Sir Vince Cable has been at the forefront of liberal politics for decades. A Liberal Democrat MP for over 20 years, he took on various senior roles within the party, before entering government in coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Serving alongside everyone from Paddy Ashdown to Charles Kennedy to Nick Clegg, he left an indelible mark on the Party and country, first as Secretary of State for Business in coalition, and later as party leader for two years until 2019.
Cable pinpoints lockdowns, in their various forms, as periods where the plight of the underprivileged is understood in the minds of more, but far from all, of the protected class. For instance, Marcus Rashford’s compelling campaign to help prevent further slippage on a shockingly lopsided ‘playing field’ garnered overwhelming support from across society, and the government reversed their stance on free school meals.
For some, lockdowns have been pleasant. “I know it’s not the right language”, he warns, “but we’ve had a good lockdown, and I think that’s true of a lot of people who’ve managed to get away to the countryside. I mean, this happened in medieval plagues … the relatively affluent managed to get away and hide.” While he realises that he is protected, he also understands that many are not: “I know there are a lot of other people who are stuck in cities, high-rise flats, and cramped accommodation … for them this has been an absolute nightmare.”
Lockdowns are innately harsh: the adoption of social distancing is a tough ask, though not a thankless one. Managing lockdowns can have a palliative effect, when sensible. The government’s initial delay in enforcing a first lockdown last March, did not work to this effect. “Delay was certainly a factor”, notes Cable, “But why was there a delay?”.
For the long-time MP, the impact of existing deficiencies, including that of hospital equipment and, tragically, the hospitals themselves, proved fatal: “we were completely unprepared in terms of equipment and hospitals. One of the major tragedies in the UK has been the loss of life of NHS personnel and that simply hasn’t happened in other countries.”
There is a generational impact, too. Lockdowns are an exercise in protection, as Cable points out, “to protect people like me. I’m in my 70s, and would be regarded as fairly vulnerable, though I don’t have the other co-morbidities as they’re called. So, the elderly are being protected, though in the case of care homes not very well, and the people are paying for it.” This includes, importantly, students and younger people, some of whom will be entering a labour market in disarray: “it will take years to recover from it. So, there is a generational impact, and I hope that will be reflected in future policies on taxation and spending priorities.”
Tuition fees and protests
In 2010, the Liberal Democrats unambiguously pledged to remove tuition fees. Nick Clegg, party leader at the time, was especially forthright: “we want to abolish tuition fees. We think they’re wrong.” The party reneged. In fact, a majority supported plans to nearly triple the previous fee-limit of £3200, to £9000.
In 2012, Cable suggested the pledge was “unwise”, and has mostly stuck to that view. “I think in terms of tuition fee debate, you can see now what the problem is”, says Cable, “Universities are in desperate financial trouble, and where do they get their income from? Overseas students are disappearing, we’ve passed through a demographic bulge, there are fewer young people who want to go to university. A lot of universities are going to go bust in the next few years.”
The intention for the tuition fee plans was to improve accessibility to education by removing upfront payments. He explains: “The tuition fee system, which as you know is not an upfront tuition fee arrangement, is basically a form of graduate tax and seemed to me the only sensible way of keeping the universities afloat. I know there was a backlash among students, but it was a backlash primarily driven by the fact that we had broken the pledge rather than the policy itself.”
Many will remember student protests in London around the time the decision was made. Cable was at the centre of it, and it was the time he felt most the unpleasant side of political life: “There’d been a whole series of riots about globalisation, then there were the student protests around tuition fees … I was the Minister responsible at the time, and I was in Parliament the day it happened; my colleague Nick Clegg was burned in effigy”.
He slows down, looking away from the camera as he reflects on a darker moment of the Coalition. “I was doorstepped by protesters at that time, some of them were violent. It had a pretty terrifying effect on my staff amongst other things. In that particular case, I don’t think there were any bona fide angry local people, they were trained revolutionaries trying to make trouble.”
No matter the protests, however, many still hold a grudge against Cable and the Liberal Democrats for the policy U-turn, and some suggest there is an entire generation for whom the party is no longer an option. For Cable, that’s absurd: “It’s an extreme overreaction. When you think about what the Labour Party has been through – the Corbyn era and antisemitism – that does not mean that people on the left of centre have to abandon them forever.
“People in the Tory party have changed direction and policy numerous times and people have stuck with them. I’m not quite sure I understand why people are obsessed with the fact that we made a bad call ten years ago, I mean all political parties do that. We did suffer political damage as a consequence, but that’s in the past now.”
Many across the UK marched in protest of the violence and enduring discrimination over the summer. Asked about systemic racism, Cable intervenes: “I’m not sure what phrases like that actually mean. To make it a bit more concrete, I did follow very closely the Macpherson Report on so-called institutional racism in the London police and I think if you take a specific area of society like that, many of the problems have been addressed actually, they’re much better than they used to be”.
Clearly, says Cable, “there is a fair degree of correlation between race and underprivilege”. These inequalities exist in a relationship “between ethnicity, underprivilege and bad health … not all Asian and Black people, but certainty some sub-groups, are disproportionately affected not just by the pandemic but by ill health, by insecure employment and other things.”
Sir Vince’s experience of Britain’s racism dates back to a time where interracial relationships were seen by many as immoral. “My late wife was Kenyan-Asian”, he reminisced: “we married in ’68, we had this big outburst of prejudice in the UK.” The marriage occurred in a period of intense, overt racism encapsulated by Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech, made in April that year. In October, the Race Relations Act 1968 came into effect, making it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national groups in employment, housing, and the provision of commercial and other services.
The Act was more robust than its 1965 predecessor, where the scope was limited to hotels, pubs, restaurants, and any place maintained by public authority. Despite this difference, neither act mentioned indirect discrimination — a reality that was first acknowledged in legislation in 1976, having been confined to White Papers during the intervening years. Cable recounts this wait: “the feelings were much more crude and overt than they are today.” He remarks that “things are significantly better”, adding, nonetheless, that work remains to be done.
Britain’s recent departure from the European Union has forced many to look ahead. For some, however, the remnants of Remain mean the idea of re-joining can still be entertained: “There’s certainly a chance we can rejoin at some distant point in the future”, says Cable in a sombre but optimistic tone, “I think the EU would be a different animal, I think what we are now entering into is a period where the inner core of the EU built around the monetary union will move quite fast to much closer integration.”
Last May, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron uncovered a plan to create a €500bn recovery fund to help EU economies suffering from the Covid-19 crisis. And as Merkel’s stabilising presence as Chancellor will soon expire, the future and nature of the fund appears uncertain. Cable points out that a tighter coordination of policy may initiate a backlash from some unwilling member states: “there will be quite a few European countries — Nordics, Eastern European and others — who don’t want to be involved to that degree, and I think we may well get to a stage where there are several tiers of membership, and it would seem entirely sensible to me that we could join one of those.”
The Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrats have experienced fluctuating fortunes as Britain’s third party. On one hand, they have seen the perennial dominance of the two great rival parties at their own expense. On the other, the party has remarkably succeeded in sustaining a breakthrough: “I think [the party] could and should play a significant role”, answers Cable: “We almost got there in the period when I was party leader. First of all, people said that there’s a gap in the landscape, and it’s not quite as simple as that because under the British political system it’s extraordinarily difficult for new or small parties to break through and we’ve long suffered from that.”
Since 2015’s disastrous result, where the party lost 49 of their 57 seats in Parliament, the road to recovery has been long but not entirely unsuccessful. Returning to the sturdy model of local representation, the party gained hugely in former Conservative strongholds following an impressive second place behind the Brexit Party in the 2019 European Parliament elections.
The predominant campaign narrative was anti-Brexit (the campaign slogan was ‘Bollocks to Brexit’), along with more traditional appeals to those alienated by both the “appalling” Tories and indecisive Corbynites. After the elections, Sir Vince stepped down, making way for Jo Swinson. The change may have been the wrong call. Cable feels there was a chance to seize the momentum of the European elections, but in “a combination of bad luck and mismanagement that was frittered away in the General Election.”
Cable hints that the Liberal Democrats will reclaim lost constituencies. He identifies key figures within the party, including current leader Ed Davey and the nascent Daisy Cooper: “the new MP for St. Albans, who’s very bright, very radical, very good with campaigning work.” Notably, Cooper managed Jo Swinson’s successful party leadership campaign in 2019 and was later touted by Swinson, during her resignation speech after the General Election that year, as a noteworthy influence. Cooper has so far fulfilled this prediction, joining Ed Davey as deputy; but Cable anticipates more, tipping her “as the long-term hope of the party in leadership terms.”
For Cable, historic trends show an optimistic future for the Liberal Democrats. “I do take a broadly favourable view of the new leadership of the Labour Party”, he says, “It does seem to me that he’s a pretty sensible guy and he’s surrounded himself with pretty sensible people.” The praise seems counterintuitive, but for the seasoned politician, it is anything but. “The reaction is often that that doesn’t leave much room for us. I’d disagree with that actually; I think the Liberal Democrats have historically done well when the Labour Party has done well.”
Cable harks back to the Liberal Democrats’ breakthrough year in 1997, when he first entered Parliament: “It was the Tony Blair era. Blair was very moderate, and some people said that made Liberal Democrats irrelevant, but actually he made us more relevant, and was actually quite helpful. I would hope that having a complementary relationship with Starmer’s Labour Party is the way forward.” The current context is certainly different to 1997’s, though Cable reminds us of a crucial similarity: moderates are core to the Labour Party once again.
Quite often, parties must work together in pursuit of power. “One of the things I did do was to forge an alliance with the Greens locally and nationally”, Cable recalls. But as the Liberal Democrats so painfully realised, coalitions that aim to strengthen the parties involved, often end up weakening others. For Cable, though, there is a greater threat: “I think that [the co-operation with Greens] should continue, and I think some kind of tacit alliance with the Labour Party against an increasingly shrill and irrelevant nationalistic Tory party may be the way forward.”
The pandemic brings a host of new challenges to students, and Sir Vince’s advice is to keep your options open: “don’t get bottled into a very narrow course of action. Amongst the things I’ve done which I’ve really benefited from is travelling the world when I was young. That’s much more difficult later in life. I experimented with different parties, different religions … and I think that we’re going through a very difficult phase with the epidemic and the depression, but better times will come.
“From your generation’s point of view, there’s going to be a big shift away from the issues which preoccupied my generation”. The old system of “left-right class-based economic ideologies” will disappear, says Cable, as the issues of tomorrow are becoming increasingly clear: “[managing] environmental issues going forward, how do you balance human rights against more material forms of human development, how do we deal with China in a constructive way.”
The priorities for a new generation have changed, and from a man who helped shape years of British policy, his message for those who wish to do the same is simple: “Good luck to you”.
Image: Liberal Democrats