VIDEO: Say, ‘Yes, Minister!’ Talking culture over coffee with Oliver Ballhatchet MBE
The ‘MBE’ title implies a lot of good work that Oliver Ballhatchet has done on issues from counter-terrorism to global climate change. But all that belies his sparkling sense of humour.
Oliver Ballhatchet MBE is warming up to the prospect of playing an Englishman in Chennai. As the new Deputy High Commissioner in the city, representing the UK in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, Oliver has a keen eye for good conversation, even as he keeps tabs on a host of global affairs.
His profile is noteworthy, including stints in counter-terrorism, and working in Brazil on energy and global climate change. Oliver was posted in Rio de Janeiro, and also served with UK’s UN Peacekeeping Joint Unit, before he moved to India.
If all that isn’t impressive enough, you could still sit down for a chat on British comedies, picking favourites between Nigel Hawthorne and John Cleese. That’s exactly what we did, while also drawing his attention to a few serious issues...
You’re fairly new to Chennai...
It has been two and a half months since I moved to Chennai. I love it here. There’s fantastic food. The weather is nice and warm. We’re near the beach, and the people are really nice!
But you’ve been to India before?
Yes! After university, I spent three months teaching in a junior school in Patiala, Punjab. I got to travel a lot around India too, mostly by train.
Tell us a bit about your overall agenda in Chennai.
We carry out a lot of different functions here. The one that most people know of is our visa operations. We also have a trade section which helps people conduct business between India and the UK. Then we have the prosperity section, which works on different policy issues.
For example, we worked with the TN government recently on the electric vehicles policy, and we have a consular section, which looks after British nationals who are here.
And we also have a communications and political section, where we monitor the situation in the UK, which is quite topical at the moment.
What do you prefer - watching theatre or cricket?
When you're living in London, you're kind of spoiled for choice, when it comes to theatre. But I must confess that I haven't gone to many. I've seen the classics like Les Miserables, but I prefer going to watch sports in my spare time.
Watching cricket in England is a more sobre affair. You just sit with your book and paper, and just kind of watch, and maybe towards the end, it can get quite animated.
But in India, everyone's on their feet dancing and cheering right from the first ball, so I'm quite looking forward to watching cricket here!
Have you begun to embrace the Indian way of life?
One thing I've tried to embrace is the traditional dress. I went to an event on the first weekend that I was here in a dhoti, and after 10 minutes of walking around the room, I got the best-dressed award. Now, I've started quite a collection of kurtas and Nehru jackets as well.
Tell us about your special areas of interest in Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Nadu is home to many industries - automotive, healthcare. I think the state produces most of the textiles, and other traditional industries, which the British industries are very interested in.
But there are also modern industries like tech, renewable energies and robotics - all areas where we cultivate partnerships rather than transactions. We talked about climate change as well, and renewable energy is one of the solutions that we can partner on.
What’s the most striking thing you’ve found about people in India? Have you had a Yes, Minister moment yet?
What I love about India really is that you’ve maintained your manners of expression, which we don’t say anymore. It’s similar to how people spoke in my childhood, or even before that!
When it comes to comedy, you’re not the first person to mention Yes, Prime Minister and we had a lot of Fawlty Towers, and the Monty Python series. Life of Brian was controversial, of course, but I found them hilarious growing up. We could celebrate the old, classic sitcoms and movies... Maybe we should start showing them here!
You came to India right in the middle of the festival season. Did you get to draw any parallels with the carnivalesque atmosphere of Brazil?
There are a lot of comparisons between Brazil and India. They’re both big countries that are like archipelagos, in a way. They are one country, but their cities are quite different. For example, the people in Rio and São Paulo are very different, in the same way that the people in the South and in the North of India are very different, or even between cities in the South.
There are a lot of similarities, albeit they’re very different as well. And then, you’ve got this obsession with sport! Here, it’s cricket and there, it’s football. They both have wonderful bio-diversity, and they are both very important for the future of the planet, and the climate debate.
It’s a coincidence that my daughter was born during the Rio carnival in Brazil, and my son was born during Diwali here. So, we have some carnival babies!
Watch the video!
You have a deep-rooted interest in sustainable architecture...
Absolutely. It's interesting that architects are looking back to nature, to see how anthills remain ventilated, even in very hot conditions, to see if you can ventilate buildings without the need for air-conditioning.
It's about thinking about these things from the start, so you're not having to retro-fit solutions like big-energy. I used to live in Peru and there, the Incas used to build - cause it's an earthquake zone - they used to put rollers in the foundations of the buildings, so that the walls could flex if there was a quake.
It was quite advanced architecture that we're still not using today despite earthquakes still being there. And also buildings that are more self-sufficient that harvest rain-water, and supply the dirty water that they need to maintain the buildings. This is something that is very important to us.
How are you geared towards positive action, when it comes to climate change?
For all of us, if we’re going to tackle climate change, we have to all be convinced of the economic case for it.
The British economist Nicholas Stern did a report, a decade ago, which showed that for every pound, rupee and dollar we spent to mitigate climate change, we’d save that 10 times over in the future.
If we have to respond later, that’s going to cost us a lot of money. That is an economic case. But we, human beings, aren’t great at long-term thinking... we can sort of imagine it, and be convinced at an academic level, but then we get on with what makes sense to us, in the next year or two.
In the UK, for instance, we have the conditions, with shallow waters and lots of wind in the North Sea — that makes for something economically viable.
So, we can save money, and potentially save the planet. That’s the economic argument we need to make — that you can save money now, and that’s the only thing that’s going to win. There’s rhetoric and a lot of people might disagree with climate change, and they might do so, as they fear the economic impact.
You’re also involved with initiatives to promote gender equality.
That’s very important to me, and the UK government — as it should be to everybody. Recently, we advertised for women across India, of age 18-23, to replace all seven Commissioners across India for a day, by talking about gender equality.
I hope in the future, we don't have to talk about it, because it will just be normal then. Personally, I have a 3-year-old daughter, and I hope she never hears the words ‘gender equality’, as it’s completely normal by them. Women should not have to justify their place.
What's your take on the idea of a female James Bond?
Isn't there a controversy about whether there should be a female James Bond? It'll be fine, I don't understand why people are so bothered about that.
People say that wasn't what Ian Fleming intended when he wrote it, that he didn't write about a female Bond, so are we going to stay true to what Ian Fleming wrote forever? I think it'll be great to see. I think we had a female Dr Who, so this will be great to see.
Do you have an overview of global current affairs, that you could share with us?
It’s a very interesting time for the world. In the US, in the UK, and in India, the politics is energised as it seems, and we’re more divided than ever before.
I don’t know if that’s just perception or reality, or if it’s being pushed by social media, or what’s really causing it, but we seem to have lost the ability to listen to each other. We’ve all gotten very good at talking, posting and publishing, but we’re not doing too well at listening to other people.
We need to have more debates instead of arguments — an argument is basically shouting your opinion, and hoping the other person understands. Whereas, if we have more discussions, where you’re listening as well as talking, we might actually get ourselves out of this situation.
But it’s worrying to see the direction we’re heading in, where we’re all so polarised — both at the top of politics, and down in the street.
How have things changed, in your eyes, with access to information for everybody?
It's an irony isn't it, when we thought that access to information would make us smarter. And it has empowered us, but it has empowered everybody to put out information and opinions. What that means is that we're saturated, and that means short attention spans.
And with short attention spans, people edit to capture the attention span. And when they edit, they distort the facts, they distort the meaning, take it out of context and we are itself editing - we can choose to talk in our own echo chambers.
And so, when we had lesser access to information, we were able to listen to people talk about their thoughts and decisions and reasons behind their decisions. We gave them time to explain. Yes, you have debates and we've had debates in parliaments - your parliament, our parliament, have been shouting at each other for decades and that's fine because they were given time - and people would listen to them.
Now, the attention is all over the place, and that's not good, and I'm not sure how we're getting through it. I mean, we're in such a nascent stage that we are just a millisecond into a stage of our development, so we'll see how it goes. We are one second past midnight, so we'll see how it goes.
How are you placed when it comes to social media?
I've started to tweet, because now, I've got a lot of things to tweet about. I wasn't doing it before, because I didn't want to do it for the sake of it, and partly, because of what I was talking about.
I didn't want to be part of this saturation without having anything meaningful to add to the conversation. But now that I'm the British rep in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, I have some things to say, and people are interested in them, so I've started to tweet.
The other thing about social media is that it offers some sort of false equivalence. For example, when it comes to climate change and 95% of the scientists from around the globe agree that climate is changing, and that humans are largely responsible, there's no debate anymore.
But social media will have you believe that there is. There are some scientists, the 3% that might agree that the climate is changing, but not about human beings' responsibility for that - then that's okay, and we can have a discussion of that, but when it's turned into a headline, it looks like there's still a debate out there!
— Jaideep Sen