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Honesty in Politics
on 5 January 2010
Vince Cable's autobiography is a well written, understated, chronicle and "reasonably honest account of what made and motivated one moderately successful politician." During the financial crisis Cable emerged as a source of common sense which invariably eluded that shown by the front benches of the Government and the Opposition. The reason is simple, whereas his opponents were politicians sticking rigidly to briefs provided by the civil service, Cable spoke from three decades of practical experience as an economist, his most recent post being chief economist of Shell Oil. In other words he was one of that rare breed - a politician who actually knew what he was talking about. His stock rose as a result and, when Michael Martin, was forced to resign as Speaker, Cable's name was one of those quickly in the frame. With characteristic modesty he pointed out administration was not his forte.
It was surprising to learn that Cable, who lectured at Glasgow University, was a member of the Labour Party at the same time that Martin arrived on Glasgow council. His political career went in fits and starts with commitment to the Liberals at Cambridge University and a switch to Labour in Glasgow. When Cable left Glasgow in the mid 1970's he walked away from politics and found work in the Foreign Office which gave him an insight into the way in which the civil service functioned. He worked as a special adviser to John Smith at the trade ministry but even Smith's contacts in Labour were insufficient to whisk him into Parliament. His return to the Liberal ranks arose as a consequence of the antics of the Far Left which spawned the formation of the SDP. Had he remained in Glasgow he may have remained a Labour supporter but Labour's internecine warfare in the capital was decisive in pushing him out of the Party, though not without regret.
Cable worked for the Kenyan government for two years claiming, "I cannot say, in all honesty, that I made a major, or even a positive, contribution to the development of Kenya. But Kenya made a massive contribution to mine." Cable's descriptions of the main political figures of the country are brief, candid and accurate, including the way in which whites and Africans shared a common detestation of Asians. His internationalism was reinforced on a personal level when he and his Kenyan born Indian girlfriend, Olympia, married in the teeth of opposition from the older generation in both sets of families. He worked for the Office of Overseas Development and the Commonwealth Secretariat. His knowledge and reputation resulted in his being head hunted in his mid forties to work for Shell International becoming its chief economist.
Although by 1987 Cable had concluded that he was unlikely to get into Parliament, a decade later was elected as MP for Twickenham. Re-elected in 2001 his success was overshadowed by the knowledge that his wife was in the final stages of cancer. She lived long enough to see him returned to the House and his description of her last months is filled with understated emotion. Although he remarried three years later he wears rings from both his marriages. Commenting on love he notes wryly, "We are rarely told that people in their fifties, sixties, seventies and even eighties fall in love...I now know that those things are untrue." He accepts the fact that both wives made sacrifices so he could pursue his "obsessive interest in my work as an MP".
Once in Parliament Cable sussed out the most effective use of time, maximising his opportunities while paying attention to local issues to maintain his majority. He regards this as important because the post 1997 Parliament is in his eyes, "an august institution much diminished in status and influence". He saw three LD leaders step down and quickly decided that his age was against a personal bid for the top spot, despite deputising with some style as acting leader after Ming Campbell's departure. He is, it seems, content with his present role in the LD hierarchy.
He observes, "A century on from Lloyd George's 1909 budget there is an urgent need for an approach to fiscal management which is honest, disciplined and redistributive". He concludes that "this is no time to quit," within the context of a belief, however tenuous, that the LD's can play a role in developing national policies so the country is not run by "charming but utterly inexperienced young men armed with only a sense of entitlement to run the family estate." Objectively, any future government of all the talents would invariably include Vince Cable as Chancellor but the chances of that happening are as remote as other politicians writing as good an autobiography as Cable has provided. Five stars.