Alan Mendoza (Class of 1996)
Alan Mendoza (Class of 1996)
Alan left City of London School in 1996 and completed a BA (Hons), M.Phil and PhD degrees in history at the University of Cambridge. He is founder and executive director of the Henry Jackson Society, a think tank that specialises in foreign policy.
How did you become a pupil at City of London School?
I went to CLS on a scholarship. It was 1988: we did the open days and City just blew the other schools away. We went there on a dark winter’s night and CLS was shining bright in the middle of the City. It was an amazing difference to go from a suburban primary school to this gleaming jewel in the heart of the city. It had the most up-to-date technology and it seemed emblematic of the future. The new building had only been open for two or three years and, even as a kid, that appealed to me.
What were your early impressions of CLS?
The thing I remember most was the journey to School. Suddenly, as an 11-year-old kid I was in rush hour with all the commuters very early in the morning. At School, there was an atmosphere of inquisitiveness; people were encouraged to ask questions. The nice part was making friends with the boys living in the same general area as me – these packs of boys roaming the Tube.
In my first year, I got the second highest number of detentions. Always for ridiculous reasons; talking, usually, although once I got a detention because a master smelled sweets on my breath! I won’t declare if he was right or not.
City boys were maybe more bookish than sporty – although there were some very strong sportsmen. You had this bias towards intellectual pursuits which brought out all sorts of curiosities from people who’ve gone on to be famous mathematicians and authors. Everyone got on.
It was quite unusual to have boys from all over London coming into the centre – so you made friends from lots of different cultures and parts of London you’d never heard of. You would go and visit them and it was all a big adventure.
That cross-cultural mix was very important too: there were a lot of societies around religions and cultural pursuits and it brought you into contact with people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. Sometimes people go to University and are shocked to be in a mixed environment, but for us from the age of 11, we were already part of a fascinating group of people.
What were your favourite lessons?
From day 1, I loved history and I ended up going to University to study it.
We had some great characters among the teachers, who had been university lecturers or had had commercial jobs. It was a very interesting group of people coming together.
Lionel Knight was a legend in the history and politics department. He never talked down to the pupils. He was basically a university lecturer in a school setting. Which may have been a bit tough on a third former but when you were in the Sixth Form it felt like you were raising your game to a very high level.
David Grossel, who taught history and sadly recently passed away, was also a good influence. He always enjoyed when you read above and beyond the subject. Mr Reddit, who taught economics, had had a commercial career before becoming a teacher so he brought an interesting background to his teaching.
Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy?
I was in the football B team. I played right-back. We lost to everyone at football, apart from the American school. We played rugby in the winter, football in the spring, cricket in the summer. I ended up doing badminton, too in later years, which was great fun. The facilities were superb.
I was in the Debating Society, the School Parliament and the Politics Society, which I ended up chairing. Because the School was so well situated, we had some very good speakers coming in; well-known public figures. To be sitting at the feet of people making some of the most important policies in the UK was quite something. Eddie George, then Governor of the Bank of England, came and that was very interesting. It was the mid-90s, just after a major recession and it was interesting hearing about how the Bank of England was dealing with monetary policy.
We also had the leader of a very small, new party called the UK Independence Party – Alan Sked before Nigel Farage came along. I was very anti-European at the time.
I did a few plays, too, which was always good fun. Having the theatre in the School was great – you had the proper stage, decked seating, lights. It was a real theatre and you felt you had to up your game and learn your lines.
How would you describe your current job?
I’m the executive director of a think tank that looks at foreign and security policy. What’s a think tank? We look to educate decision-makers and opinion-formers about some of the crisis points in the world. We have experts who carry out research on particular geographical areas or themes.
We produce research highlighting problems and suggesting solutions. Then we try and get the media to cover it – get our people on air and get our ideas into ministers, special advisers, Whitehall and so on. The aim is to have some impact on the intellectual direction of the country – and to have an impact on policy.
Think tanks are like Universities without students. But our research doesn’t exist for its own sake. Here, if we don’t do anything with the research it’s a failure. We have to be able to take it to the next level, so people can be educated by it.
Can you describe a recent success you have had?
The Huawei 5G debate. Should we allow a Chinese communications company to be part of our 5G infrastructure network? We looked into it and it became clear it would be a huge mistake – because of Huawei’s interconnectivity with the Chinese state. When we released the report, it sparked a lot of interest – from the national media here and internationally.
I know that had an impact on discussions in Westminster, too.
When did you decide on this kind of career?
I always knew I was interested in politics. I joined the Conservative Party when I was 16. I recognise that’s not a normal thing to do! Then my interest in international relations was really fired by working on my PhD on diplomatic relations between the US and UK during the Bosnian War. I came into contact with some very interesting politicians, diplomats, military people, and I saw how US think tanks operated during my work over there – how important they were to ideas formation in the US. I came back here thinking, ‘We don’t really have anything like that here and maybe we should.’
For two years I worked out of my bedroom, with no money at all. But the internet meant you could disguise how small you were. I brought people in to speak at events and the media thought we were much bigger than we were. People saw the value of the work we were doing and started donating money to support it.
Now, 15 years later, we have 16 staff, a much bigger budget and are able to project into Westminster and the media on a regular basis.
There is a feeling that the world in 2019 is particularly chaotic. Is that fair – or does every generation think like that?
To a point, every generation does feel like that. The world has been more dangerous than today – but it has never been more complicated. We have passed from two superpowers to a single superpower that is being caught up by China and other new countries emerging onto the global scene. Existing alliances are being strained – the system created in 1945, that has lasted for 75 years, has served the world largely well, but it hasn’t prospered when being challenged on multiple fronts, including internally.
Once the Cold War was won, we were struggling to work out what would happen next. In many ways, we could have used the 1990s to work that out – the 1990s was the golden age, in retrospect – you had no-one challenging the western liberal democratic system.
We should have realised that challenges were going to come: China was not going to democratise under the Communist Party but was going to get stronger economically. So we could have made a plan for that – but instead we all just sat back.
You stood unsuccessfully as an MP in 2015: would you stand again?
It was tremendous fun because I knew I didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of winning. Brent Central in areas like Harlesden and Neasden was never going to be a Conservative seat. But it was great knocking on doors, being told to get lost.
I’m still on the candidates list. I’d like to have another crack, I think. Having been involved with educating politicians, I’d like to be on the other side, trying to move things forward for the country and to try and make a difference.
Which personal qualities and skills would a 15-year-old need to follow in your footsteps?
You’ve got to level the odds in your favour, whatever you are doing. For example, work out which topics will turn up in exams. You don’t need to worry about learning everything; it’s about calculated risks.
Even applying to university, you need to try and understand the process: what exactly are they looking for?
Also, be prepared to make connections and network. I hate to say it but a lot of the time, it’s about who you know not what you know. Not so much the old boys’ network, but more, ‘did you meet someone at a random function who might turn out to be really important down the line?”
And take the opportunities that come your way while you still can. Now I’m 41, with a mortgage and two children I can’t suddenly run off and do what I want. But when I was 18, I could do an internship somewhere random, or go on a trip somewhere that someone invited me on. To get from A to B, the route may not be direct – you may have to go A to Z to B.
What was your first experience of work?
When I was still at school, I did a week or two at Clinton’s solicitors which was a superb experience but made me realise law wasn’t for me. My first actual job came in my gap year – I ended up being a telesales executive. It was very tough but – to show how random opportunities come up that you should take advantage of – I met someone there who was forming a publishing company and he asked me to join him. So I helped set up this contract publishing company, aged 18, with no background in it. And I worked on that during and after university as well. For one thing, it paid the bills!