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Spotlight: Seth Thomas

Spotlight: Seth Thomas

Seth Thomas

MPhil International Relations, Trinity Hall – 1992-93


In January 1992 as I was lucky to be holding two offer letters: one to study at Cambridge, and one from the College of Law to complete my legal training.  The choice was professional safety or stepping into the unknown without a clear career path afterwards.  I decided to roll the dice and chose Cambridge. 

Yet IR proved to be a smart choice, for in the early-1990s the global landscape was in flux.  My generation had grown up with the menace of the Cold War as the backdrop to our lives.  Everything had been viewed through the prism of US-Soviet Union relations – yet in a startling brief period the world had changed.  By 1992, the US was dominant and unopposed, with its old competitor the Soviet Union in a state of free-fall.  China was still a slumbering dragon on the international stage; the Balkans was aflame; and the 12-member EEC had signed the landmark Maastricht Treaty (with the first of several British opt-outs).  Indeed, days before I walked into the Trinity Hall MCR, Britain had suspended its membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, and by the end of my academic year, UKIP had been formed. 

The world in 1992-93 provided a very useful evidential base for what I was learning in academia and provided an important lesson for me.  Namely that while change was usually incremental, systemic transformation could also happen and it could come very quickly – but the countries and stakeholders involved always carried contextual baggage – whether it was historic, geographic or cultural.  This holistic approach to IR ran through the MPhil, where I studied international theory, law, history, politics, economics and strategy.  Thus there was never usually one single lens through which to view any international problem, and appreciating the whole environment was a core skill.  That particular approach to issue analysis and problem solving has stayed with me throughout my professional career – or to translate to the language of my later career in business, beware the ‘silver bullet solution’.

The course itself provided not only scholarly stimulus but a cast of world-class experts in their field – Zara Steiner, Richard Langhorne, Christopher Andrew to name a few – exactly what you would expect from Cambridge.  What I most appreciated was the opportunity to follow areas of study that were personally interesting to me. I could often be found in the UL, or the old law library in Senate House Passage with a pile of books which often were to be found on the outer fringes of the official reading list.  Despite this I was pleasantly surprised by the results of my take-away exam – three days for an exam still seems like a civilised practice.

For my dissertation, I hand-wrote 23,000 words on “Hong Kong as a commercial centre: prospects post-1997”.  I had my put-upon supervisor, Michael Kuczynski at Pembroke, to thank for focusing my initial airy research topic (“something about Hong Kong after the handover”).  The dissertation itself I hope is untraceable within the UL’s bowels, but its final production was fraught.  Thanks to lack of familiarity with Apple computers, I lost the first word-processed draft, so retyped it over several all-nighters in the college computer room.

Apart from studies, Cambridge provided eleven months of frenetic fun.  My fellow students were an interesting – and international – bunch, a prelude to my future working life.  With them my extra-curricular activities boiled down to gaining an intimate knowledge of the Cam on dark winter mornings; in-depth exploration of Cambridge’s many fine public houses; and dutifully doing my bit for intra-college relations through numerous dinners in some of the most beautiful works-canteens in the world.  Trinity Hall was an exceptionally friendly and understanding place with that warm tone set by the Master and his wife – Sir John & Lady Danielle Lyons. 

But all good things have to end, and a mere fortnight after I’d handed in my dissertation, I found myself in the graduate intake of a global bank adjusting to a pressurised working environment and life in a disorientating city.  This was a future I’d stumbled into rather than planned, but given the backdrop of recession, was grateful to have a job.

By this point, I pretty much expected that my academic studies would remain just that.  I assumed that I’d forget about IR as I learnt how to become a ‘rounded banker’ (this is possible if you work at it).  Yet my roles in finance were always international and early work in what the bank called emerging markets (or what academics called the less developed world) reinforced some of the global changes I’d written about at Cambridge. In particular, when visiting several Chinese cities to meet with government officials over a decade post-graduation, I felt empowered by the knowledge gained during research for my dissertation – it helped me to understand the historical context for the rise of the PRC as well as policy attitudes towards Western business.  Being in international banking put me at the centre of global information flows – on economics, finance, business and politics, and the Cambridge IR approach helped me to think clearly about the bigger picture, rather than getting bogged down in detail or faking insight by repeating received wisdom.

After working in advising other financial institutions and governments around the world, and indeed sitting on the governing council of Chatham House for six years (a Xanadau to most IR students, breathlessly talked about, hardly ever explored), I decided on a career change. 

I became a proper mature student in the first class to study at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford.  I found myself twenty years on from my last studies writing essays at midnight and sitting in white-tie while undertaking hand-cramping written exams – and I thought we’d be paperless by 2013.  It was there that I gained new respect for the older members of my IR class, those from the services who had brought different and valuable life perspectives to our studies.  I hoped that like me, they enjoyed the intellectual refreshment of study after a long time in the work-force.

Following my public policy studies, I found myself in the International Directorate of the Bank of England covering a diverse portfolio from international regulatory policy to the BoE’s participation in international organisations, as well as holding a public policy fellowship from Cambridge’s ‘CSaP’ programme.  After studying international relations in the abstract, I now have direct insight into how policy ideas get turned into international reality through a stakeholder engagement process (diplomacy by another name).  I’ve been able to directly apply my IR knowledge to the analytical side of my role when I review international political risk factors.  When I was in finance, it seemed that politics was driven by markets and economics, in the post-financial crisis world, it increasingly seems that the roles have been reversed and I’ve been fortunate to see global events from both the public and private sector.

As a 22-year old studying IR was an exciting intellectual experience, but seemed transient in nature – it was a step to ‘something else’.  Yet looking back at my career to date, it is revealing just how consistently the knowledge and analytical skills gained at Cambridge have been drawn upon

After a career focused on international markets and issues, Seth Thomas is now at the Bank of England covering international policy and political risk.