In the first Marlborough Monday of 2021 140 people gathered to watch Jonny Oates (PR 1982-87), currently the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Energy and Climate Change, in conversation with Tom Newton Dunn (C2 1986-91), Presenter and Chief Political Commentator for Times Radio. The evening was hosted by the Club President Catherine Stewart (LI 1974-76). Tom had become Jonny’s spurring partner when he was the Political Editor of the Sun and Jonny worked for the LibDems. The conversation this evening focused on Jonny Oates’ book ‘I Never Promised You a Rose Garden’ which gives a frank insight into his fascinating personal and professional life – from his time at Marlborough struggling with mental health issues and his sexuality to his political career stretching from Apartheid South Africa to the UK Coalition Government.
Tom started with Jonny’s time at Marlborough when as a troubled 15-year-old he ran away to Ethiopia in 1985 hoping to help out with the famine crises but found it a dangerous country to be in. He was rescued by an Anglican priest who gave him an important realisation for his mental health: ‘You are more precious than you are prepared to believe.’ Later on he worked in Zimbabwe and travelled to South Africa under the Apartheid Government which left a lasting impression and led to his return to South Africa in 1999 as an advisor to the first democratic parliament. He even met Nelson Mandela and was privileged to be at the last speech of his Presidency.
This thread of being a ‘magnet for trouble’ as Tom called it but also a witness to key historical events ran through his time in the former Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution too. Jonny was involved in the student protests and was actually in the Magic Lantern Theatre when Vaclav Havel resigned in 1989 and so amazingly witnessed the fall of that Communist Dictatorship.
The conversation then moved to Jonny’s fascinating career in UK politics. He joined the Liberals as soon as he left school – was a Councillor for Kingston and ran various election campaigns amongst other things but then became the Director for Communications for the LibDems in 2008 before being promoted in 2010 to Chief of Staff for Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition Government with Cameron. He described how it was ‘as frustrating a time as it was fulfilling’ given the endless ‘events’ that happen in politics and the crises for the party at the time. He was, however, able to further his passion for International Development during this period.
The evening followed with questions from the audience including the number of Etonians and Wykehamists being in politics and why did Jonny think there was such a small number of OMs! Needless to say Jonny replied it was perhaps because OMs were ‘humbler folk’! Catherine asked about women getting into politics and how it could be made easier. The focus then turned to Jonny’s current role as the LibDem Spokesperson in the House of Lords for Climate Change and Energy. He explained his role has two parts- talking to cutting-edge UK companies leading the way as also trying to hold the government to account on actions towards the zero target. The House of Lords was the next focus. We learnt that Jonny has spent much of his time in politics trying to reform the House of Lords. But the evening ended with a final question: what advice would he give to young people struggling with mental health issues today. Jonny suggested that over time one learns different coping strategies, to stick with it but also to remember what he had been taught: ‘Remember how many people around you care about you and that you are important.’ Which was a lovely note to finish on.