Transcript: Global Women’s Summit: The U.K.’s Rising Star

In UK News

MR. IGNATIUS: Hello. I’m David Ignatius. I’m a columnist with the Washington Post. It’s a wonderful event. I’m really glad to be here, and I’m especially pleased to be joined by Britain’s Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who has two roles in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet. She is the Secretary of State for International Trade and also the Minister for Women and Equalities.

Secretary Badenoch, welcome to the Washington Post.

SEC. BADENOCH: Thank you, David.

MR. IGNATIUS: So let’s begin by talking about your journey. You, as the video said, spent part of your childhood in Nigeria and the United States. Tell us briefly about your path to being Minister in this conservative government and how your personal experience growing up, making your way has shaped your approach to politics.

SEC. BADENOCH: Okay. So, yes, you’re absolutely right. I grew up in Nigeria. I had one year in the States, in Omaha, because my mother was working at the university there, but very much a Nigerian child who left in ’96 to come to the U.K. because of all the economic turmoil that was taking place in the country at that time.

And I grew up in a very comfortable, sort of middle-class family, and moving to the U.K., being a first‑generation immigrant, it almost always drops you down the class level. So I went from being middle- to working‑class and had to work my way back up, and it is a testament to what a wonderful country the United Kingdom is that I was able to start from there and 25 years later be sitting in front of you as Trade Secretary. It’s quite an extraordinary story.

It wouldn’t work the other way around. It’s very hard for anyone who is of foreign origin to even get citizenship in a country like Nigeria, let alone be in the Cabinet and helping to run the country.

And politics was never something that I thought about. I grew up under military governments. So there was no democracy. It just wasn’t something that happened. But living in a liberal or free democracy and seeing what stops a country from working made me very center-right. The conservative party was the natural party for me to join. And simply having the experience of people wanting you to succeed based on merit, not because of quotas or any other such thing, has really informed my politics, and it’s one of the things that I’m trying to reinforce now that I am in government.

MR. IGNATIUS: So you and your Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, give a very different, diverse face with your other Cabinet members, for the Tory Party. And I just want to ask you about the Tory Party, very much a party changing with Britain, but its immigration policy is quite traditionally conservative. It is not a party that’s welcoming immigrants. And I want you to explain that. And, is the Tory immigration policy your own, or are you somewhat different?

SEC. BADENOCH: So our migration policy is very welcoming to legal migration, less so to illegal migration, and as a government, one of the things that, you know, we should do is have secure borders. And it’s very frustrating for someone like me to talk about migration and often have it misrepresented as us not wanting anyone to come to the country. We welcome people who are skilled. We welcome people who are refugees. What we don’t welcome are people who cheat the system, who claim to be asylum seekers when they’re economic migrants, and people who abuse the system because it actually makes life more difficult for those truly vulnerable people that we’re trying to help.

And I have spoken to people who have run from dangerous places. The people they’re running from are also coming to the U.K. And if you just have an open borders policy that doesn’t distinguish or filter between those in need and those who want to exploit, it will be bad for everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable.

MR. IGNATIUS: Your country, Madam Secretary, has been through a whirlwind the last few months. And I want to ask you both about the loss of your sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, and also about the turmoil within your party, but let’s start with the death in September of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of the new King Charles III. Just tell us what that meant to you, what the monarchy means to you, whether you have any personal reflections of these two people, the late Queen and the new King, that you could share with our audience.

SEC. BADENOCH: It’s–it was a very extraordinary moment for the country because Queen Elizabeth had been there for so long. She had just become part of everybody’s lives. You know, she’s on the money that we pay with. She’s on the stamps. Her picture is everywhere. And you just sort of absorb–you absorb this icon without really recognizing just how much of an impact their presence is having on your life, and the impact is really about stability; it’s about certainty. And as we live in a world that is a lot less certain and actually feels a lot less stable, having a sovereign, a monarch, who’s there, who provides constancy, who doesn’t get involved in politics, who doesn’t pick a side, is actually really special.

And I often find family and friends who aren’t British asking: Why do you need a queen? That’s so weird. It seems medieval.

And the response is: If it’s not broken, you know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And while it is unusual, it does work.

And her dying was–I think it was actually quite emotionally traumatic for all of us. I never met her. I had met King Charles, Prince Charles as he was then; I had met Prince William and Prince Harry, within my role as Minister. And seeing the outpouring of grief reminded me also of my own loss. I lost my father earlier this year.

And having a royal family almost feels like a sort of substitute or surrogate family, and you go through life with them. You watch them when they’re born. You see them when they get married. And it’s like having a distant cousin that you haven’t met before. You know everything about their lives, and when they die you also feel the grief even when you haven’t met them.

And I was very lucky because I was in government. I was able to attend her funeral and also watch the accession, or the acclamation rather, of Prince Charles to King Charles, so being there at those special moments. We hadn’t had one of those since 1952, you know, no one in living memory, who was around, who had done that previous accession. So it’s very special indeed.

MR. IGNATIUS: That’s a moving description. I’m sorry for the loss of your father.

SEC. BADENOCH: Thank you.

MR. IGNATIUS: The other big event that happened in the last two months was the very brief, I think the briefest in history, reign of your Prime Minister, Liz Truss, who was there and then all of a sudden, she wasn’t there, and that was accompanied by a radical reaction from the financial markets to the proposals she made for significant government spending at a time of real inflation in Britain. Prime Minister Sunak, who replaced her, had opposed that program when she first announced it. I’m curious what your own view was when the program was announced, whether you, like Sunak said, I don’t think so.

SEC. BADENOCH: It’s easy for me to answer this question, or a little bit easier than it normally would, as a member of both Liz Truss’s government and Rishi Sunak’s government because I also stood for the leadership. So we were all able to make our arguments at the–at the same time, and I had known both Rishi and Liz, as I call them, for a long time because I had been their Junior Minister.

And people kept asking me, well–when they got to the final two–who should you pick? And I said, well, if you want someone who is going to be more conservation and steady, you go with Rishi, but if you want someone who is going to be a maverick and radical, go with Liz.

I was not keen on pushing tax cuts primarily as a policy. I do believe in tax cuts. I am a small-states conservative. But the problem that we had at the time of our contest was a cost-of-living crisis, inflation. And I’m an engineer by training, so systems thinking. What is the problem you’re trying to solve? And the problem we were trying to solve was a cost-of-living crisis. So my view was that tax cuts and certainly an arms race on tax cuts was not the answer.

But the thing about politics is that everybody makes their argument. When somebody wins, losers’ consent has to come into play. Everybody needs to get behind the winner. And so even though I wasn’t 100 percent convinced by the argument, I recognized that there was a good argument for the proposals which she put forward.

I think where it went wrong was not necessarily with the package but in how it was sold, and that’s why communication is so critical in politics. We didn’t bring people along with us. What Liz was trying to do was stimulate growth very quickly, to try and sort of reboost the economy, but what people heard, unfortunately, wasn’t that. What they heard was tax cuts, money for the rich. And that wasn’t what she was trying to do, but unfortunately, that’s how it came across.

And if you can’t bring people with you, you will lose not just the argument, but you will lose power. And, very sadly, that is what happened. And Liz being Liz, the sort of thing that would have taken other people a much longer period, with her being very radical, very maverick, it happened very quickly.

MR. IGNATIUS: She certainly lost the confidence of the financial markets.

So we’ll talk about your own ideas as Minister of Trade for economic policies going forward, but I want to ask you about your visit to Washington. We’re delighted that you’re here, that you’re here at this conference. You’ll be meeting with the Deputy Secretary of Treasury Wally Adeyemo, during your visit, talking about Britain’s business-friendly environment and, I’m sure, about your hopes for trade agreements. Your Ministry says that you’ll also be discussing how trade can break down barriers for women as business owners, and given our topic at this summit today, I want to ask you to explain that specifically for our audience.

SEC. BADENOCH: So it’s–it just goes back to the fundamentals and principles of what trade is about. It’s that free exchange, people being able to buy and sell as easily as possible, and removing the barriers, whether it’s tariff barriers or nontariff barriers, sort of the bureaucracy and the hoops that you have to jump through in order to sell a product.

And one of the challenges that women have as entrepreneurs is that it’s just–it’s just tougher generally, tougher because we spend more of our lives caring for others, so we tend not to be able to get going. It’s harder to access capital and, therefore, harder to travel for those reasons and, therefore, makes it more difficult to trade, to sell your goods abroad. A lot of our research shows that it’s harder to get investment.

And these aren’t things that correlate with the biology of being a woman. It’s just the reality of being a woman in terms of the lifestyles that we tend to have. And anything that we can do to liberalize trading, making it easier, will have a disproportionate benefit for women in particular, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s important for me with my dual roles.

MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask about the magnitude of your challenge. I don’t simply mean in trade here but broadly for this government in economic policy. Britain has really been struggling in recent years.

SEC. BADENOCH: Define struggle.

MR. IGNATIUS: Well, I will define struggle. I gathered some statistics with help from colleagues on present trends. They find the average Slovenian household will be better off than its British counterpart by 2024 and the average Polish family will move ahead by the end of the decade. In other words, the trend lines for Britain have been going in the wrong direction, and you can see these in any compilation of statistical evidence.

The Conservatives have been running Britain now for 12 years.

MR. IGNATIUS: So you know, this country, its trajectory is your party’s responsibility. A simple question is: How is the party that’s been running the country as it’s had these difficulties going to get Britain out of its malaise? What’s the formula for that that you would offer for this audience but more broadly?

SEC. BADENOCH: Okay. So first of all, I would challenge some of those figures. I’ve seen those statistics before that show that the trend is bad for the U.K. and less so for other countries. We don’t agree for various reasons. We’re starting from a different place in terms of base, so it depends on which specific metric, but I won’t go into the details of that.

You are right. We have been running the country for 12 years, first of all, the first 5 years as part of a conservative-liberal coalition and then under successive Prime Ministers, not just David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and now Rishi Sunak, and we have been almost regenerating while we’ve been governing. For those of you who watch Dr. Who, the series, it’s almost like, you know, we get a new doctor. This is the new Prime Minister, and each of them has had a different vision. Each of them has had a different vision which is actually tackling new problems that are coming into play.

So one of the things that I try and emphasize is that the issues have been changing. When we came into power in 2010, this was before I became a Member of Parliament. We were in the middle of a big recession. The financial crisis had just happened. There were so many issues, and those first five years were all about fixing the economy, fixing finances.

Then 2015, we have a world where everybody is angry about globalization. You would have seen it from the sort of the more Trumpian politics that was coming into play, everyone becoming more protectionist. That manifested in our country with leaving the European Union, which I, by the way, voted for, and that was us deciding–different people voting for different reasons, but us deciding that we wanted to be more global in our outlook and not locked into decision making with 27 other countries.

That used up so much political capital and political energy, just trying to do something that different. I can’t explain how tough it is. It’s like a state; it’s like, you know, New York deciding that it doesn’t want to be in the United States. Very, very tough. Very difficult decision. People misrepresenting it as xenophobia or us being inward-looking. But decisions like that, which are made for the long term, often have short‑term consequences. So there’s no denying that changing the way you do things will create some initial friction.

And just as we were raring to go, about to, you know, press go on the rocket boosters, covid happens, and we have a pandemic that really shakes the core of the country because of how our economy is structured. We look at the supply chains, for example. We look at the amount of money that we spent on furlough, paying people to stay at home, something that many other countries either didn’t do or didn’t do in quite the same way.

All of those things have had an impact, but if we were not doing well, we would not have been able to survive the pandemic. We certainly would not have been able to come out of the EU and still be trading globally. A lot of our trade is increasing across the world. It’s falling in certain places, so there’s a lot of work to do.

But you asked about the opportunities, and what we’re hoping is that things calm down in terms of all of the things that are happening–

MR. IGNATIUS: Don’t we all?

SEC. BADENOCH: –externally and just allow us to really–

MR. IGNATIUS: I think that’s a global hope.

SEC. BADENOCH: Absolutely. I think people want things to be more boring for some time to come and then we can do more.

MR. IGNATIUS: So let me ask a pointed question. When we think about the British economy, frankly, the question remains, was Brexit a good idea? And there’s some economic evidence that there’s a real economic cost to it. And I’d be interested in your views.

For example, you hear some discussion about moving closer to the European Common Commercial Policy, common standards which would make it easier to trade with Europe. Is that a good idea?

SEC. BADENOCH: Yes, common standards are a good idea. So, we didn’t leave because we didn’t want to have those common standards. Those were some of the good things about being in the European Union, and we still want to work closely with them.

So, if you were to ask me why I voted for Brexit, it was two things. The first was the discussions that were being had at EU level were about more and more political integration. You know, wanting to have a single currency was something that kept–just wouldn’t go away; wanting to have a shared army was a discussion that kept coming up. But the more close political integration we didn’t feel was working for us because when we asked for what we though were little things, we didn’t get them.

And if you think back to what happened that almost triggered the whole Brexit thing, it was us wanting to change a few things around social security and our Prime Minister, David Cameron, going to the EU, Angela Merkel in particular, and saying, well, can we have some of these changes? And the answer was, no. And for many people, there seemed to be this epiphany that we can’t even influence decisionmaking within this bloc and if they want to do more integration, maybe this is the time to get off the train. It didn’t mean that we didn’t like the group, but if we were thinking long term, looking at where is the middle class going to be in 2050; what’s the world going to look like? Maybe getting off now and allowing them to do more of what they wanted to do would be the easier thing. And that was what motivated people like me. It wasn’t an easy decision. It wasn’t because, once we left, everything would be great and perfect.

But one of the most frustrating things–and for those of you who are political, you will understand this, is having people within your party or within your particular group, whichever one it is, who make arguments that are not coherent, that make it seem as if everything is easy, that it’s just because of these bad people and if only we got rid of these bad people, everything would be okay, or these people making these decisions. It’s just not–it’s just not realistic–

SEC. BADENOCH: –there are tradeoffs for everything, and I felt that the tradeoffs for Brexit, in the long term, would be worth it.

MR. IGNATIUS: Going to ask you one last question that deals with your other portfolio as Minister of Equalities. So, a BBC headline described you–and I’m just quoting–as “anti-woke darling of the right.” And one of your first acts in this role as minister was meeting with Keira Bell who was prescribed puberty-blocking drugs at 16 but later said she regretted the decision. You got a lot of criticism for meeting her from people who felt that this was not respectful of transgender advocates in the community.

What message did you want to send in this meeting, and talk more broadly about these cultural issues as a final.

SEC. BADENOCH: Okay. So, people call me “anti-woke.” It’s actually not a word that I use. I don’t like the word “woke,” because I think it trivializes something far more serious that’s taking place. So, I like to think of myself as pro-common sense rather than anti–rather than anti-woke. And the job I have covers–protected characteristics, as we call them, there are nine of them. But some of the areas where we have the most contentious debates, on race, on religion, on sex and gender, on sexual orientation, gender reassignment, which is where the transgender category falls into, they’re all my job. And it doesn’t matter what you do in that job, somebody, somewhere is going to be angry.

And I think that one of the challenges we’ve had is the word “trans” means different things to different people. We have a definition roughly in law; it’s probably a bit outdated. But there are all sorts of people, Keira Bell being one of them, who are finding that they are being classified as trans when they aren’t. She was a lesbian. She was a gay child who read some stuff online and felt she was a boy and didn’t get the right clinical help she should have had, and the result was her breasts were removed; her ovary was removed. She was effectively sterilized. And by the time she realized, it was too late. She was very angry about that and my belief is that she didn’t get the appropriate level of care. The clinic which she went to, that service has been stopped after an investigation.

So, very serious stuff. And for anyone to say that I shouldn’t meet somebody who has had this experience doesn’t understand what the work of a politician is. I need to meet everybody. I need to understand both or all perspectives, or whatever they might be, so that I can get a clear picture. And the picture that I got was that, while we’re looking after people who are trans, or who have gender dysphoria, which is how we have been looking at the issue, we need to make sure that people who are not are not put on a pathway where they make decisions that are irreversible and which will change their lives forever. And I think that that’s a pretty common-sense position to have.

What I found amazing and extraordinary is that even saying this means that you get called a bigot; you get called anti trans. You have a lot of people attacking you who are not actually listening to what you are saying. And my response is not to be afraid and to keep pushing for what the right thing is. If people like me are too scared because of what someone says on Twitter, then we’re going to be in a really bad place. And it’s my job to defend those people who can’t defend themselves, and I’ll continue to do that.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, Secretary Kemi Badenoch, described as a rising star of the Tory government, thank you for joining us for this discussion.

We are going to turn now to Fox National Security Correspondent, Jennifer Griffin, someone who has beaten me on too many stories, a wonderful reporter, she’ll be out here shortly after this short video. Stay with us. Thanks to Secretary Badenoch.

SEC. BADENOCH: Thank you.

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