Episode #4: Reflecting on leadership in politics: Lord Hill in conversation with Rebecca George

Talking Public Sector

In the fourth episode of Talking Public Sector, we discuss leadership styles in government by drawing on the experiences of Lord Hill.

Lord Hill (the Right Honourable Lord Hill of Oareford, CBE) started his career as special advisor to Ken Clarke across three government departments and after that he ran John Major’s 1992 election campaign. In the late 90s he left politics to set up a communications consultancy before returning to public life in 2010 as a peer and Minister for Education in the Conservative Lib-Dem coalition. In 2013, he was made leader of the House of Lords and then a year later he was nominated to be the UK’s European Commissioner serving as Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets until 2016, when he resigned in the wake of the EU referendum.

During this episode, Rebecca and Lord Hill reflect on Lord Hill’s career; his experiences of leadership within Whitehall and his thoughts on the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

Rebecca George OBE
Vice Chair and UK Public Sector Leader

Rebecca leads the UK Public Sector practice in Deloitte, supporting government to drive large-scale, complex transformation programmes, for the benefit of the UK’s citizens.

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Rebecca George (00:00:05): Hello everyone. My name is Rebecca George and I lead Deloitte’s work with Public Sector clients in the UK. Welcome to our latest Talking Public Sector podcast. Today I am talking to Lord Hill – or to give him his full title, the Right Honourable Lord Hill of Oareford, CBE. We’re going to be talking about lessons in leadership throughout his career, and his CV is extraordinary by any standard. One of his first jobs was a special advisor to Ken Clarke across three government departments and after that he ran John Major’s 1992 election campaign. In the late 90s he left politics to set up a communications consultancy before returning to public life in 2010 as a peer and Minister for Education in the Conservative Lib-Dem coalition. In 2013, he was made leader of the House of Lords and then a year later he was nominated to be the UK’s European Commissioner serving as Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets until 2016, when he resigned in the wake of the EU referendum. Jonathan, thank you for joining me today.

Lord Hill (00:01:16): Not at all.

Rebecca George (00:01:19): So, lets start at the beginning of your career – working with Ken Clarke and John Major. What did that early experience – being around those big political figures – what was it like? What did they teach you about leadership?

Lord Hill (00:01:31): I suppose if I go all the way back which has made me feel very old as it was a very long time ago – this is back in the late 1980s. The first thing I suppose I learnt was how much I enjoyed working with politicians and civil servants. Generally speaking, politicians don’t have a very good rap(port) and people have views about Whitehall officials. One of the reasons I’ve stuck in that world on and off was that I found the people, regardless of their party, fun, decent, bright, interesting to work with and same with officials. In a way, the first thing I learnt was it was a world that I enjoyed working in. Ken was a joy to work for because he is someone with very clear views, which then was less rare than it is now. But he had that, so he was quick to be able to take decisions. He had a set of points of reference so he was able to fit things into a world view which meant from the point of view of his officials knowing what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go in the direction of travel – hugely helpful because as you know the one thing that all officials like is a strong minister who knows his or her mind and will give clear sense of direction. Ken was extremely good at doing that – he was a huge amount of fun to be around as you might imagine.

Rebecca George (00:03:34): An enormous character.

Lord Hill (00:03:35):He was a great character and what you see in public is kind of what it’s like in private. It’s often the case in politics that that’s not true and that someone looks extremely charming or whatever they might be in public and in private they are not like that. Ken was the same in private as he was in public and because I was his first special adviser in those days there were far fewer around the system and everything was much smaller – all the departments were smaller. The first department I worked in with Ken, the Department of Employment, the press office had three people. When I worked at number 10, I went there in early ’91, the press office had I think seven people. The policy unit where I worked to start with had six people. So, these were small, tight teams where you were close to the people you worked with and I went a lot around the country with Ken in our different departments which in itself was a good thing because you learn more about Britain than just being stuck in London. We had a pattern of whenever you went to a new town, he would, first of all, he’d head to the second hand book shop, the pub and sometimes the order varied, and he introduced me to pickled eggs which was not a delicacy I’d ever experienced before. It was the most fantastic apprenticeship and I was incredibly lucky, and it was working at a time when the conservative government was strong, led by Mrs. Thatcher – big majority, and you had this feeling of an administration that was trying to do stuff and change things and that was exciting to be a part of as a young man.

Rebecca George (00:05:40): I love the idea that somebody with a world view and a strong vision and a clear sense of where they’re going and their place in the world. What was John Major like?

Lord Hill (00:05:51): John was a different character. I think the thing I most liked why I wanted to work for John Major was his story was so extraordinary. He’d left school at 16, without much by way of formal education or qualifications. So, he hadn’t followed the normal path of, you know, smart people in any side of politics – hanging out with the same crowd. He’d gone off and done night classes, got himself qualified and got to work, went into local politics and worked his way up; and there quite a lot of snobbery about him at the time, particularly in my party but not confined to the conservative side. I took the completely opposite view – I took the view that there must be something extraordinary about this person that with no obvious advantages in life, coming up from the wrong side of the tracks he ended up being Prime Minister at 48 (whatever he was), which in those days was young. But I think what all those life experiences taught him – obviously he had a fantastic brain and had great ability to assimilate information and he was a brilliant negotiator. So, you contrast his experience with the mastery of negotiations. The reason he was so good at that, the reason he was a very good secretary, tough chief secretary doing all those negotiations around public expenditure is that he had very high emotional intelligence. So, he would work out what it was that the person he was negotiating with wanted, how can you help them, how would you deliver that while sticking to what you want. So, he was someone who was very good at reading a room. It meant that in terms of European negotiations which are much more to do with relationships and long-term conversation, unlike the British political system which I realise by contrast is very transactional, very “black and white”, “winner-loser” and our system doesn’t tend to mean that people have to invest much time in understanding the other side. If you think, our normal pattern, if you’ve got a big majority government, if you’re a minister, the only real negotiation you have to have is with a few of your colleagues to get time for your legislative slot. If you’ve got a majority of 50, 60 or 100, your business managers get it through and once you’ve come up with your idea and legislation that’s it – over, done (and) it comes through – you never have to think about it again. Whereas European system, the whole time you’re having to think – “ok, where are they on this – what do they want – what do they want in a couple of years? I better carry on working with them because although they might lose office now they might pop up again in a different coalition.” So that changes the behaviour and John Major was extremely good at that kind of three-dimensional chess.

Rebecca George (00:09:23): So, there’s a couple of points in there. One is (that) I think we forget to remember to learn the lessons of history. We know we have this extraordinary understanding of how the Europeans work and we might come back to that a bit later on. But the other thing I was going to say is I am old enough to remember John Major’s spitting image puppet and the man you’ve described is entirely different from that view and I just think its nice to hear actually of you and John Major like that because there is much more than we made out.

Lord Hill (00:09:53): Its funny the private person was completely different from the public persona. He was very warm – and again if you think the most interesting experience and relevant to this – during the ’92 election where we had inherited a very formulaic, safe election campaign with photo opportunities, him talking to conservative audiences and it looked all very stage-managed and was all a bit clinical. It was he who, after about a week of this, said that “this isn’t working for me. I want to have connection – I want to get out there and talk to people. I want people around me.” He started out as a teenager – he used to go on a soap box and talk about politics which is extraordinary in 1950s. So, he said in the middle of the election campaign – “I want a soap box. I just want to go and do what I did before.” So, my job was to find a box for him to stand on which I managed to do with some help from others. So, for him it was completely electrifying because you could see the side of this character who loved the rough and tumble of old-style English politics – eighteenth century – with people throwing stuff and heckling and all of that stuff. He was incredibly good at it and it brought him to life. His instincts, the way he related to people, he was extraordinarily good at it. I think what happened was that the nature of office, the way it works, the set-piece things, Prime Minister’s questions and so on, it distanced him from the things that he did naturally and did really well. When you think of his upbringing – his father who had been in the circus (impresario) – a lot of that is in his character and now the number of times you meet people who have heard him talking now long after he’s gone from politics, would say he is so entertaining so warm, and all of that one saw, but the job sometimes got in the way of that.

Rebecca George (00:12:39): I think that’s a great insight into politics at the time. I think my observation is that politics has changed a lot, the people in politics have changed but also the requirements of them as leaders have changed – both in terms of the politicians and the senior civil servants. My observation is that life is more complex, organisations are bigger, there are more international issues, more cross-boundary issues than there used to be, and I think that the ask of the leadership has changed a lot in the last 20 years and I’d be really interested in your views on that.

Lord Hill (00:13:23): I think that is right – I think it has changed. If I look back, I think there was a big shift in ’97 with T(ony) Blair and a new style and approach towards government, a more centralised system around communications and then they got in the old management consultants to start looking at how government worked. So, if I go back a little before then, the system that we inherited in 1990 and operated for seven years under John Major is exactly the same as Mrs. Thatcher. I talked to people who worked at number 10 in the 70s – Wilson, Callaghan said it hadn’t really changed. So, I think there was quite a big shift in ’97 and I think since then there has been a move drift – a move towards the strengthening of the centre around number 10 and cabinet offices. If I look back to the 80s when everyone would say – Mrs. Thatcher, incredibly dominant political personality, bossy, autocratic, authoritarian and, again back to your example, a spitting image – had all the cabinet ministers sitting there like, you know, “what about the vegetables? Oh, they’ll have the same as me.” But, those secretaries of state were far more formidable, considerably independent figures in the 80s than secretaries of state now and today, I would say. So, if you think back, they (secretaries of state) regularly would go and make big speeches on policy and then go on a do a 15 or 20 minute interview on the Today programme about their philosophy and you would have a proper discussion; and that was all expected, it was allowed, licensed and you talked about ideas, and I find now, minsters in departments doing routine departmental business of a minor sort, have to get permission from the centre if they are going to give some bog-standard speech somewhere or other. The grid which Blair and so on (Campbell) introduced partly for reasons I understand that the end of the Tories in ’97 and the collapse of that government was and looked disorganised and the new kids on the block wanted to come and be much more professional and they had the backing of this huge majority so, the Prime Minister’s writ ran a very long way and they could knock people around and Alastair Campbell called the shots – all of that stuff. But if you now roll forward 22 years, the subsequent governments after T(ony) Blair kind of think that’s how it’s done and they don’t know that there was another way how things were done before which was a more devolved system, a more empowering system which, personally I think, is much healthier and better because you can’t run everything from the middle cause you just end up with gridlock which is what you see. I think some of it - that political behaviour systems have changed, and some of it is technological. You can have the appearance of being in control because you’ve got email and text and mobile, so you think you can be sending instructions to people in real time and getting information back from people in real time. When I started I had a shorthand typist and if you were doing submissions (they were called submissions – minutes, proper papers), you had to think the discipline of having to dictate something in one go that someone could then take down in short hand and type up and you couldn’t endlessly amend it because the system couldn’t permit it, your copy lists were much smaller because you were limited by how you could photocopy and distribute. It meant that I feel there was much more of “a beginning, a middle and an end” process to policy-making. It was more formal. You would write your submission on a piece of paper and go in and it would go in into the ministerial box and the minister would look at it, think about it, write something on it, something would get minuted out, there’d be a meeting which would be minuted, the notes exist in paper in filing cabinet that you can find – all of that stuff. I know some of that system is still there, but I think what the obsession with communication, the ability to disseminate information much more quickly, what it has led to, is much more policy-making as a much more rolling conversation with people pinging in more sides so its less structured, more frantic –

Rebecca George (00:19:16): Lots of external messages coming in.

Lord Hill (00:19:18): Lots of external (messages) coming in and not sort of completed – “oh I’ve got an idea!” – this is how a lot of people obviously work by email and that’s the good bit, you can get more creative stuff, but I think it can lend itself less well to formal process.

The other big change has been judicial challenge. So, when I started, you didn’t have a lawyer sitting in every ministerial meeting, basically saying that if you ended up as a minster thinking that you wanted to do something that your officials thought was any risk at all they’d day “oh minister that’s very difficult. You might be opening yourself up to legal challenge” – at which point lot of ministers think “ok, I’ll leave it.” So, it entrenches much more conservative, risk-averse, back-covering behaviour. We have seen it right across the public sector, we see it in the private sector that the taking of responsibility and the realisation that you can make mistakes and be on the hook of it – in lots of walks life whether it be public or private sector, the compliance culture which is in one level, quite a lot of it, about making sure that if something doesn’t work out, you’re covered because you’ve gone through some process, that is not consistent. If you want to have a system of government that really works, you’ve got to have ministers who are prepared to take responsibility.

Rebecca George (00:21:10): I think if we roll forward another 10 or 20 years, some of the really big global issues around climate change or personal safety online or financial crime which have no respect for country borders are going to need another set change in their accountability, that people feeling able and wanting to, willing to step up to taking really big decisions; and I’m not sure that this environment that we have created which is not unique to the UK is going to be fit for the purpose for the global stage that we look at going forward. I’d love talking a few minutes about your life as a European Commissioner and I’d really like to hear a little bit more about (what) you talked earlier was so interesting about the difference in the way the European political system works. But I’d also like to hear, if you don’t mind, some of your views about – because we can’t have this conversation without Brexit – what you felt at the time and what you feel about it now.

Lord Hill (00:22:22): The first thing I’d like to say – I had never worked in the European system before, so off I went, and it wasn’t a job that I had sought – I had no particular history in European politics –

Rebecca George (00:22:41): Like many of the jobs we get in our lives –

Lord Hill (00:22:44): Exactly. The Prime Minister asked me to do it and I think that if your Prime Minister asked you to do something, you’ll give it a go – so I went. I reckon, in a way, I learnt more about Britain and the British political system in the 18 months or 2 years I was outside it than when I was in it.

Rebecca George (00:23:13): I agree with that. I’ve lived abroad twice, and I think you learn a great deal about you own country when you live abroad.

Lord Hill (00:23:19): That and about Britain generally and the political system, in particular. I’ll be eternally grateful for that in it opened my eyes to some of the things that as Brits you take for granted and you think are just completely normal and then you go somewhere else and think well hang on a minute. It may be good, it may be better but its not normal. I think there was lots about the system that I did find very frustrating after the British system that as a minister in the British system if you’ve got some ideas, there are things that you want to do, you set a direction, you take your officials with you – you do them. The complexity of the European system where you’ve got the interests of your fellow commissioners, the college of member states of the European Parliament, of different political groupings within the European Parliament, of national interests – that makes building a support of consensus for a position a much, much harder task.

There was a lot - Everything takes a long time.

Rebecca George (00:24:52): Does it have to take such a long time? It’s a question I have often wondered (about).

Lord Hill (00:24:57): I think you could do it quicker. I think you do have to have consensus building processes in place because if you’re trying to get 27, now 28, countries to agree to stuff, some of which is quite tricky for them and links to issues of accountability and their own electorate, you’ve got to allow people time to either speak out against something or try and change something or just sort of assimilate. I think the key question for their system, which is incredibly hard for them to grapple with, is this accountability question, whereby, if you are a voter in European elections and there is stuff that you don’t like, you can’t hold someone directly to account because accountability is split somewhere between the council of ministers, the member states, the commission who are not elected and the MEPs (members of European Parliament). So, I think you could speed it up and have more democratic accountability if you had a European Parliament with much more accountability, so it would have to have much more power. But that’s the bit that the member states never wanted, for reasons that one understands, to give up. So, it is kind of trapped in the middle and some of that therefore takes time. And when you’re trying to get a range of different countries to move say their financial regulation to the same point which is complex and technical, and they start in different places – that is intrinsically more complicated. But it’s a fascinating system to work in and as you will have seen from your experience in a different way, you’re working on a much bigger stage and so coming back, British politics looks quite small and introspective, particularly obviously at the moment where we’re going through a weird period of obsessive introspection. In terms of how I felt about Brexit – it was not something that I was expecting. But I had a very simple view about it then which I’ve not changed since, although I thought a lot in the intervening three years about what had happened. But I do think, fundamentally, that if you say to the British people, “here is this really important decision that’s going to change the future of our country. Here are as many reasons as you can think of why you should stick with the status quo. But if you do decide you want something different whatever you decide we promise we’re going to deliver it.” I think that’s pretty binary. I was and still am completely accepting of the result even though I campaigned for a different result. I knew that leaving would be quite difficult because if you spend 40 years, consciously integrating your economy and your political system, why would you think you can just undo in it like a week? I knew all of that but my reaction when it happened – the initial reaction in Brussels was the same as many people as everyone was shocked (the Brits in the system particularly so) and sad because they felt part of something that they’ve made their lives there and so there’re all sorts of personal things caught up with it. So, it was an oddly emotional time in that first period. There were lots of people in tears. We tend to think in the UK of the Brussels system as being a kind of heartless machine system of faceless bureaucrats and clearly there is a high level of bureaucracy and if you’re on the receiving end of that as a business or whatever else – it can indeed feel harsh. But there’s an emotional underpinning of it which, I think, we forget in Britain which is why I think Brits make the miscalculation of thinking “because many other European countries have economic and political problems of their own like us, they’ll obviously will shortly follow Britain out of the EU because clearly everyone would want to do what we do; and that is to completely miss the point that for every other European country the history of the EU since they’ve been in it or its predecessor organisations, their history has been a hell of a lot better than it was before the EU in the previous 100 years. So, that and this feeling of a Europe without borders where they can travel where they’re not killing each other and invading each other or enslaving each other is very much at the heart of how they feel about it.

Rebecca George (00:30:37): I’m conscious that we should be thinking about wrapping up – this is such a great conversation – I’m reluctant to do so. But I would like to just finish by asking you – you’ve had a really varied career in public life, in the public eye, what kind of advice would you give to people going forward about as they make choices about their own careers?

Lord Hill (00:31:05): I think, as we touched on earlier - there’s a choice to some extent about private sector, public sector. I think both of us in different ways have actually managed to combine working in the private sector and the public sector and I think if you’re lucky enough to be able to do that, I think that’s quite an interesting way to be able to lead your life. Its not for everyone. If I reflect on what has happened over the last 40 years in our society – both in business and in politics – the taking of responsibility is the most important thing that I would say you have to hold on to as a society. I think we have lost quite a bit and are in danger of losing further if you think of a range of political crises and business crises, the number of times you see people saying, “you know what, this happened on my watch and whether it was my fault or not I’ve got to take the rap for it.” I think part of our problem with trust in politics, and to some extent in business as well which I think is a growing problem, is that people see others exercising power, making lots of money; and I think they’ll go with that. But what they don’t see is then what the consequence is then of failure when things don’t go right. So, I think I’d say to people, we need leaders in business – if you’re setting your own business, you have to do it – who take responsibility. To get trust in our economic and political system, we have to have that. I also think, as broader point, about our political system. But if I look back over 30-40 years we have become much more centralised and I think part of what’s going on in politics, part of what’s going on in Brexit, part of what’s going on in all our communities, villages, towns around the country is people who feel – there’s a question about belonging and there’s a question about what could I do to make a difference and you feel that power has either been taken away to London or to a regional level and a lot of the ways in which people contributed to the building of their communities historically through local government or a charitable act, whatever it might be, all of that has felt a bit harder and when I think about the next five years or ten years what I think is coming, I think across the west there will be a reaction against the centre and the metropolitan world view. I think there is an opportunity there to try to devolve more responsibility back to people and to do that they’ve got to give them more freedom to the people to make their own decisions and you’ve all then got to be more honest about the possibility of failure. This mentality that we’ve got to is (that) we’d rather everything was pretty bad universally rather than saying let’s trust someone and they might do brilliantly well, and we might be able to learn from that and spread it across the system, but you might get more of a patchwork effect because some people who try won’t do as well as other people. We have become more risk averse about being prepared to trial things and being honest about accepting – a healthy system, a healthy business has to encourage people to try and accept failure. There is honest failure where you try jolly hard and you’ve done everything the best you can things just don’t work out because you’re not up to it and then there’s dishonest failure, if you see what I mean – then you need much more accountability. People asserting more values about their expectations of what is proper behaviour.

Rebecca George (00:36:05): I think that’s absolutely fascinating view. I love it actually, the devolution, pushing responsibility down, allowing actually people to take responsibility. But I’m also very keen on letting people fail and people learning from their mistakes. This has been a really great discussion. Thank you so much for sharing so many observations from your career and thank you, for listening to our podcast. I hope you’ll join us next time. Don’t forget to subscribe to stay in touch. But in the meantime, bye for now.


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