25 May 2014

“What did you think of Margaret Thatcher?”

I think my first question knocked him for six, judging by the pause that followed.

Gail and I had been lucky enough to be offered an opportunity to go for lunch with Sir John Major, and we’d jumped at the chance. I’ve made it my business to try and seek out successful people and find out what drives them, what makes them tick and, ultimately, what got them to the top. You can find these people in all walks of life and across all industries, from Diane Modahl training up-and-coming young athletes, to Gabor Takacs-Nagy, music director at Manchester Camerata.

On this occasion, however, we were dipping a toe into politics and chatting to arguably the most successful living British politician. Whilst you might disagree on this point, it’s fair to say that he made the economy stronger after Thatcher, which brings me back to the pause in our conversation and the surprisingly well-mannered way John Major spoke of the Iron Lady. It’s no surprise, however, that he was reluctant to dwell on the subject, especially when you consider that – after her fall from grace – she actually became one of the key people involved in unsettling the Cabinet. People had been invited to help improve Britain and ended up fighting amongst themselves. How often does this happen in life?

Waiting outside John Street hotel for Sir John Major

Waiting outside John Street hotel for Sir John Major

It’s a shame that, so often, when the success or failure of a person or organisation is poised in the balance, people fall into the trap of letting self-gain become bigger than the good of the whole. I remember when I sold my first business to Granada. There was a sense that, in certain parts of the business, there were people more focused on which office they wanted and what they could get for themselves rather than what was best for the company as a whole. We’re lucky at UKFast that we’re still too small to really feel the impact of this, as we’re still able to give everyone a say in decisions. However, in politics, some of the brightest candidates have been undone by letting personal gain become bigger than the good of the nation.On the flip side I think that, as a country, we have a tendency to attack people whose hearts are in the right place when they’re at their most successful. I think you could argue that John Major is one of these people, but there are plenty more examples. It’s like Gerald Ratner, who made an off-the-cuff remark during an after dinner speech and it ended up ruining his life and his business. Look at Paul Gascoigne. Would you say that his drinking cause a decline in his health or did the surrounding pressure and scrutiny drive him to drink? I digress, but it’s a question worth pondering.

Fortunately, John Major’s own experience hasn’t extinguished his passion for British politics. He looked very well and hasn’t aged a day. We discussed how, these days, there are so many ‘professional politicians’. David Cameron, for example, who studied at Eton and who John Major described as a very bright individual. Yet all too often these professional politicians don’t have any commercial experience, which is why they’re now having to bring in industry advisory committees. It’s a step in the right direction but I think if there was more commercial experience within politics and if more of them had worked in another kind of job before entering into politics rather than training to ‘become’ a politician, things would be very different.

I don’t doubt that it’s a taxing job (no pun intended). When I asked John Major if it was stressful, he said it was and described full on days, late finishes and surviving on about five hours’ sleep each night. Despite leaving the spotlight, he still seems to be very much involved with the top politicians and in being an ambassador for British business. What he did say, having visited a number of other countries, was that there’s an overwhelming sense that Britain is one of the best places in the world to do business, as we’re perceived as straight forward, fair and organised.

We also discussed the prospect of Scotland leaving Britain, and were in agreement that Scotland and the UK would both be poorer for Scotland’s departure. What would happen with the pound? Would Scotland still have the BBC? There are so many questions to be answered and I think there’s a lot more to be gained from collaboration than there is from isolation.

What I took from the conversation, perhaps more than anything else, is that we should really hang on to our British greats. Personally, I think John Major would be a far better person than other candidates to take the helm and take the country forwards. We’re lucky that he’s still taking an interest and still wanting to keep a hand on the tiller. It’s the same with Alex Ferguson. Whilst you can’t blame him for taking a position at Harvard, I’d ask why didn’t our universities jump at the chance to try and get him lecturing here? Did Manchester Business School not fight for him to lecture their students? His approach to sport and management is applicable not only to football, but to plenty of other areas, especially business. This is a man who would have been successful no matter what he did; if he’d have opened a corner shop, he’d have taken on Sainsbury’s!

If you want to get great at anything, meet the people who are at the top of their game in all walks of life. Train yourself to spot new talent coming up through the ranks and identify the good in everyone. Make it your business to seek out successful people and learn from them. We need to learn how to pull together as a country and resist the temptation to pull people down when they’re on the way to the top. If we pulled everyone down, there would be no hands reaching from the top to grasp our own, and help us to change our lives for the better…

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