A career in public and private sectors
Interview: Ben Thomson
Playing to the gallery
Physicist, merchant banker, political reformist and international decathlete. Ben Thomson’s CV overflows with more than a fair share of accomplishments.
That list can be extended to custodian of the nation’s art treasures, at least until next April when his eight-year term chairing the trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland comes to an end.
He’s fresh from unveiling details of the £16.8 million redevelopment of the Scottish National Gallery which, he says, will “celebrate the jewels of Scotland”.
Work is now under way with a scheduled completion date of spring 2019 and it promises to transform the visitor experience.
New rooms will showcase Scottish art, much of which has been hidden from public view. That which has been on show has been consigned to what galleries director-general John Leighton called “a cramped, dingy” lower floor, built in the 1970s, that has outlived its purpose.
“We wanted to make the galleries and the collections more accessible and we are really excited about this project,” he says, adding with some sadness that the architect behind the plans, Gareth Hoskins, didn’t live to see them come to fruition. Hoskins died of a heart attack in January, aged just 48.
“He presented his final designs to me just three weeks before he died,” says Thomson. “He leaves us with something we will be proud of.”
Thomson studied physics at Edinburgh University. “I come from a family of physicists, so I suppose it was expected of me,” he says, almost apologetically. “Actually, I have a lot to live up to.”
He explains that among his forebears are no fewer than four Nobel prize winners, two grandparents and two great grandparents.
“We’re the only family in the world with that record of achievement,” he says, almost nonchalantly.
A big grin spreads across his face, topped with a boyish mop of dark hair. It’s clear he’s proud of his ancestry and it’s also evident that, despite not emulating the ultimate honour achieved by his distant relatives, he’s one of those rare individuals who have made a significant contribution in a number of disciplines.
In his youth Thomson was a medal-winning amateur athlete and in recent years has built a public profile through his roles in business, politics and latterly, the arts.
He spent 10 years at the merchant bank Noble Group, the merchant bank, as chief executive and later chairman. Since leaving he has forged a partnership with the brewer John Dunsmore, former CEO of Scottish & Newcastle, and Paul Skipworth, who held the same position at whisky distiller Glenmorangie.
Together they have invested in food and drinks businesses, backed by the Hothouse Group of mainly Scottish businessmen. They bought the Malt Whisky Society and acquired stakes in firms making crisps, wine and hemp milk.
Why food and drink?
“It’s understandable, people are looking for provenance in food and drink so there is interest in new businesses, and you can globalise it.”
He came more noticeably to public attention through Reform Scotland, the political think tank. In the run-up to the 2014 Scottish referendum it campaigned for Home Rule.
As the independence argument spawned a number of options, the Home Rule campaign was re-packaged as Devo-Plus. Where Devo-Max meant transferring all tax raising to Holyrood with a repayment to Westminster for reserved matters, Devo-Plus would have given the Scottish parliament full responsibility only over those areas of public life which are devolved.
“It was the middle option. I believe most people would have supported it,” he says, explaining that it stopped short of independence by leaving big ticket areas of public policy such as defence and monetary policy with Westminster. He believes that what Scotland now has is “a bit of a muddle”.
He explains: “As things are, the Scottish parliament has powers over housing, for instance, but it doesn’t have control over the winter fuel allowance or the full range of benefits connected with housing.”
Thomson believes the decision to withdraw from the EU, and therefore the repatriation of powers from Brussels to the UK, has strengthened the argument in favour of Home Rule.
“Brexit enhances the case for Scotland to take more responsibility under Home Rule. Issues like migration and fisheries may be more important for Scotland than they are for parts of England.”
He stepped down as chairman of Reform Scotland and now restricts his involvement to writing and speaking engagements. “I wanted it to have a life of its own,” he says. Even so he remains a steadfast advocate for its ideas.
“I passionately believe Scotland would be a better place if we had the tools to match the spending powers we have been given,” he says.
Birthplace: London, father was a Scottish banker and diplomat.
Educated: Edinburgh University (Physics)
Career Highlights: Kleinwort Benson, London; Noble Group, Edinburgh (led an MBO un 2007); Reform Scotland
As chairman of the National Galleries, raised £95m to buy the Titians, “two fantastic works of art”.
Over the years, served on a number of boards, including Martin Currie Portfolio Investment Trust, Fidelity Special Values Investment Trust and the Edinburgh Science Festival.