Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham
was appointed Minister of State for Trade and Investment in the new British government at the end of June. He paid an inaugural visit to Russia in October. This charismatic, some might say larger than life, government minister talked to John Bonar for the Last Word.
You qualified as a lawyer, practiced law in Birmingham; ran the Confederation of British Industry, which is the British voice of business for six years and now you are a Cabinet Minister. What hat are you most comfortable wearing – lawyer, businessman or politician?
The hat I’ve always worn – that of my country. I don’t consider myself a politician. I’ve never been and have no intention of becoming a member of any political party. I’m a front bench member of the British government. My captain is Gordon Brown and I happily take the Labour whip in the House of Lords (Editor’s note: British Upper House).?
Are you the right man for the job?
I think so. Successive British governments have never had the right man in this job. They have had career politicians who have to worry about their constituency, running back to the House of Commons for a three-line whip (Editor’s note: important vote). We have a history as a great trading nation. I want to make us great again. I understand business, I know a lot of people and I am not distracted by party politics.
Could you be considered a poacher turned gamekeeper?
When I led the CBI, you could say I globalized the CBI. We opened offices in places like Beijing and Brussels and beefed up our presence in Washington. I had access to the government and lobbied very hard. But you have to walk a very narrow line in pushing government. You cannot always be negative, you cannot always be criticizing. In Britain we have a very pro-business government. My job is exactly the same as it was at CBI. The one difference is that I owe loyalty to Her Majesty’s government. I am inside the tent and I believe I can make a big difference. Patently the government has to consider the welfare of the whole nation.
How’s the job the same?
I want to take the UKTI (UK Trade and Investment body), which is in great shape, and sell it round the world. Business is the greatest agent of change in this world today. If business gets it right then even in the poorest countries you get better water, better healthcare, better education… you even get a road or two. Business generates the wealth and pays the taxes. If it were not for the wealth business creates you would have no tax revenue. At UKTI we fight for British companies. If you are in Britain, employ people in Britain, and pay your taxes we’ll go to bat for you.
What about business with Russia?
It’s no secret the political relationship is not as good as it might be but business relations are excellent. British Russian business today is not just business as usual, it is better than ever. Britain is the biggest foreign investor in Russia. Trade is growing at a phenomenal pace without any sign of slowing. Our trade surplus is two billion pounds sterling. Bilateral trade in 2006 increased twofold. Already in 2007 it is up a further 40%. Russia is so important for Britain. That’s why I’m here. This is the second country I’ve visited since joining the government. I’m glad I came.
But this is not your first visit to Moscow?
I came here five years ago when I was with the CBI. The changes are astonishing. When you live and work in a city it is hard to gauge changes but Moscow is unrecognizable from when I was here five years ago.