Welcome to Jewish News’ new series of interviews – also available as a podcast at jewishnews.co.uk and sponsored by yulife, life insurance that inspires life– with Jewish people who are changing the world. Leadership communications consultant Zaki Cooper invites them to choose books that have the most meaning to them and discuss their careers.
Baroness Ros Altmann of Tottenham is a leading authority on pensions and later life issues. She works in business, has been Pensions Minister in government and is a successful campaigner.
You are famous for your work on pensions. Why is this important?
Pensions is a vital issue for all economies. We have an ageing population in the UK. I have always thought about pensions as about people.
Are we as a society too youth-obsessed and in danger of marginalising older people?
There is definitely an element of ageism, perhaps in this country more than others. In the Jewish religion, we tend to look after older members of the family. Society seems not to value older people in the same way it does young people.
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Do you have a favourite book about older people?
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old encapsulates the beauty of old age. Just because people are older, it doesn’t mean they haven’t got huge amounts of energy and a contribution to make.
Just because you’re a particular age, it doesn’t mean you should be pigeonholed as somebody sitting in a chair all day. Hendrik is very active and he has a great sense of humour and that’s part of the beauty of old age.
You’re well-known for your campaigning work on behalf of the underdog, with Edmund Burke’s writing an inspiration. Tell us more.
The most high-profile campaign I was leading was to restore pensions to 150,000 people who suddenly discovered their whole life savings had gone and that they had virtually nothing to live off in retirement.
It was a very tough campaign against a government that did not want to admit it had done anything wrong.
What drove me was the quote attributed to Edmund Burke: “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
You’re a fan of Adam Smith and his book, The Wealth of Nations. Why?
He was the first of the really visionary economists who redefined the way people think about economics and society. It was a cross between philosophy and economics.
If you have free trade and you specialise in what you are good at and exchange what you are good at for what somebody else is good at, everybody will benefit.
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You worked in academia, then the city for 15 years before going freelance and were then appointed a government minister in charge of pensions in 2015. Was this a surprise?
I never thought I would end up as a government minister. I was a policy person, not a politics person. In the run-up to the 2015 election, I was frightened Ed Miliband and the SNP might take over and ruin the country economically. I agreed to join the Conservative government if they were to win the election. It didn’t look like they were going to win, but they did. Suddenly, I was thrust into the world of politics and being the Pensions Minister, which I never envisaged.
Did you enjoy being a minister?
It was an extraordinarily frustrating experience. A lot of the things I wanted to do, I just couldn’t get on with. I was quite shocked by the way politicians work – or don’t – together. If politics behaved in the way business behaves, we might find countries run more successfully. Prime Minister David Cameron said to me: ‘Being prime minister is not like any other job. If you are chief executive of a business and someone is doing something you don’t like, and you sack them, they are gone. If someone is doing something I don’t like as prime minister, and I sack them, they’ll be sitting behind me, waiting to stab me in the back.’
You are spending a lot of time on Brexit. Why?
I believe Brexit is a real danger to our economy and our future prosperity. I also believe the campaign to leave the EU was based on misleading the country. People were told voting for Brexit would make them better off and it would be brilliant. They were never told of the risks, that it might cause real harm to sections of society. If we keep quiet, which would be the easiest thing to do, a terrible harm will be perpetrated on the country.
What does being Jewish mean to you?
My Judaism drives me and has always driven my career, my choices and my way of working. Every week I literally thank God for Shabbat. I work hard, but Shabbat is my day off. Jewish morals and ethics are really important. For me, they are the underpinning of civilised society.
You also chose the book, The Right and the Good – Halakha and Human Relations by Daniel Feldman. Why?
My motto as a member of the Lords is ‘Ve’Assita Hayahsar V’Hatov’ – “you should do what is right and what is good”. Perhaps that’s why I found politics more difficult than I expected. Telling the truth, being honest and not putting a stumbling block in the way of the blind are so important as the basis of a civilised society.
You’re described as a role model…
I don’t like to think of myself as a role model and I do my best to make sure that whatever I do, whether in my public or private life, is based on Jewish values and principles. If what I do encourages more young Jewish women to realise you can be frum and part of the real world, you can be a mother and still have a good career, that would be pleasing.
When you took your seat in the Lords, why did you take Tottenham as your designation?
It was in honour of my wonderful father who passed away in his fifties. He was a refugee from the Nazis. My grandparents came over with nothing. They started a shop in Tottenham Hale. I loved going there. On weekday matches, we would walk over to White Hart Lane. Tottenham was very special to my father and to the family.
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