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In conversation with Lord Syed Kamall

Updated: May 23

Lord Syed Kamall has been a Life Peer at the House of Lords since 2021. He is currently a member of the Communications and Digital Committee, which considers the media, digital and creative industries – including the rapid development of AI.


Between 2005 and 2019, Lord Kamall served as Member of European Parliament for London. He was Leader of the European Conservatives from 2013 to 2014, then becoming Leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists from 2014 to 2019.


In this interview, Lord Kamall talks about his role in European Parliament, how his support for Brexit arose and whether Brexit has been implemented effectively. He also discusses the opportunities and challenges posed to political journalism by AI, providing gems of advice for budding young politicians.


How did you first get into politics?


I think I was always interested in politics. My father was very political – not party-political, but there were lots of political programmes across the three or four TV channels we had in the 1980s, and my father used to watch them all. I found out afterwards that his father had stood for election in Guyana in the 1950s, so maybe that's where it came from.


When I was at school and then at university, I found myself getting elected and appointed to positions. I was a form captain at one stage and I was an elected onto the school council. Then when I went to university, I became the president of my halls of residence. I studied electrical and electronic engineering and the students of the department elected me to be their representative for the student guild – or student council.


I just found myself getting elected and representing people.


I went to a university quite left-of-centre and I found myself disagreeing with more and more of the student union’s positions. A friend of mine said to me: ‘You're a Conservative." My replay was "there is no way I'm a Conservative." I was a working-class kid and assumed we were all left wing.''


I became more and more neutral when I left university. When I did my Masters’, I joined the Tory Reform Group which is a left of the Tory Party organisation.


In 1991 I joined my first local party. When I was doing my PhD from 1991 to 1994 in Lambeth, I joined the local Conservatives there. They suggested that I stood for local council, so I stood for local council in 1994 and it went from there.



Since then, you've been elected to the European Parliament, you're now a Lord and you've served in various ministerial roles. Was it all what you expected?


That's a really good question because sometimes you forget what you expected.


I did not know whether I'd be in politics that long, but I thought – and this might sound cliché – I want to be true to myself. So, I thought, will there be a difficult time which would make it challenging for me to continue?


After I left as Leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists, I had been promised that I would be put in the Lords. They didn't put me in the Lords at the time, but they promised it, so I thought, that's it, I’ve had a good run. If anyone had told a 16-year-old Syed Kamall that you’ll be in European Parliament, you'll be Leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists, leader of the third largest group, but that will be it – I thought I’d have taken that.


So, I assumed I'd retired in 2019 – and then I got the phone call in December 2020 asking me to come back. It was quite funny because I remember at the dinner table my eldest son said to me and my wife: Daddy, I knew they would never let you go.


I've talked to lots of young people and the main advice I give them is, firstly, why are you going into politics? What's the issue that’s driving you? Be true to yourself – that's difficult.


If you're religious and you go to a mosque or a synagogue or a church or another holy place for that quiet moment of contemplation – but even if you're not religious – you look at yourself in the mirror every day and say: can you live with yourself? Sometimes it's quite challenging.


Secondly, join the party that you agree with most – or disagree with least. You're not going to agree with everything. I have friends at all parties who have sometimes found their party leadership’s strategy or policies challenging.



Do you have a favourite role that you've had in your political career so far? If so, why?


One of the things that really inspires me is when local people see a problem in the local community that they tackle themselves. Some politicians will look at it and say that's community conservatism, local liberalism or co-op socialism.


I love local civil society and people who solve the problem locally. So, when you look at the non-state sector, of course we've got private companies but you've also got large NGOs and they do a good job – but that's not where my passion is. My passion is people in the local community and there are two sorts: those who campaign and want the council to spend more money in the area – and that’s fine – but my real passion is people who see a problem and want to solve it themselves.


Consequently, I was very lucky to be the Minister for Civil Society. It was my dream job and I was really looking forward to it. I wish I'd had it longer than a month!



Would you like to talk a little bit about what you did as the Minister for Civil Society?


It’s quite funny because I remember being really proud of our country and my party to have the first non-white Prime Minister – and then he sacked me. So, as they say, be careful what you wish for.


But I was really trying to understand the landscape of the country. There are things called community foundations that help people and local projects. I was trying to understand where they work well, where they don't work well and trying to work out how we can fill the gaps where there isn't a community foundation.


I was looking at the idea of creating a portal where you put in your postcode if you want to set up a local charity; you are then signposted to someone who can have that first conversation to start helping you set up a project. They could explain the feasibility, introduce you to someone else who's done it locally who might want to expand; or you could bring in a lawyer, you bring in an accountant, you bring in a donor, you bring in a landlord who could help them set up that local community project.


That's really what I want to look at more. I'm still interested in that area outside of the arena and trying to work with as many local community projects as I can, and just be a voice and then help them in any way.


I was also the Minister for Heritage which was fun because when my father came to Britain in the 1950s, he worked for the railways and then he worked on the buses, and I was so excited about Heritage railways. Then I was a Minister of Tourism – but that was all within one month and I would like to have done that role longer, but it wasn’t to be.



From 2005 to 2019, you were a member of European Parliament for London; then you were Leader of the European Conservatives 2013-2014, becoming Leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists 2014-2019 which involved campaigning for more open trades, tech start-ups and proportionate financial regulation.


The obvious blockbuster question… what was it like being the UK's most senior Conservative MEP during the turbulent twilight phase of Britain's presence in the EU?


It was a very interesting time because I was the leader of the third largest pan-European group. What was interesting was that a lot of other countries took the EU Parliament far more seriously than our British parliamentarians did.


I remember when I was a leader, I used to come back and do events with MPs here. I would explain to them how co-decision worked – meaning, whether you like it or not, the EU Parliament has equal power to the governments of the EU when it comes to EU legislation where there is co-decision. Of course, they said no, no, no, we have more power than the EU.


What happened a lot was that Prime Ministers, sometimes royalty, sometimes Ministers from other EU countries, would ask to meet the leaders of the large groups when they came to the European Parliament. When they came to see me, because I’m British and a Conservative, they would want to talk about Brexit and other negotiations. I was talking to our negotiators as well and I was talking to Michel Barnier, and I quickly became what people now call an interlocutor behind the scenes. I was not a negotiator; I was trying to give some advice to our team. They didn't necessarily agree with me – let's put it that way – and I just found myself sending messages back and forth.


Sometimes there were little things. I remember the President of the European Parliament came up to me and he said: oh, I texted David Cameron after he won the election and he hasn't replied. He probably had thousands of texts, but I sent a little message back to Number 10 saying could you reply. A week later, he [the President] comes up to me and said thank you very much, he's replied now. Especially when the negotiations got difficult and Theresa May came in, I tried to help as much as possible behind the scenes by talking to a number of different people.


I was not a negotiator – I'm not going to puff up my involvement – but because I was British and the leader of the third-largest group, I found myself talking to a lot of ministers and being an interlocutor whilst ironing out misunderstandings on both sides.


Sometimes I'd be asked: why are the British people doing this? We’ve seen this in the press. And I would have to explain what happened and this is how it was being reported. British people would ask me, 'why are they [the EU] being so mean to us?' I would explain that they were not being mean to us - just being tough negotiators.


But you’ve got to understand this is not a simple discussion over a cup of tea. For their [the EU] part, it was almost existential. If we left and other countries left as well, it could be the end of the EU. So, you've got to understand how challenging it was for them.


It all took a lot out of me, but it was a really interesting time. I had lots of people speaking to me and I tried to connect people, smooth out misunderstandings, and I tried to propose solutions sometimes by working with Number 10. A fascinating time.

(Photo: Europinion / left to right, Dan Sillett, Lord Syed Kamall and Will Kingston-Cox / 19.2.2024 / Millbank, London)

One of the reasons for Brexit, which you sort of touched on there, is that Britain didn't really have the same place in the EU as a lot of countries did – being separated by the English Channel and having different viewpoints and ways of life.


Did you think that negotiating with UK and EU policymakers highlighted that, or is the divide perhaps not as big as people suggest?


I entered the European Parliament May 2005, just after the French and the Dutch voted no in the referendum [to ratify the proposed European Constitution]. I remember it happened pretty quickly for me to realise how different we viewed things. We were supposed to be having a reflective debate. Why did the Dutch and the French, two of the strongest advocates for the EU and founding members, vote no?


At the time, we were in a group called the European People's Party, which was a group of Christian Democratic parties. The leader, Hans-Gert Pöttering, addressed that meeting and said that "nothing must be allowed to get in the way of the European project and European political and economic integration."


I turned to my colleagues in the room and I said, that's not what the British people believe. We came in because it’s a free trade area. And my EU colleagues in the room turned to me and said, are you mad?


I realised then that we had a fundamentally different view of the European project. For many of them, it was a project towards political integration. Some of them talked about a federal European Republic. But it was all about a supernatural state: a single currency, the flag, the anthem; proposals for an EU army, EU FBI. These were steps to a European Federal Republic.


What I was really shocked about was that there were British MEPs of all political parties, including my own, who would support the project while in Brussels and then come home and pretend it wasn't about political integration. In fact, the only one who was really honest about it was a Lib Dem MEP Andrew Duff, who said exactly the same thing on both sides of the Channel. He would come here and make the case for the European project [of political integration] and I thought he was brave and honest about that – even though I didn’t agree with it.



How different is the conduct of business in the House of Lords or the House of Commons compared with the European Parliament? Is one more effective than the other?


I quite like adversarial politics – not in a name-calling way, but to challenge arguments and hold the government to account. But one of the things that I got to do [in the European Parliament] and became not bad at was building coalitions.


Because no one has the majority, you have to build coalitions. Sometimes on the very same bill you might be building coalitions on one hand with the socialists and the Greens on things like transparency. On the other hand, you'd be building coalitions with the liberals and the Christian Democrats.


I think, having done that for 14 years, I would have found the adversarial nature of the House of Commons difficult. Similarly, in the House of Lords we have no majority, so I have to try and find compromises or say something at the dispatch box to assuage people.


I remember I was at an event in the House of Commons and I said something to a young lady who was a Labour assistant. She asked a question and I wanted to talk to her about it – but she looked at me with hostility. I thought, have I said something wrong? I was later talking to a Conservative MP about it and he said, Syed, you've got to understand it's very different down this end. We're much more tribal, much more adversarial.



Do you think a little bit of each would be more beneficial to British Parliament?


I'm sure they do come to compromise in the Commons – I have seen MPs from different parties get on very well with each other.


It's a really interesting model because, after the war, one of the proposals to rebuild the Commons was for a hemicycle – the same as the European Parliament. Lots of parliaments are actually not adversarial like we are, as they all sit on the same side of the chamber.


I think it works for us, but personally I now try to build coalitions.



How did your support for Brexit come about?


The European Conservatives & Reformists Group were not in favour of Brexit. David Cameron wanted to set up this new group because, when we were in the European People’s Party, they were in favour of further integration and believed to a certain extent in a federal European Republic.


David Cameron didn't want that. He said that we can't say we're against fully-fledged European integration in Britain and then we join the European People’s Party which is very much in favour of this further integration.


You've got the two extremes. You've got the people who want the European project and you’ve got the people who want to blow up the whole thing and abolish the EU. We thought there was a way to reform the EU. We thought the EU should do less – it should focus on where it can bring real benefit, but it should stop trying to take more and more power in areas that didn't have competence in, such as health and education. Our view was to reform the EU, but we didn't want to see an end to it.


Of course, I was the leader of the group, but I had to make a decision what I was going to do personally. When I was an MEP, I used to publish pocket guides. I did one about how the European Parliament works, how the EU works, trade, finance – and one on the referendum. I gave eight good arguments for leaving the EU and eight good arguments for remaining.


During the campaign, I went into public meetings and I hadn't publicly declared my position because I hadn't completely made up my mind. I was still balancing the arguments on both sides.


I came under a lot of pressure, of course, to declare one way or the other. I did declare to leave. That was a really interesting moment and I did offer to resign as leader of the group, but they wanted me to stay as leader.


It’s one of those things where, when I was asked, I said to people that you've got to be true to yourself. And I didn't want to be in my rocking chair on the porch and look back on this referendum, knowing I didn’t really vote the way I felt about it.


Now, what I also say is that there were good arguments on both sides and bad arguments on both sides. I think what lost it for the Remain campaign was that they didn’t set out the sort of EU they wanted. Two people who were very close to me started the campaign as Remain and ended up voting Leave because they were just shocked the Remain campaign did not make the effort to properly explain why we should remain.



What were your main motivations for us to leave the EU?


I always thought that was a completely different view on both sides of the Channel about the EU. We kept talking about transactions and trade. But the papers such as the Financial Times or The Economist were not honest about this. They kept saying, 'oh, you’re leaving the biggest trade area.' But it’s not just a trade area. There’s a political integration part of it as well.


You've got to remember that the Financial Times editors at the time were all very pro-EU. We used to joke that the Financial Times was the in-house newspaper of the European Commission. It was biased, but it was entitled to be biased.


My personal view really came down to a couple of key things.


One is that I don't think we [the political class] could ever be honest about what EU is about. There's a really good book by Hugo Young called This Blessed Plot which I know people on both sides said was a really good assessment.


I thought there was going to be something that we were going to clash with. I thought it might be something like, one day, we'd have to change speed limit signs to kilometres an hour or we might be asked to change the side of the road we drive on.


The other thing for me was immigration. If you look at immigration, it was far more granular than people say. On the Remain side, there were people quite relaxed about open borders. But there were also people who liked the fact that we gave preference to people with European passports. We didn't call that immigration, we just called it freedom of movement – and most of them happened to be white Europeans. This is what I call polite racism – the idea of the superiority of Europeans.


On the other side, on the Leave side, there were three types of people on immigration. First, those who wanted no immigration whatsoever. Now, did I feel comfortable that I was agreeing with people on this side? No. But I would have felt uncomfortable on the Remain side as well with the polite racists.


Then there were those – I think the majority of people – who were not against immigration, just that we had no control because if you had a European passport, you could walk in. But if you came from another part of the world, there were some barriers. And for me, I did not like the fact that we gave priority to Europeans over non-Europeans – especially when you think about recent history in our country and the contribution made by people in the Commonwealth in rebuilding Britain after the war.



With that in mind, did the strength of UKIP make your job more difficult because they represented the more extreme side of the immigration debate?


UKIP was interesting because they put a lot of pressure on me in European Parliament and asked how we were going to vote. I was a bit worried about UKIP, particularly in the referendum campaign, because I didn't like some of the stuff they were putting out – like that unpleasant racist poster.


I thought, are you deliberately trying to lose us the campaign because going around talking to people in London at public meetings, people were genuinely torn. And I just thought, please do not portray us as just wanting to close the borders and wanting to define ourselves against the other.



Do you think Brexit has delivered almost a decade after the vote?


It hasn’t lived up to its potential and I’m furious about that.


An interesting phenomenon I picked up at public meetings was the distinction between soft Remainers and soft Leavers. The soft Remainers were people who said there's an awful lot about the EU that I don't like and I think we should drop out, but I’m worried about the short to medium-term impact – so I'm going to vote Remain. There were also people who were very uncomfortable about the unpleasant side of the Leave campaign.


The other side of it – the soft Leavers – was the people who liked a lot about the EU but were worried about the long-term impact of staying. Therefore, they were going to vote Leave. It’s very interesting because you had natural Leavers voting to Remain, and natural Remainers voting to Leave.


I have faith in the collective wisdom of the British people. I can’t stand the people who say people were smart enough to elect me but too stupid to know how to vote properly in

a referendum.


But I think we have not delivered the potential we could have delivered. When I was the Minister for Health and Life Sciences, people would say that, although they didn’t vote Leave, they could see the advantages of leaving and wanted to make sure we take advantage of it. I'm slightly annoyed at Boris Johnson because he had a good majority and he blew it, frankly.


I'm pleased that we are going around the world and signing trade agreements. I’m pleased that, despite people like Joe Biden who’s clearly anti-British and doesn’t want to sign a trade agreement with us, we’re still doing deals directly with states. But I still think there's so much more that we could have done.


But of course, you've got to remember both camps were coalitions. So, whatever happened, there were going to people unhappy about it.


It was never going to happen overnight. We've been part of the EU for 40-odd years. There's a lot of complications and some things the EU did, we probably still wanted to do. I hope there will be a stage where people recognise that we are still neighbours.


All this nonsense about if we leave then no one will talk to us is not true. You have to talk to whichever government is in power. The pragmatic reality is that governments of all political colours have to talk to each other.



Let’s move onto your role in the Communications and Digital Committee – the select committee of the House of Lords with the scope to consider the media, digital and creative industries.


A key issue at the moment is AI. In the Committee’s first report of the 2023-24 session, they say that AI will “introduce epoch-defining changes comparable to the invention of the internet”. While the Committee supports the government’s overall approach, they say the government has “pivoted too far towards a narrow focus on high-stakes AI safety”.


With this in mind, do you think AI – this epoch-defining moment – is getting enough attention in the right ways?


I think the problem is that we can always say we should all be doing more – but what’s enough?


When we had the witnesses, they liked the way Britain has the opportunity here to actually take on the best of the rest of the world. You don’t have to follow the EU model, the US model, or the Chinese model. You can be much more liberal.


My concern is – and we had this in the EU – that we have something called the precautionary principle. And we heard more about precautionary principle than the innovation principle. So I’m worried that we may have pivoted too far towards AI safety in this country; although important, we should also be talking about the opportunities as well.


People are always predicting that new technology will destroy jobs. Yes, it might – but there will be completely new jobs. We didn't have a mobile phone industry years ago, but we had a massive coal mine industry and a massive steel industry. We have a large service industry now.


What do we need in this country? We need more data scientists. We need more tech people. That might mean that some industries will close down, or that lots of junior jobs will be replaced by bots. But that also opens up huge opportunities. The challenge with all of these things is to make sure the people who lose out have the ability to retrain or find a new role.


Europinion is a political journalist platform, especially for younger budding journalists. How do you think AI might affect how political journalism is done, and how might young journalists buck the trend and still make a career in the industry?


That's really interesting and I genuinely don't know. I think there will be people who would probably say there will be some stage where LLMs [large language models] could write most of the articles.


But the problem is there are weaknesses to LLMs. They hallucinate. And they are not intelligence. It is wrong to call it intelligence. It's analysis of datasets.


Now, it will become more intelligent, according to some people, but I think we have to find a comfort level here. It can probably do lots of basic accounting stuff. It can probably do lots of initial legal stuff. Some of the chatbots are getting much better now. But you always have to have someone behind it – I still think we need to have a human backstop to it.


I would hate to think that you have a situation where, for example, you go to the NHS and it's all AI and there is no one accountable for it, with no one to speak to or look into any problems. There will always be mistakes. No software, no IT is 100% fool proof – a very valid point made by the Horizon scandal. So, I think there has to be human accountability at all stages to make sure that, when things go wrong, there's a human to talk to.


So, I think there will still be a future for journalism. I don't know whether this means a different way of doing things. What stuff can you write that an LLM can't write? But if you are new to a subject, using AI is not a bad way to give yourself a starter knowledge – but then you need to verify the facts.


I know people have started writing articles based on AI and maybe use it to improve writing style. But I still think that we have some fantastic wordsmiths, and it may take some time to reach the skill level of a fabulous writer.


I'm one of these people that has immense optimism about human ingenuity. We're flawed, we do lots of silly things, but the breakthroughs that we can make are just incredible.


What advice might you give to young people hoping to pursue a career in politics?


One thing I’d say is you have to probably join a political party if you want to be a party politician. But it is interesting that political parties are not as popular as they used to be, mainly because a lot more people are interested in single issues – so maybe a single-issue group is for you.


If you want to change your world, think about how you want to do it. Do you want to do it by being a politician? Do you want to go and make a huge amount of money and then spend your money on something you care about? There are different ways – you don't have to go into party politics.


It can take a toll on your family and your friends, so make sure that your partner understands the price you have to pay. Get some pretty clear guidelines from them in terms of the vetoes. For example, if you are trying to be an MP, they might say that they don't want to live outside of a certain area and so on.


And why are you going into politics? Ask yourself that question. Don’t just go into it wondering that it will make a nice career, thinking: what should I do? Should I do accounting? Should I be a lawyer? Should I be a deep-sea diver? No, I'll be a politician. You need to know what it is that’s driving you. What's the thing that you want to pursue?


For me, for example, I knew that I came from a very diverse and different background. Lots of people used to say that we can't do anything in this country because of our colour or our working-class background. And my dad would say to me, you can do anything you want. You just want to believe in God, believe in yourself, and work hard.


Quite often, I go and speak in schools where not many people go to university and say: I’m 57-years-old now, and I was like you 40 or 45 years ago. You can all do what I can do. Hopefully we'll get more people breaking more barriers and we'll get a far more diverse set of politicians.

Image: European Conservatives and Reformists Group Making Europe Work Again

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