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Kwasi Kwarteng MP: "People should look at history with a bit more humility"

Secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy and Conservative MP for Spelthorne Kwasi Kwarteng in his departmental office | Photos by Baldo Sciacca

10 min read

Kwasi Kwarteng is a man on a mission, overseeing arguably the most important period in the UK’s route to net-zero. The BEIS secretary and keen historian talks to Georgina Bailey about the free-market case for decarbonisation – and why he won’t be drawn into the culture wars

Kwasi Kwarteng is running 25 minutes late for our interview at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), rushing over from a select committee appearance in Parliament.

When he arrives, he asks me how long my interviews normally take – can this be the quickest one, he says laughing. Everyone involved wants to get home for the England v Denmark game.

We needn’t have worried too much (about the time or the result). The BEIS secretary, who has long had a reputation as a strong media performer, takes his answers at a canter. Despite this, his reputation for high intellect also shines through – every answer still seems considered. 

As well as a former life as a left wing on the football pitch (despite his right-handedness and politics), Kwarteng is a proud historian. He has a classics and history degree from Cambridge, where he was a member of their winning University Challenge team, and a PhD in economic history from Harvard. When I ask how he likes to relax, the answer is mainly history focused – absorbing historical documentaries and reading historical fiction and non-fiction, along with trips to the pub and restaurants, watching football and country walks beside the river Thames where it snakes through his Spelthorne constituency in north Surrey. 

“I’m really interested in history, I’m really interested in the past, and how you relate the past to the present,” he says. 

Kwarteng has made history himself, becoming the first Black male cabinet secretary when he replaced Alok Sharma as BEIS secretary at the start of the year (he had previously attended cabinet for 18 months as minister for business, energy and clean growth). 

“Obviously, that’s a source of some pride,” Kwarteng says. “It’s not something I think about every day, I just get on with my job, [but] it’s a bit of history, which is important to people, and I recognise that.”

A lot of the opinion they express isn’t based on any fact or research, or even knowledge

How does this interest in history relate to current rhetoric around the so-called “culture wars”? Kwarteng, who is of Ghanaian descent, points out that in 2011 he literally wrote the book on the legacy of British empire. Earlier this year, he told the BBC’s Nick Robinson that “the debate around Black Lives Matter and imperialism or colonialism has a cartoon-like view of history,” and he confirms now he thinks that is true of both sides of the discourse.

“People rush to condemn things, they rush to opine on subjects that are very, very complicated. And a lot of the opinion they express isn’t based on any fact or research, or even knowledge,” he says. “People use the past for political ends; they always have done. And all I wanted to do was say, ‘Stop. Let’s look at the past. Let’s try and understand things like the British Empire.’ I spent a lot of time researching it, and it’s a complicated thing. Let’s think about that.”

His nuanced perspective puts Kwarteng at odds with some in his party, with the Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs making waves in recent months on topics such as taking the knee, and condemning the National Trust for commissioning a report on its properties’ links with slavery and colonialism.

On the first, Kwarteng says that while he thinks booing those who do is “appalling,” he wouldn’t take the knee himself.

“The problem I have with [taking the knee] is that it is virtue signalling; you’re not actually doing anything to bring about actual justice,” Kwarteng says. “You see it in some corporates where they basically fly the flag to show they’re good people, but don’t actually deliver on what they’re saying they want to achieve.”

On the latter, he believes that while the National Trust working to understand its properties’ links with colonialism and empire is a good thing, “if you’re trying to drive a political agenda on top of that, that’s probably something that people will be more sceptical about”. So how would he like to see the debate going forward?

“People need to understand that a phenomenon like the British Empire – and I don’t mean a phenomenon as in a good thing, I mean a phenomenon as in something extraordinary that happened – goes through a huge evolution over hundreds of years. It spans a huge, vast area of geography. And to characterise it in a very crude, simplistic way doesn’t do that history justice, it doesn’t do justice to what was an extraordinary period and extraordinary thing.

“I think people should look at history with a bit more humility, and a little bit more critical inquiry. It’s very difficult not to have lots of preconceptions and lots of strongly held beliefs. But as a historian, if you are actually serious about history, you’ve got to try and engage with the subject on its own terms.”

Kwarteng, who has been an MP since 2010, was marked as a rising star on the party’s right from his first run for Parliament in 2005. He chaired the right-leaning Bow Group that year, and, once elected, gained a reputation as an ardent Brexiteer. 

In 2012, he was one of the co-authors of Britannia Unchained with four other 2010-intake members of the Thatcherite-leaning Free Enterprise Group. Of the five, Kwarteng, Liz Truss, Priti Patel, and Dominic Raab are all now in cabinet – yet it is a cabinet that even before the pandemic was making what some would consider very un-Conservative spending commitments. 

If we just see this as something that is an excuse to impose costs on people with no added benefit, that’s a big problem

Does a right-wing characterisation still sit comfortably with Kwarteng? While he says he is still “very enthused about the markets, about competition, about the spirit of enterprise,” Kwarteng is also “conscious of the fact that the year 2021 poses different challenges to the year 1985” – net-zero and the Covid response in particular. 

“Circumstances change. But fundamental beliefs don’t,” he says. 

He therefore understands the worries of some on the right around the costs of net-zero for both the government and families, saying they are “legitimate concerns”. “If we just see this as something that is an excuse to impose costs on people with no added benefit, that’s a big problem,” he says. However, there is a strong competition-based angle to net-zero which appeals to his free market sensibilities. 

“The whole world is moving towards net-zero... decarbonised energy is the future, and we’ve got to get ahead of that pack,” he says, pointing to existing UK success with offshore wind – a success he is keen to emulate with both hydrogen and carbon capture and storage facilities too. 

In terms of costs to families, he doesn’t recognise carbon costs recently reported by The Times which would potentially see gas bills rising by between £80 and £170, and the cost of running a petrol car by between £30 and £100, a year. When we talk, Kwarteng is yet to meet with the Prime Minister and Chancellor to discuss plans to set carbon prices, but says there is a “good tradition” of supporting low-income households in making the transition to low-carbon lifestyles, such as the Warm Home discount, the energy company obligation, and the now-cancelled Green Homes Grant. 

However, he won’t be drawn on any specific measures to support low-income households that may be included in the much-delayed Heat and Buildings Strategy. 

The strategy is one of many government net-zero plans which is now significantly delayed – something the influential Climate Change Committee (CCC) criticised in its most recent progress report to Parliament last month. While BEIS is responsible for the heat and buildings and hydrogen strategies, Kwarteng points out that several of the awaited strategies – transport decarbonisation, aviation decarbonisation, the nature strategy and the Treasury’s net-zero review – are actually other departments’ responsibilities. However, he accepts they are all related to his brief and says he “strongly hopes” all will be published before COP26 in November. 

He also denies accusations that the Treasury is reluctant to stump up the cash for net-zero, pointing out that most of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s projected £1.4tn cost of net-zero would come from private investment anyway.

The CCC tends to have a slightly more purist approach

The CCC’s most recent report also condemned the government for not matching its lofty net-zero rhetoric with clear action, stating that the current plans would get the UK only a fifth of the way to its net-zero targets. At the time, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson said the CCC was “wide of the mark”. Does Kwarteng think that is fair?

“I think the CCC does a good job,” Kwarteng begins. “I have very good relations with John Deben [CCC chair Lord Deben, pictured] – he’s a very honest, very capable, a very energetic public servant, and I enjoy speaking to him. His job is to really put pressure on us to live up to our targets. And our job is to try to fulfil those targets, but with a political hat on. So there’s always going to be this tension. And, yes, we could do more, but we have to bring people with us. The CCC tends to have a slightly more purist approach.”

He believes that internationally, most foreign energy ministers “wouldn’t recognise the CCCs judgement of us”.

“[Internationally], they think of Britain as a country that’s led the world in decarbonisation, led the world in taking coal off the electricity power grid, is leading the world in offshore wind and renewables, and is taking climate change and the decarbonisation of that extremely seriously. So there’s a mismatch.”

One of the other CCC recommendations was to introduce a net-zero test for every government policy, and that is something Kwarteng says the government is currently in discussion about. 

“Certainly in BEIS… everything we do, we try to put a net-zero slant on. Obviously we can do more in this, but we do take net-zero very seriously. The government is treading well a very fine line between people on the one hand who say we’re not working hard enough, we’re not achieving enough, quickly enough. And people on the other hand saying it’s going to be too costly, it’s too difficult and what is climate change anyway? I think we’ve got a really good balance, and we’re making progress.”

While Kwarteng is quick with a laugh and joke, he doesn’t come across as a man to get overly-excited by things – yet he has arguably one of the most important and fast-moving briefs in government. So what excites him most about decarbonisation?

“When I look back at the last 25 years, the world has been transformed,” he says. “All the things we take for granted, Netflix, Facebook, iPhones, fibre broadband, were developed, and they fundamentally changed our world and the way we live our lives. The next 20 years, it’ll be even more accelerated, it will be completely transformational, and it’ll be focused on this decarbonisation agenda.”

As he dashes off to ensure both he and his driver can catch the game, Kwarteng certainly leaves the impression of a man on a mission – the challenge will be keeping everyone happy along the way. 


[Picture of Lord Deben Credit: Alamy]

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