Interview: Lord Bates of Langbaurgh, Minister of State at the Department for International Development

22 December 2016

‘The British are the most generous people on the planet’

My grandmother used to say that all experiences, good or bad, were keys to open doors of service in later life. I suppose, over 30 years in politics, I’ve amassed a large number of keys. I was first ap­­pointed a min­­ister in 1994 in John Major’s Gov­­ernment, and I’ve had roles attached to 14 different govern­­ment depart­ments in the House of Commons, and now in the House of Lords.

 

The Department for International Development [DfID] leads the UK’s work to end extreme poverty, building a safer, healthier, more pros­perous world for all of us. I help to oversee the delivery of the Gov­ernment’s priorities, explain to stakeholders what those priorities are, and ensure that UK aid reaches those who most need it. And I’m accountable to Parliament, prim­arily in the House of Lords, for our actions and plans. That’s particu­larly interesting — and particularly challenging because of the incred­ible wealth of expertise in this area among peers.

 

It’s an area where there’s wide cross-party agreement and respect for our meeting our 0.7 per cent of gross national income in overseas-aid commitment. Having met the target — the only major economy to do so — we work hard to ensure that every penny is spent as effectively as possible.

 

The Secretary of State has asked me to focus on youth and education. Education is the surest and most effective route out of poverty wher­ever you are in the world, and greater use of technology reaches remote and conflict-riven areas. British investment in young lives is bringing about transformational change in communities and coun­tries.

 

The British are the most generous people on the planet. Just look at the number of major global charities that were founded here. What up­­sets us is if we think that the hard-earned money we give to others is not delivering good outcomes. It isn’t enough for DfID to be regarded as the best international-development organisation in the world overseas: we need to work harder to show people at home how their money is being used to save millions of lives and give desperate people hope and a future.

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Party politics is the stuff that journalists enjoy writing about, but what keeps you sane is focusing on people, and the problems they bring you. That gives you a good true-north reference point.

 

In the Church, we pray that God will raise up good men and women to lead us. But, after they’re elected, we often can’t see past the colour of their rosette.

 

Good policy is all about helping people to realise their full potential. Good politics is about working with people to improve and implement those policies. People often mis­takenly look to experience for answers, but I look back over the past two years and, frankly, I don’t think I’d have predicted most of the outcomes which have occurred. What experience does is help to frame the right questions.

 

One of the good things about being a minister in the House of Lords is that, although you mostly answer questions and debates relevant to your departmental role, you’re a Minister of the Crown, and repres­enting Her Majesty’s Government as a whole to peers. This is important, because good policy isn’t created by individual ministers, or by indi­vidual departments, but it’s cross-governmental, and the direction is set by the Prime Minister.

 

I’d been campaigning since 2008 for the UK to take seriously its ob­­ligations under the United Nations Olympic Truce which it would propose at the UN General Assem­bly as host of the 2012 Games. It’s a period in which signatories pledge to pursue initiatives for peace and reconciliation during the period of the Olympics and Paralympics in the spirit of the ancient Games. Normally, it’s signed by all 193 member states of the UN, but observed by few, if any. I’d written hundreds of letters, asked questions, initiated debates, had scores of meetings, all to no avail.

 

Then I thought, what if the question was changed from “What is my gov­ernment doing to honour the Olympic Truce?” to “What am I doing to honour it?”? I came up with the idea of walking from Olympia, birthplace of the ancient games, to London, host of the 2012 Games.

 

I set off on Good Friday 2011, and arrived back in London ten months, 14 countries, and 2916 miles later. It was an extraordinary and life-changing journey. The walk didn’t change the world, but it changed me radically. The world often confuses position with power. My faith re­­minds me that the Kingdom of God is within us, but we often fail to realise this power, because we’re too busy obsessively comparing our­selves with the superficial lives of others rather than nurturing depths of our inner lives.

 

In politics, you are never sure if you have achieved anything at the end of the day. Walking, you live in the day. You set off, and hope that you’ll reach a bed for the night, hope it doesn’t rain. . . All your concerns are in the moment, and you do sleep very well wherever you are, because you have a satisfied mind. It’s a very different rhythm of life to politics, where everyone’s thinking about the next election, the next reshuffle: thinking in the future. We neglect the power of the moment. We have to make a difference right where we are.

 

When you’re asking people to do something, you feel powerless. Everyone smiles sweetly and points out the impracticalities of imple­menting the resolution they’ve signed themselves. When you do something, you feel very powerful. There’s the sweet relief of putting on your rucksack and saying: “This is what I’m doing.”

 

Through my walk, I met an in­credible lady, Xuelin, who sup­ported me on some of the most difficult and dangerous stages of the journey, and whom I married on my return, on the day the Olympic Truce came into effect for the London 2012 Games. She was an architect in China who came to this country 25 years ago with only a few pounds in her pocket, and built a successful business here.

 

We pledged, on our wedding day, to undertake a walk each year to promote friendship and reconcilia­tion, and raise funds for children in need. We’ve undertaken four fur­ther major walks together, totalling 4500 miles, through nine coun­tries, and Xuelin’s raised almost £500,000 for Save the Chil­dren, the Red Cross, and UNICEF.

 

We’ll keep to that pledge next year, but I do have wear and tear in my feet and right knee nowadays, and the walk will probably be a few weeks rather than a few months, perhaps in Africa. If you ask me again, when the Tokyo Games in 2020 are closing in, and the Olympic Truce is declared, the answer may be slightly different.

 

This year was an Olympic year, and we wanted to raise awareness for the Truce again. We planned to walk from Buenos Aires, the host city of the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, to Rio de Janeiro, host city of the 2016 Games. It was almost 2000 miles, and would take four months to complete. If we were to arrive in Rio on the day the Olympic Truce came into effect [29 July] then we’d need to set off in April. I was Minister of State in the Home Office at the time, which was a huge responsibility.

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The decision to step down from the Government and take leave of absence from the House of Lords was undoubtedly the most difficult personal decision I’ve taken in politics. I knew I’d be letting down a lot of friends and colleagues, and abandoning important legislation at a critical moment. I was wrestling with what to do, when a group of ministers were invited to No. 10 to meet David Cameron to talk about the upcoming EU referendum. After a long discussion, David said to a colleague who was unsure to whether to campaign for to remain or to leave: “I think that the right thing to do in these situations is not sit around and make career calculations, but to go with your heart.” I realised that my heart was with the ideal of the Olympic Truce as it had been in 2012, and that I should go.

 

The first day of a walk is always the hardest. There’s no turning back, and the finish seems out of reach.

 

We arrived after a very difficult 115 days at the foot of the statue of Christ the Redeemer, overlooking Rio, on 29 July — our wedding anniversary — having completed 1885 miles. It was an extraordinary journey, which will have a lasting effect on us for the rest of our lives — and others’ lives, we hope. Through the walk, Xuelin was also able to raise £250,000 for UNICEF’s work with children in danger around the world.

 

We probably didn’t succeed in raising awareness of the Olympic Truce as much as we’d hoped. In rural Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, few people speak English, and fewer Chinese, and we didn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese; so explaining our walk and our pur­pose was a challenge. After a while, we simply described ourselves as pere­­grinos, pilgrims, and people seemed to understand and wanted to help.

 

In many ways, it was more of a pilgrimage. One of the first books I read cover to cover was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. I visited the same Doubting Castle, Slough of Despond, Valley of Des­pair, and Vanity Fair on my journey.

 

I was blessed with a loving family, and supportive and inspiring par­ents. Now I’ve two sons who live and work abroad in Brazil and America, and an adorable American grandson. We were all active mem­bers of a small Evangelical church in Gateshead. It was the centre of our lives as we were growing up. I loved the gospel services on a Sunday evening, with testimonies from people who were wandering lost and in despair when they encountered faith — often in miraculous ways — and their lives were transformed.

 

I’m a hopeful person, and I love hearing stories of redemption and grace. In fact, I think “redemption” and “grace” are the most beautiful words in the English language. Sadly, they’re largely absent from public discourse, and we’re the poorer for it; but they remain alive and well in the daily lives of families.

 

Running water, birdsong, and a Geor­­die accent — my favourite sounds.

 

On my bedside table at the moment, I have a well-worn antho­logy of poems by W. B. Yeats, Bobby Robson’s Farewell but not Goodbye — I’m a huge football fan, and Bobby Robson exemplifies to me the qualities I most admire in sport and life — and The Pity of War, by Niall Ferguson. It’s a history of the completely avoidable First World War, the fallout from which still casts a long dark shadow over modern contemporary politics.

 

The bombing of a UN aid convoy during a ceasefire in Syria made me angry last.

 

I’m happiest when I am working.

 

I’m blessed to have a small group of friends in Parliament and outside, with whom I have met regularly for over 20 years. In politics, the two people who have impacted my life most have been Margaret Thatcher, who inspired me to get involved in politics in 1979, and David Cam­­eron, who inspired me to re-­engage in frontline politics in 2006.

 

Education gives me hope for the future. Most conflict is fuelled through ignorance rather than knowledge: we fear what we don’t understand. Technology, and espe­cially social media, is directly con­necting people to people around the world in extraordinary ways. Cul­tures are connecting. It is building a virtual global society.

 

I pray for friends, family, peace.

 

Christian faith is at its best when it’s open, mystical, and full of grace. Correspondingly, it’s worst when it’s narrow, dogmatic, and judge­mental. It’s at its best when it focuses on helping others, and im­­proving ourselves. So I’d say that when my faith is directed inward, to challenge me to live a life worthy of my calling, and is expressed out­wardly in seeing and treating my fellow human beings as of equal worth and potential, then it’s strengthening. When it isn’t, it’s weakening, complicated, and even destructive.

 

If I was locked in a church, I’d like my companions to be Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad — and I’d invite Lord Bragg along — to ask them about what they think their followers have become, and see if they might be willing to send a new joint message of hope, forgiveness, and peace to the world.

 

Lord Bates was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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