Telling my friends that I was going to interview Vince Cable I was met with an almost comical scope of reactions. From the politically apathetic “who?” to the wide eyed adoration of the PPE student; “wow, that absolutely amazing, that man’s a genius you know, ask him about… (cue long gabbled list.)”
However, one thing that most people asked me was, “How on earth did you manage to get an interview with him?” They have a point. Shadow chancellor for the liberal democrats, and deputy leader of the party – or acting leader when I spoke to him, as Nick Clegg was on paternity leave. On top of this formal list of credentials he is one of the most respected politicians of our age. His predictions about the recession have been nothing short of prophetic; he made the nation laugh by comparing Brown to Mr Bean; and I am yet to watch an episode of Question Time where any debate about the financial situation hasn’t included a comment along the lines of “maybe we should all just listen to Vince cable”.
So, how did I get the interview? Well, Vince Cable happens to be my local MP, and one of the things you learn as a constituent of Richmond and Twickenham is that Vince Cable doesn’t say no. He is one of those rare, high profile politicians who would bend over backwards for his local constituents and he is vastly popular. In today’s world of expenses scandals and backhanded tactics, where far too often politicians abjectly fail to connect with those who they are representing, what is it about Mr Cable that his sustained his popularity?
“His air when talking about his student experience is endearingly down to earth.”
A brief glance at Vince Cable’s background doesn’t separate him a huge amount from his peers in the House of Commons. A degree in Natural Sciences and Economics from Cambridge and a stint as president of the Cambridge Union seem enough to paint him with the ‘just another elitist politician’ brush. Yet his air when talking about his student experience is endearingly down to earth. When I ask why he chose Cambridge, he smiles, “Well, it was actually one of the few places that would have me. I applied to a number of the Oxford colleges and was rejected by them all, so I ended up at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge.” (He certainly knows how to charm an Oxford student).
Similarly, when quizzed about the Union he doesn’t mention any famous speakers, but instead focuses on his contemporaries. “I was lucky enough to be with a very competent group of individuals… One of the biggest influences on me was a friend who didn’t go on to become anyone famous. He became a humorist and taught me a great deal about the importance of humour in politics.”
It was not until later in his life that Cable was elected into a political office. “I spent quite a while trying to get in. People don’t generally know that I failed a few times first.” He had however been politically active from early on, both at university and after. From 1971-74, he was a labour councillor in Glasgow: “There was a lot of poverty and important issues there at the time.” His enthusiasm for active involvement has not only characterised his career but comes through in everything he talks about.
He has a huge amount of praise for student activism and student politics in general. “I was lucky enough to be a student at a time when student politics was very active – there were some particularly emotive issues, such as the apartheid, in those days. When both of my children were at university they said that most people were quite politically apathetic. It’s good to hear that students are becoming interested again.” And does parliament take notice of student politics? “Of course, students are the future of politics”.
It has been in the last five or so years that Cable has become more of a household name. In the past twelve months especially, the depth of his economic understanding has thrust him into the political limelight.
“Gordon Brown lost his respect a long time ago”
He is refreshingly ‘matter of fact’ about the newfound media interest. “It’d not that bad really, I don’t object too much. I suppose I’ve had a more interesting private life as far as the media is concerned than other politicians.” He is talking about the loss of his first wife to breast cancer in 2001. He has since remarried but still wears the wedding rings from both of his marriages. There’s something endearing about him when he discusses it; when I ask him what issues he’s dealt with which he has been the most passionate about, the first thing he mentions is his push for more regular cancer screening.
Whereas all around him politicians have such volatile relationships with the media, Cable’s approach to the attention was straight forward. “You ask for it when you sign up to the job. A politician who complains about the media is like a fisherman who complains about the sea”.
Aside from his honesty with the press and his sophisticated economic understanding, Cable is known for his fierce loyalty to the Liberal Democrats. When I broach the subject of rumours that Brown has been asking him to leave the Lib Dems and work as an economic advisor in the current recession, he closes up, leans back in his chair and crosses his arms, “I have made it quite clear that I’m not interested in any proposal of that kind”. Do partisan loyalties ever hinder the course of best government? “British politics does have a tendency to be very tribal for sure, but the party in government can’t just pick off individuals from other places as they please.” Talking about the Brown administration he seems weary, describing it as “exhausted”.
“They quite simply have no idea how to get themselves out of this terrible mess. The thing is that it’s not as if the Conservatives would do any better.”
“Gordon Brown lost his respect a long time ago. There’s just no direction”
Vince Cable is likeable in a very surprising way. He couldn’t contrast more startlingly with slimy spin-masters like Blair or Cameron: there was none of the rhetoric, none of the fake smiles; he is in fact quite serious, to the point, and focused. There are moments when he really seems to relax, particularly when I ask about non political subjects; the fact that he is an accomplished ballroom dancer, for example (“Accomplished? Those are your words not mine”), and when I quiz him about his chosen ‘luxury item’ during his feature on Radio Four’s dessert island disks. “I like speed” he answers with that wry smile of his. “I said if it was a very large island equipped with petrol pumps I’d have an Aston Martin- But I’ve been somewhat criticised by my more environmentally conscious colleagues”.
He is, all in all, an extremely genuine man, and this seems to me the most obvious explanation as to why he has maintained his popularity in a climate where few others have. Being good at your job is no longer enough for politicians in today’s world. People want honesty, focus and engagement.
Vince Cable’s book ‘Storm: The World Economic Crisis and What it Means’ is available from Atlantic Books for £14.99
He will be speaking to the International Relations Society in Oxford on Thursday 30th April, 7.45 in the Oriel Lecture room