How former BT boss Lord Livingston got a new calling
INTERVIEW: Lord Livingston
Lord Livingston with Teva representatives in Israel
Ian Livingston is on a tight schedule. It’s unsurprising given that the BT chief executive turned UK Trade Minister now has political challenges to contend with.
In a room buried deep inside the Foreign Office surrounded by mahogany furniture and posters promoting the British economy, Lord Livingston is being briefed by a flurry of government assistants.
It is the first week in five that he has stayed in the UK. Over the past month, he has led trade delegations to 20 cities in 12 countries, pushing for more inward investment and UK exports, especially among medium-sized businesses.
“It’s about showing everyone that the UK is here,” he says, with a folder full of colourful tabs, facts and figures resting on his lap.
I had no ambition, intent or expectation of going into politics. It came as a surprise.
“We look at what sectors are really important to other countries and tailor it to where the UK has strength.
“We also look at their inward investment potential.
“The UK is the number one country in Europe for inward investment. More countries set up European headquarters in the UK than anywhere else by a distance. That creates lots of jobs and lots of tax revenue.”
Glasgow-born Lord Livingston is acutely aware of the impact the Scottish vote on independence will have on his role in promoting exports.
“Certainly, independence would create a lot of uncertainly around exports,” he says.
“It depends when — and there’s no guarantee that Scotland would be able to rejoin the EU — we would obviously work very closely with Scotland and be supportive of the relationship.”
While working a 15-hour-day is nothing new to him; the politics, the slow diplomacy behind deals and repeating a speech up to five times a day is something he’s had to learn.
“I’m not a political person; I don’t have a political background,” he says. In fact, his political involvement extends no further than voting for the Tories and backing the deficit plan.
“I had no ambition, intent or expectation of going into politics. It came as a big surprise. The reason I took the role is simply that the prime minister asked.
“The prime minister is the best salesman we have in the UK — he’s very persuasive. He said, ‘it’s really important’ and he’s right.”
Lord Livingston, who has retained a holding in the BT Group plc, adds: “I’ve had 30 years in business and three months in government.
“It’s important to get a mix of skills in government. In this role, having someone with a business background makes sense.
“Business people like to talk to business people. They know I understand. I’ve had to make exports, I’ve had to deal with difficult contracts in countries, I’ve had to deal with government.
“In business or government, you’re always learning new things,” he says, admitting that “patience” is one of them.
“As the CEO of the company there’s a more direct link with getting things done. Obviously, government is different. That’s the nature of it because government is very big.”
Lord Livingston, who is committed to backing the regions and the “forgotten middle” of British businesses, takes issue with people who constantly “talk down” the UK economy: “Everyone wants to be a critic in a way you don’t get in other countries.
“We’ve got to start talking ourselves up. We’re a great country and one of the things I hear around the world is how highly respected and admired the UK is. It’s a shame that sometimes in the UK, it’s not recognised enough.
“Almost everyone has this habit of talking the UK down. I think it’s been a problem for many years.
“Economic growth is looking close to three per cent, unemployment is 7.1 per cent and falling, inflation is down to 1.7 per cent.
“I’m a salesman for the UK — I’m here to talk the UK up. And there’s so much to talk up. The government’s aim is to make the UK the most business-friendly environment.
“We’re also having a focus on medium-sized businesses and encourage them to export. Only one in six UK medium-sized businesses export outside the EU.
“There are about 9,000 medium sized businesses. I’m committed to contacting each one over the next few months and asking, ‘what can we do to help?’
“A lot of people say that the UK is not a great exporter. But actually, we’ve seen a growth in exports; we’re the sixth largest exporter in the world and we’re the second largest exporter of services in the world.
“Around the world, people say they really like the UK brand. The Olympics did a lot for that. We’re seen as modern, cutting-edge, high-quality and trustworthy.
“We’ve seen our exports to China double during the course of this parliament, but we still only account for 1.1 per cent of Chinese imports.
“If it were 2 per cent, the UK’s trade deficit would more than half. China is a key focus and so is the high-growing economy in India. Also, we recently conducted free trade agreements in South Korea and Canada.
“We’re trying to make a trade agreement with the US, which would be great for UK exports across all sectors. So remove tariff barriers and we are strongly pushing for one set of rules.
“By having the US and Europe as one, our manufacturers can produce one version of the same thing.”
His confidence in exports and international agreements partly stems from leading a 20-strong trade delegation to Israel this year, alongside David Cameron.
To the disappointment of anti-Israel sources and boycott, divestment and sanction activists (BDS), Lord Livingston is an outspoken supporter of Israel.
The Orthodox Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue member — who raises an eyebrow when told that one source called him an “Israeli stooge” — is committed to building trade ties between the UK and Israel.
“It was a very successful trip to Israel which led to inward investment and technology tie-ups,” he says, pointing to Teva’s £12 million investment into the UK and £600,000 donation to dementia research.
“The UK is Israel’s second largest export destination, so it’s a strong relationship.
“Of course, you see and encounter [BDS], but the UK government is completely against the boycott of trade from Israel.
“That’s why the prime minister went with a trade delegation and we were very pleased to announce the deals that we did.”
He advocated “using business to help peace. I don’t support a political party in Israel at all, but I would like to see peace.”
He went on to praise Breaking the Impasse and the Portland Trust, for promoting trade ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“Senior Palestinian and Israeli business people are frustrated with the politicians,” he says.
“They’re trying to work together to promote peace.
“The great thing about business, is that it doesn’t have the same prejudices. Business can be used as a really good way of bringing people together.
“I don’t think there can be peace without prosperity and therefore business is absolutely critical.”
For now, there is little time for play. Lord Livingston, a non-executive director of Celtic FC, has a hard time trying to make a match.
He says: “Running BT wasn’t a part-time activity, but it’s been even tougher. I don’t know when I’ll get to Celtic next.
“It’s hard work, but all good things are hard work.
“My great-grandfather arrived as a penniless immigrant,” adds Lord Livingston, who is descended from Eastern European Jews.
“It is a wonderful country that his great-grandson can be in the House of Lords and a government minister.
“That’s a very good reason to be part of making the UK more prosperous. I hope I can help.”