Lord Young: the powerhouse of innovation at 82
The life peer on Judaism, Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron and Scotland
Read the face: a portrait of Lord Young (Portrait: Sandra Shashou)
David Young, formally known as Lord Young of Graffham, was this week described as a traditional English gentleman with a passion for Israeli technology.
“In certain respects, he’s very English; he has an old-school charm and politeness about him. In other respects, he’s very Israeli; he loves technology and is not afraid of a good argument,” said UK Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould, who spoke at the British Israeli Business Awards on Monday, where Lord Young received his first Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Well, I am a Jew,” accepts Lord Young, 82, when asked how he received the description.
I met Lord Young the next morning, at his Young Associates technology investment company office on Marylebone Road in London — a short walk away from the home he shares with his wife Lita.
In the reception, a newspaper-laden portrait of Lord Young hangs as a reminder of his headline-making achievements in business, politics and philanthropy.
“It was a gift from friends for my 80th birthday,” says Lord Young, who will mark a 30-year stretch in the House of Lords this September.
Throughout his career, Lord Young has retained a steadfast commitment to the community — as the first president of Jewish Care, the former president of World ORT and current chairman of the Jewish Museum.
He says: “The older I get, the more proud I am that I’m Jewish.
“I admire the achievements and philanthropy — our Nobel Prizes, medals. We try harder because we’re outsiders.
“I only have one concern. I don’t think the 30 to 40-year-old generation are as community minded.”
The Central Synagogue member, who attends St John’s Wood Synagogue so he can spend services with his six grandchildren, adds: “I love this country, its tolerance. The only antisemitism we see comes from Muslim extremists.
“Thirty years ago, you never saw a yarmulke in the City. Today, I’m getting fed up. At Chanucah time, I have to go sing Maoz Tzur at Number 10, Number 11. Wherever I go, everybody is lighting candles and singing Maoz Tzur. We’ve come out of the shadows.”
Lord Young with his first Lifetime Achievement Award (Photo: Blake Ezra Photography)
While Lord Young’s late brother Stuart (the former BBC chairman) “looked after home organisations, I looked abroad,” he says, advocating UK-Israel trade ties as a means of building bridges.
Lord Young, who once numbered the late Irish-born Israeli President Chaim Herzog and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin among his “good friends”, warns that boycott motions and “the delegitimisation of Israel is a bigger threat than anything the Arabs can do to us militarily. They’re insidious. If you let it carry on too long it gets bigger and bigger and eventually it will carry weight.
“It’s very much the way that the neighbours are fighting back. They can’t beat us militarily, so they beat us in other ways.”
Lord Young is an ardent defender of Israel, but says he could not make aliyah because of the “climate”.
Type his name into Google, and you’ll find countless references to the Iron Lady. Lord Young lights up at the mention of the late Margaret Thatcher, who famously described him as her “safe pair of hands” during his years in her Cabinet.
The life peer says: “I was the only one who had an hour-and-a-half with her every week — a regular slot.
“I was never a threat to her. I was a political eunuch, I was in the Lords.
“She was philosemitic. She thought the Jews were better. I was part of a cabinet in which five of 21 of us were Jews. She was wonderful, inspirational, the greatest human being. She had this way of lifting you up no matter how tired you were. You became enthused all over again.
“I was very upset at the time of her funeral, reading about these people saying they would dance on her grave. Awful. Pathetic.
“Mainly in Scotland. It’s a misogynist country. The reason why the Conservatives lost all their seats was because of Margaret Thatcher, because she was a woman.”
Like Lady Thatcher, Lord Young has had his share of controversy. The adviser temporarily resigned after saying most Britons “never had it so good” in 2010, despite the recession.
He also admits once grabbing Norman Tebbit by the jacket during the pivotal 1987 election campaign, but says: “You have no idea how awful an election period is.
“If we would have lost the election, 11 industries would have been re-nationalised. Top rate of tax would have gone up to 60 per cent overnight. We would have been back in the doldrums; we would have been like Spain.”
The former Employment Secretary and then Trade and Industry Secretary adds: “My principal memory of cabinet was being tired, but it was exhilarating.
“It was very much an entrepreneurial environment, an entrepreneurial government.
“We got the economy going, we got unemployment down, we got it off the front pages.
“I was part of a group of people who actually who turned this country around. That’s what I would most like to be remembered for — playing a small part.”
Decades later, Lord Young is now one of David Cameron’s most trusted advisers and works at Number 10 four days a week.
A couple of hours before we met, Lord Young had delivered an early morning speech at the House of Lords on his new Enterprise for All report — released last week.
Lord Young says: “For the past 10 months I’ve been doing nothing else. I went to David Cameron on the understanding that I would get approval for the report. The one thing I would not do, was write a report that would get pigeonholed.”
The report — which has pushed for more technology and entrepreneurial initiatives for students — has been widely well received.
Sporting a striking black digital watch, instead of the anticipated classic Rolex, the Christ’s College and University College London graduate says: “It’s a weakness of this country still that we don’t have enough technology in the education system.”
“I’m fascinated by technology,” adds Lord Young, who regularly tweets. “I grew up during the War and I was deprived of toys — I’ve been overcompensating ever since. I had a PC long before anybody else; I bought the first Apple II [computer] in this country in September 1977.”
But Lord Young says he was never set on a career in business or politics. In fact, the keen photographer gave up dreams of becoming a filmmaker when he was 16.
His Lithuanian-born father insisted he take up law, but a meeting with Sir Isaac Wolfson at his wedding, steered Lord Young into business.
“I went to work for him at Great Universal Stores. It was the best thing I did. I wasn’t cut out for the law because in the law, you’re the ‘no’ man. You tell people you can’t do this and you can’t do that.”
The founder of Start Up Loans, who set up his own property group Eldonwall Ltd in 1961, adds: “I was a long way ahead of the times — few people were starting up business in those days.
“One the great things I’ve been able to do is to make it so much easier for everybody else to start working for themselves.”
As our one-hour interview draws to a close, I cannot help but bring up one trivial, but defining feature of Lord Young: the bow-tie.
He laughs at the mention, saying he has around 50 ties — some of which he bought and some of which he’s been given by his children, particularly at Chanucah.
“Today, you go to a restaurant and people take their jackets off. I have never ever taken my jacket off anywhere — when I grew up, a gentleman never took his jacket off.
“When I was a 17-year-old article clerk, I would walk on to the train with a stiff white collar, umbrella and a bowler hat. It was a different world.
“When we go out to eat in the evening my wife likes me wearing a tie.”
He adds: “As someone who has been married for 58 years and worked for 10 years for Margaret Thatcher, I do know who’s boss”.