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Robert Peston interview: ‘People in this country are becoming angrier – we have to regain a sense of unity’

Robert Peston appears at Off The Shelf in Sheffield on October 22. Picture: Alan Davidson
Robert Peston appears at Off The Shelf in Sheffield on October 22. Picture: Alan Davidson

Where Robert Peston goes, chaos reigns – at least, that's the way he sees it.

Following a career in newspaper journalism, he joined the BBC as its business editor and was almost immediately pitched into reporting on the financial meltdown – then, only months after becoming ITV's political editor in 2016, the UK voted for Brexit, Donald Trump became US president and both of Britain's chief parties changed leadership.

"Some would say it's not amazingly great for the country," Peston says, laughing. "But obviously it's jolly nice for me because it keeps me busy." 

His attempt at understanding how society can find a way out of chaos - a book titled, provocatively, WTF - will bring him to Sheffield's Off The Shelf festival later this month, and he has phoned to talk from the ITV studios in the middle of another frenetic day. Theresa May has given a Downing Street statement in response to EU leaders lining up to criticise her Chequers plan, and - while outlining events on TV - Peston's earpiece fell out on air, causing him to swear and sparking a mild internet sensation. He has a good ability to brush off mishaps like these, though, and he's back to coolly analysing May's predicament straight away.

"Look, she's a remarkably strong person,” he says. "I think many people in her position would have given up by now, given how isolated she seems to be within the European Union, even within her own party. But she seems to almost revel in the opposition she faces. I mean, she is extraordinary in that sense."

He's looking forward to taking questions in Sheffield, a city that voted for Brexit. The audience can expect some outspokenness - over the weekend he was in the headlines for saying the BBC was not impartial enough during the EU referendum campaign. The seismic poll result was the reason he wrote WTF in the first place. He felt a 'sense of shame', he has said, at not forseeing the outcome from his 'cosy, smug North London ghetto'.

ITV political editor Robert Peston filming a piece to camera outside No 11 Downing Street, London, on the eve of the Budget.

ITV political editor Robert Peston filming a piece to camera outside No 11 Downing Street, London, on the eve of the Budget.

"I've been a journalist for 30 years since the early 1980s, and my stock-in-trade has always been trying to predict the big trends, as it were. And I got Brexit wrong," Peston admits.

He assumed people would vote to remain in order to achieve 'the outcome that wouldn't make them a bit poorer', and was 'genuinely shocked' by the stance of those who wanted to leave - 'a majority of people on below-average incomes, people who live in council housing, the unemployed'.

"I wanted to understand why they were so angry, why they looked at what David Cameron and George Osborne were saying and just took the view it didn't matter to them. Having learned my lesson over Brexit, I did anticipate Americans would vote for Trump. But I wanted to look at why particularly those in the Rust Belt who used to work in manufacturing - again, white groups on middle to lower incomes - voted for Trump rather than the Democrats."

Less affluent people are 'rebelling', he believes, because their wages have stagnated for years. "It would be completely rational for many of those people to conclude that the likes of David Cameron or Tony Blair had not been running this place for them."

In the book, Peston sets out some potential solutions - one of which is a 'wealth tax', an annual levy of one per cent on all net assets greater than £500,000. A small number of people, he argues, own the lion's share of riches such as property. 

"It does seem to me there is a strong moral argument for shifting taxation a bit away from income and towards wealth. My proposal, for what it's worth, is that the tax would not have to be paid in cash every year; you would incur the liability, but it could be an IOU."

If the Government knows the money is coming, it can 'borrow against that certainty at very low rates of interest', Peston explains. 

"We do have a funding crisis in many of our public services. One of the other arguments in the book is this is a period in which a terrifying number of jobs are vulnerable to disappearing because robots and artificial intelligence are getting cleverer. Therefore it's vastly important we both improve the resources in schools and also change the way they're run to make our young people more adaptable to this changing world."

Health and social care are going to need more funding too, he says, 'despite the Government's generosity'. "I think the wealth tax is the fairest way to raise a good chunk of that money."

Peston also advocates a universal basic income - a sum of money paid to everyone, regardless of whether they have a job or not.

"One of the things I find deeply troubling is the way people in this country are becoming angrier. We have to regain a sense of unity. And actually, a universal guarantee of a basic income is one of the ways we might be able to re-establish a sense of collective purpose, quite apart from the fact we do have pockets of very extreme poverty in this country and we need to address them."

Labour is certainly looking at the policy but it is 'not impossible' the Conservatives could adopt it. "This is an idea whose time has come and I wouldn't necessarily assume it'll end up being the preserve of only one of our main parties."

It seems more Labour territory, though - the kind of strategy that won Jeremy Corbyn early support, before he became dogged by controversy over allegations of anti-semitism. Does Peston think Corbyn is prime ministerial material?

"Elections are funny things, and who knows how people will see Corbyn or Labour," he offers. "Underlying all this, of course, is we are living through a period of profound uncertainty."

Peston, 58, became a household name with his exclusive on the collapse of the Northern Rock bank in 2007 and for explaining the ensuing recession to viewers of BBC News, but he already had a strong pedigree. Schooled at a North London comprehensive in Crouch End, Oxford-educated and the son of the late economist Lord Maurice Peston, he worked as a stockbroker before switching to reporting on the markets, eventually spending nearly a decade with the Financial Times.

His early days at the BBC were marked by comments about his broadcasting style - "I am not going to endeavour to become somebody hugely smooth and polished," he shrugged in 2009 - and he remembers the credit crunch as an 'unbelievably intense' time. "That was seven days a week, 24 hours a day."

Things are a little different now. His ITV politics show - simply called Peston - has moved from Sunday mornings to Wednesday evenings at 10.40pm. It is shown live online at 8pm. 

There were reports viewing figures had fallen but Peston says he wanted the switch. "I'm over the moon. I'd been wrestling with the idea of how to get a bit of my private life back."

The evening repeat of his Sunday show 'had numbers of 700,000', he claims, which led him to make the case to his bosses. "Slightly to my surprise they made a decision very fast. The BBC normally takes months to make those kind of decisions. I can see my girlfriend and see my boys."

His partner is Evening Standard journalist Charlotte Edwardes; he has a son, Maximilian, with his late wife the author Siân Busby, who died of lung cancer in 2012, leaving her son from a previous marriage, Simon.

Motivated by his empathy for grieving families, in November Peston will become chairman of Hospice UK, adding to his charity work as the founder of Speakers for Schools, which sends high-flyers to talk to state pupils.

"I think it's desperately important we improve resources for people at the end of life," he says. "It's not neglected, but there's a patchwork of help for people when they know they're dying. I think it's a huge priority for us as a society that everyone gets the support they need."

The outgoing chairman is Lord Michael Howard, the former Conservative party leader. "If you'd asked me at any point in my life was I ever likely to succeed Michael Howard in any job whatsoever, I would have found that hysterically funny. It turns out life is stranger than fiction."

Robert Peston appears at Off The Shelf on Monday, October 22, at 7.30pm in Sheffield University's Octagon Centre. Tickets £10 in advance. Visit www.offtheshelf.org.uk to book.

‘We narrowly escaped utter economic catastrophe’

Britain came 'incredibly close' to societal breakdown at the height of the financial crisis 10 years ago, says Robert Peston.

After the crash of 2008, a rescue package of around £500 billion was announced by the Government to stop the banking system from imploding.

"Let's be absolutely clear, although it was an amazing time to be doing the job I was doing, coming up with scoops about what was going on, it was also a deeply troubling time," says Peston. 

"If our banks had gone bust, it would have been an utter economic catastrophe. I don't mean that in theoretical terms - millions of people would have been in dire straits. If you had a situation where people lost all their savings, where banks were unable to provide the credit businesses need to keep going, it would have been the 1930s or worse."

This horrifying situation was averted, but 'something very bad happened anyway', he emphasises. "We are living through the longest period of stagnation in living standards since the early 19th century.”