LONDON — There are so many Jews at the top of Britain’s Conservative party, Prime Minister David Cameron once quipped, that it should be known as the Torah party rather than the Tory party.
With the announcement last Wednesday that Ian Livingston was selected as trade and investment minister and elevated to the House of Lords, Cameron has appointed to the government possibly its most committed Jew yet, and certainly its most outspoken supporter of Israel — which Livingston has called “the most amazing state in the world.”
Livingston, 48, is one of Britain’s most visible business leaders, widely credited with steering telecom giant BT (formerly British Telecom) through the global downturn as its chief executive. Wednesday’s announcement of his departure from the company, which will take effect in September, immediately wiped £400 million ($618 million) off its market value.
In his new role as trade minister, which he will take up in December, Livingston will promote UK trade globally and attract investment in the British economy. He is replacing Lord Green, an ordained priest in the Church of England who is approaching retirement, and he was personally handpicked for the trade minister job by Cameron, who said Livingston “will bring huge talent to a vital national effort.”
Other top Jewish figures in the Conservative party include co-chairs Lord Feldman and Grant Shapps MP, who has defined himself as “quite observant,” senior treasurer Howard Leigh, a member of the Jewish Leadership Council; and former party treasurers Richard Harrington MP and Lord Fink, another member of the JLC.
Livingston leads an active Jewish life, regularly attending an Orthodox shul, Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue just outside London. He is a well-known supporter of Israel and of Jewish charities, in recent years hosting or speaking at events for high school Yavneh College, the United Jewish Israel Appeal, human rights NGO Rene Cassin, and Jewish business incubator TraidE, among other causes.
In October 2011, in a pre-Rosh Hashanah round-table discussion for the Jewish Chronicle newspaper, Livingston said that he keeps a kosher home and that his two children, Alastair and Emma, “have chosen a reasonably Orthodox path.” Asked to describe and rank the three key determinants of his identity, he replied, “Jewish, Scot, male.”
In that same discussion, asked for a Jewish New Year’s wish, Livingston said he hoped to see the start of “a path to peace for Israel. There is so much to celebrate in Israel. It is the most amazing state in the world and the downside or the pity of it is that it is turning into something slightly different. I don’t think there is a huge amount of time to start treading that path and I hope the next year actually starts to do so.”
According to his former rabbi, Naftali Brawer, now CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation, “Ian is an extraordinarily bright guy with a real sense of commitment to wider society. The fact that he’s leaving BT at the peak of his tenure in order to take up public service speaks volumes.
“He takes his Jewishness very seriously, drawing on Jewish values and texts. Chair of BT is an extremely high-profile position in the UK, but Ian and his wife Debbie are the most humble people. They are fantastic parents, great friends, and live in the community with everyone else. There are no airs about them.”
Livingston is not a supporter “of the current Israeli government,” he said during the Jewish Chronicle discussion. “If there is a Labour government in Israel, I am happier. I can be more emotionally attached to it,” he said, but he stressed that this did not dramatically change “my approach and attitude to Israel, any more than saying because I might disagree with the actions of the British government in some places, it somehow makes me less British.”
During his time at BT Livingston dismissed calls by charity War on Want for the company to disassociate itself from the Israel telecom company Bezeq, and told The Jewish Chronicle: “I have not received a single email from anyone in War on Want expressing any concerns about a relationship we may or many not have had in Syria, in Libya or anywhere else. You wonder and ask yourself repeatedly: Why is it? Is it anti-Americanism? Is it anti-Semitism? Is it anti-Zionism where they treat Israel differently? … That is a discomfort I feel just now. It is not a personal discomfort. It is a discomfort about something in society.”
Shortly after his appointment as chief executive in 2008, he hosted a dinner for 19 Israeli hi-tech firms who showcased their products in the BT Tower.
“The relationship with Israel is good for BT because it means making money,” he told guests. “It is not just Israel as a partner for innovation, but as a partner for business.”
Livingston, who was born in Glasgow in 1964, has long been regarded as a wunderkind. His mother Rhoda was the long-time secretary of Scotland’s oldest shul, Garnet Hill, while his father was a respected GP before his retirement. By age 19 he had graduated from the University of Manchester with a degree in economics, and after several years working in accounting and banking, became the youngest-ever financial director of a FTSE-100 company, the Dixons Group, at 32.
In his five years as chief executive of BT, he oversaw a program of cuts that saw the company’s debt drop by over a fifth, and share price rise from 75p to more than £3.
With much of his pay packet depending on share price performance, he pocketed almost £10 million last year, it was reported last month, but his new government position will be unpaid.
Livingston’s other great passion is Glasgow’s Celtic football club, where he sits on the board. According to someone who has known him well for many years but did not want to be identified, “He has been known to come back from places as far away as Brazil to make a match and then go back.
“If he has sharp elbows, he deployed them in the world of business,” they added. “In his personal life, he is very family-minded, quiet, self-effacing and soft-spoken. He’s a real mensch.”