career highlight!
ID: It ranks along sitting next to Margaret Thatcher at a dinner in 2002 for 90 minutes. Let’s hope I’m less tongue tied over the next hour…
MH: So, COVID-19, have you ever experienced anything like it? How’s the crisis affecting you?
ID: Clearly not. And I hope I never will again, but the fallout from it will probably affect our society and economy for the rest of my life. It’s an era-defining moment. I have now been in what I call ‘splendid isolation’ for 26 days. I’m at home in Kent with my partner and dogs and our lodger, Dan. Apart from them, and two short trips out to the corner shop, I haven’t set eyes on a single other person for nearly a month. I’m broadcasting my radio show from my bedroom and catching up on a lot of things I haven’t been able to do for years-like totally rearranging my bookshelves. And I have A LOT of bookshelves!
MH: As everyone on Twitter is now aware! What do you make of how the UK government is handling it so far?
ID: I think the first thing to say is that given what we all know now, we can all agree that we were woefully under-prepared, but then again I suspect the same could be said for most countries. Far East countries were less so because they have had more experience of epidemics, but in Europe I don’t think there’s a single country that could say it was prepared. Germany is perhaps the exception because they clearly had huge numbers of testing kits ready to use from day one. I always thought we had a very advanced bio-tech industry but it was clearly incapable of producing testing kits very quickly. More generally, I think the economic response has been very good, although it is a disgrace that only 5,000 firms have been able to secure the much vaunted emergency loans. The furlough scheme and the one for the self employed has worked well, but inevitably there are some people that fall through the cracks. I think the lockdown could have been imposed a bit earlier and it was madness to let things like Cheltenham (race meeting) to happen, and football matches could have been abandoned a week or so earlier than they were. But it’s very easy to carp. I would say if you compare is to what other countries have done overall, in football terminology, we’re probably pushing for the Europa League. Brazil and the USA are clearly in the relegation places.
MH: You’ve been around politics a long time, how easily or otherwise does Whitehall cope with emergencies? Are Ministers and civil servants nimble enough?
ID: Actually, the civil service can be very fast moving in an emergency, despite being normally more difficult to turn around than an oil tanker. I know some people don’t like wartime analogies, and obviously it was a long time ago, but look at how the whole machinery of government changed almost overnight in 1939-40. I think the DWP is a department which often gets dog’s abuse but actually has performed miracles over the last 6 weeks. Universal Credit has had a lot of bad press-deservedly so in many ways-but I defy any benefits system to cope with one million new applicants in three weeks. Yes, phone lines have been clogged, but after the initial problems it all seems to have calmed down and from my own experience, I haven’t had many calls on my radio show people in the last week making the same kind of complaints that were common previously. They also had to cope with losing 40% of their staff at one point. But they’ve recruited thousands more and made tweaks to the online application system, and touch wood, things seem to be working better, albeit not perfectly. I think the weak point in the whole civil service/NHS operation has been the logistical side of supplying PPE equipment. I also think Public Health England will have a lot of questions to answer when there is a full inquiry into what has gone on.
MH: I’m personally sceptical of grand claims like this, but I’ve seen a number of commentators claim that this situation will change the way we think about the economy and public services going forward. That government will value the NHS etc more and pay frontline workers properly. Will this mark a fundamental shift in thinking? Is small State ideology dead?
ID: I don’t think it’s dead, but we certainly won’t see it again in my lifetime. I am a dry as dust Thatcherite in economic matters, but even I can see that it will take at least twenty years to recover from this. This is not something you can put right in one economic cycle and it is the government which will have to take a leading role in creating the conditions for the private sector to be able to get back off the floor. I do think there will be many Right-of-Centre politicians who will accept the fact that the public will demand (that) much more emphasis is put on improving the NHS. So, yes, I think there is going to be a fundamental shift in thinking and doing. Business as usual is not an option. The big question is this: do we have the people in politics, on all sides, who are capable of doing the big ticket thinking that will be required? I think the jury is out on that.
MH: Well, on that, what do you make of the new Labour leader Keir Starmer? What an uphill climb that man and his team face, eh? And what a balancing act for him at the moment. What are your thoughts on his new frontbench?
ID: Well, it’s safe to say it’s an improvement on the previous shower. Sir keir Starmer looks like a leader, which is something his predecessor never did. And that’s important. He is somewhat charismatically challenged, though, which when you have an opponent like Boris Johnson can be seen as either a disadvantage or advantage. People are rather lazily drawing a contrast between Attlee and Churchill, as if to prove that Starmer’s victory is inevitable when the time comes. He faces a monumental task, but he has four years to climb that mountain. If the Brexit issue fades away, it will be to his advantage because his main downside is his record on that issue vis a vis Labour voters in the Red Wall seats. He is the very antithesis of what Brexity Labour voters want in a leader, and I am not sure he will be able to overcome that. Having said all that, he’s made some very good appointments both in his shadow cabinet and in the more junior ranks. It’s a team that is more than capable of matching the government line-up.
MH: Should Parliament be recalled virtually?MPs, especially opposition ones, must be allowed to do their job of holding ministers to account, right?
ID: Well select committees were being held all last week, so that is actually happening anyway. Parliament is back on Tuesday week. It clearly can’t meet physically, so I suspect they need another week to get the technology working so it can all be done online. I don’t think in these circumstances a recall of parliament will add much to the ability to hold ministers to account in the short term. I think that’s being done fairly adequately by opposition MPs through the media.
MH: You mention the media, do you think the daily press conferences have shown political conferences have shown political journalists at their best? And, shouldn’t health journalists be asking some of the questions, not just the Lobby?
ID: Health journalists have asked questions. But the standard of questioning from the political lobby has been absolutely lamentable in too many cases. (On Saturday) there was a journalist I had never heard of, from Channel 4 news, who demanded Priti Patel “apologise” for the lack of PPE, knowing full well it wasn’t her responsibility as Home Secretary and she couldn’t possibly do so in the way he was demanding it. Pure showboating and grandstanding. There’s been too many ‘gotcha’ questions or questions asked so that in two weeks time they can come back and ask why they hadn’t delivered on what they’d said two weeks earlier. There’s little attempt to elicit information or explanation-it’s all about the blame game. The public are seeing through it. So many of these journalists give the impression they think they could do a better job. Well maybe they should try it, and get their hands dirty. Their irresponsibility and arrogance rarely fails to astound me.
MH: I agree, but I’ve long since felt that political journalism in our country is in need of root and branch reform. Speaking of the media more widely, this must be a very challenging time for broadcasters like LBC. Yet people have never needed reliable information more than now (probably since the War.) DO you think broadcasters are meeting the challenge?
ID: It is indeed a challenge, and I have never been more aware of the crucial role of a station like LBC. We hear a lot of talk about public service broadcasting, and people assume that is only something the BBC does. Wrong. I know that people rely on us, and me, to be their friend at a time like this. I’m there to tell the truth about what is going on but not to hype up anything. I’m also there to reassure, cajole, and encourage people to do the right thing-not in a preachy way, and not as a government mouthpiece, but as someone the audience trusts. We have all had to adapt. Yes, it’s a bit weird broadcasting from my bedroom, but if I hadn’t been honest and open about where I was, I doubt whether most people would have realised. We do an hour every night of Q&A with an expert from the world of medicine, mental health, employment law or business. It’s amazing the questions people still don’t know the answers to even though you feel that they have been blitzed with the answers. I regard these hours as a form of social service, a bit like a surgery. I’ve also done shows where I just throw open the phonelines and let people phone in about whatever they like. Sometimes they have got incredibly emotional. Cliff in Hoddleston phoned me to tell me his mother had died of coronavirus only two hours previously. Like most of the audience, I suspect, I thought this was an odd thing to do, until he started talking very emotionally about social distancing and how he hadn’t practised it and was worried he may have infected his mother. A week later he phoned back, gasping for breath, having developed the virus himself. I was very worried about him. He sounded awful. Yet on Friday he phoned back again to tell us he was on the road to recovery. Andrew phoned in a few weeks ago to tell us about how difficult he had found it going from being in a busy office and being a very sociable person, to staring at four walls with no one to talk to. He cried when he told us about his Indian girlfriend who was stuck in Goa looking after her elderly parents. A week later he phoned again to say his mother had been taken to hospital with symptoms of COVID-19. He broke down on air. I have felt at times like an armchair psychotherapist. I have no training, but I know I can put a metaphorical arm around listeners and at least provide a bit of comfort, however inadequate i feel. Let me tell you, three hours of that and I am mentally exhausted by the end of it. I think some of the TV news channels and programmes are struggling. They have to provide pictures, we don’t. I’m not going to criticise any of them, but I will admit that I have found some of their continuous coverage far too repetitive and predictable to the extent that I don’t have them on in the background any longer. And I feel better for it.
MH: Would you agree that, actually, too much news at the moment isn’t good for our mental health? I’ve found I can only watch the main bulletins.
ID: I think it depends on us as individuals. But in general yes, I agree. I am a news junkie, but even I am finding I am rationing myself. I actually told a listener the other day that she shouldn’t listen to LBC 24/7 if it was making her anxious. I’ll probably get sacked for that.
MH: Do you think we are/will start conversing with and understanding one another better due to this crisis? And, if so, what does that mean for your upcoming book?
ID: My book, which is called ‘Why Can’t We All Get Along: Shout Less, Listen More,’ was supposed to be out on May 28th, but has now been delayed until August 6th, which is a bit of a bugger as I had developed a marketing plan which entailed doing about 30 events in June and July. It’s all gone for a burton. Hey ho. I wrote the book because I sometimes despair at our level of public discourse, especially on social media. I fully admit I have at times been no angel in this regard, but it actually makes me quite a good person to write about the subject. I’ve got to write a new prologue to the book which I think will be quite an optimistic look at how the events of the last few weeks might actually encourage a different sort of dialogue. I do think strangers are finding something in common, and the NHS applause every Thursday has enabled people to meet their neighbours, maybe for the first time. I also think that our politics may become a little less tribal given we’ve now seen the departure of Corbyn. I think he and his more disgusting acolytes poisoned the well of politics in this country in a way we’re only just beginning to fully comprehend. I really hope the country can come together and just be a bit nicer towards one another. It may be a pipedream but I’ll always be a glass half full kind of person. In the TV series ‘Madam Secretary,’ Tea Leoni, who plays the Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord, says rather poignantly: “Each one of us has to find the beauty in our differences instead of the fear. Listen instead of reacting. Reach out instead of recoiling. It’s up to us. All of us.” I endorse that message!
MH: So, how are you keeping yourself entertained when not working? What are you binge watching?
MH: I haven’t watched as many box sets as I thought I would. I’ve been doing a lot of research into my family tree and rearranging my bookshelves. However, I have finished ‘Madam Secretary.’ I watched the last episode (on Saturday night) and it felt as if I had gone into mourning at the end of it. I have somehow become rather addicted to South Korean dramas on Netflix. It started with the Korean version of ‘Designated Survivor’ and now I am into a series called ‘Crash Landing On You,’ which is about a South Korean businesswoman who goes paragliding but gets caught up in a tornado and unbeknown to her lands in North Korea. She falls in love with the North Korean soldier who finds her. I’ve also watched a cricket fly on the wall documentary called ‘The Test,’ which follows the Aussie cricket team in the aftermath of the ball tampering scandal. I hated myself for liking Steve Smith.
MH: I must admit you do have very impressive…book shelves, Mr Dale. What are you currently reading?
ID: The third volume of Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography. I’m actually a very slow reader. I normally only read when I go to bed and (am) usually asleep within four pages. I usually have three or four books on the go at once. I generally read political biographies or football biographies. I want to get back into reading a bit of fiction. I just haven’t had time for it in recent years. I do love a bit of James Herbert or Amanda Prowse.
MH: Last question: The ‘For The Many’ podcast is a guilty pleasure of mine and many others. It is as much fund to record as to listen to? And is Jacqui Smith even smuttier off air?
ID: Jacqui and I have great fun doing it. It’s been going since November 2017 now and, after a slow start, it has really taken off and got a bit of a mass audience now. I think we goad each other into being progressively more outrageous every week. And it’s totally unedited. I did consider asking one anecdote to be taken out last week (when i admitted once driving 40 miles for a one night stand only for it to be “over” rather sooner than expected!) but didn’t. People like the fact that even though we come from different political tribes we can have a discussion without resorting into tribalistic behaviour. We are totally ourselves and have been very open about aspects of our personal lives. I think people respect the genuineness of our relationship and our views. And as for the smut, I do sometimes think we take things a bit far, but I can only think of three people who have ever complained. And as for the question as to whether Jacqui is even smuttier off air…well, what happens off air, stays off air…
MH: Hahahahahaha. Well, thanks Iain for taking the time to do this interview. I appreciate it. Stay safe and well and best wishes.
ID: Thanks Mathew. I’ve enjoyed it. I expected you to be more Paxman than Frost, but I was wrong!
MH: Hahahahaha. I shall take that as a compliment.