Iain Dale is affable and easy to talk to. He seems to have the ability, which every good radio talk show host needs, of appearing knowledgeable about any subject. Dale made his name with the blog Iain Dale’s Diary, started in 2002. As a political commentator he has written for almost every publication you can imagine, including The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, The Spectator and The New Statesman — not to mention founding the magazine Total Politics. Now, amongst other things, he presents Drive on LBC 97.3 radio, which involves him broadcasting every weekday for four hours.
Having spent so much time writing and talking about Westminster, I begin by asking him his view on our current set of politicians. “I think my view has changed since I’ve become a radio broadcaster because although I can be opinionated in what I do, I’ve started to see politics how other people see politics. Certainly, when I listen to what a load of my listeners say, they think that all politicians are the same.”
It quickly becomes clear Dale sees this as a pressing issue and is particularly concerned by the increasing lack of real life experience in Parliament. “For whatever reason the parties keep picking apparatchik candidates and then promoting them very quickly through the ranks to become ministers and shadow ministers. Now, that’s easily solvable in some ways, but none of the parties actually show any inclination of wanting to solve it.” Instead, what he insists Parliament needs is people with a record of achievement.
Dale is intimately aware of these problems, having tried running for Parliament himself. He unsuccessfully contested the seat of Norfolk North for the Conservatives, at the 2005 general election. Interestingly, Dale was the first Conservative Candidate to have told the selection committee he was gay before he was selected. Reflecting on this, Dale says, “I remember after I got selected, in the autumn of 2003. I was at the Conservative conference and this young guy came up to me, it turned out he was from Oxford actually, and he said, ‘I want to thank you’ and I looked at him rather quizzically and said, ‘Well, why? I don’t know you.’ And he said, ‘What you’ve just done has made it easier for the rest of us.’ I thought, well, if I don’t actually achieve anything in politics in my life, I can think that this is something I did do, which probably paved the way for other people.” In 2010, however, Dale decided to resign from the Conservative Party candidates list and not to stand in any future elections.
Dale is an outsider to the Oxbridge elite in a profession dominated by it. He obtained a degree in German, Linguistics, and Teaching English as a Foreign Language from the University of East Anglia in 1985. When I ask whether he ever wanted to go to Oxford, his answer is a swift “no”. He says that part of the reason was he felt he would be out of place at the time.
Talking about his interaction with graduates of Oxford, he says, “People who have been to Oxford or Cambridge have a certain confidence about them — a certain element. It’s indefinable — you can almost always tell when someone’s been to Oxford or Cambridge.”
He recounts attending an interview for a job to work at the BBC’s translation unit in Caversham. “I thought I’d done absolutely fantastically and I got turned down. There may have been other reasons, but it seemed to me then I didn’t have the right background to be there. I still think it’s a little bit the same now at organisations like the BBC. If you’ve been to Oxford or Cambridge you still have an advantage over everyone else.”
Despite these setbacks Dale has ended up having a successful career as a political commentator. His interview style is quite different from many others in the media. He manages to ask pertinent questions without being aggressive and, even more unusually, allows politicians to develop their ideas at length. “I don’t believe that by shouting at politicians, that you get any answers out of them. Jeremy Paxman is a fantastic journalist, but he is only sometimes a great interviewer. There are too many interviewers who go into interviews with the intention of having a row. I can honestly say, I don’t think I’ve ever done. I believe if you treat an interview at least in part as a conversation, you’re more likely to get something out of them.” This is an approach, which has so far proved quite successful for Dale, although he concedes that he does think he should press politicians more.
For a man whose life has been so dominated by Westminster, Dale’s interests are moving beyond politics. His show focuses on many topics other than parliamentary politics, with callers phoning in to talk about issues from mental health to male attitudes to rape. He explains his shift in style since he started working at LBC in 2010. “I thought all I’d be doing was politics, but now I find I actually really enjoy these sort of emotional phone-ins. If you had told me that three years ago, I would have laughed. It wasn’t something I knew anything about, it wasn’t even something I was interested in.” Nevertheless, he notes that the shift has been successful. “Now we’ve been nominated for awards for what we do. So I often get more enjoyment out of that than I do the politics.”