This interview was conducted in late 2009 and appeared in Total Politics Magazine
You’ve published one book this year. Two would seem to be a bit much, what’s Free Radical about?
The second one is personal. It’s different experiences of life, and it’s partly a written version of the Desert Island Discs stories. It’s a personal account, it’s not an economic commentary and it’s not a political text.
So it’s more autobiographical?
Yes, but with a bit of a twist, and the central character I suppose is my late wife.
What made you decide to do that now? Isn’t it the sort of book you would normally publish at the end of your career?
Well that’s right, the timing is different. I started doing it several years ago, partly, I think, because I wanted my family to know how I’d originated, where they came from, so there were very personal motives. After the Radio 4 programme a lot of people expressed a lot of interest, so I thought there would be a wider public interest, and my publishers encouraged me, and that’s how it has now seen the light of day.
Were you surprised at the reaction that Desert Island Discs got?
Yes, I was. I was surprised. But it was broadly good.
Because you’ve got a reputation of, obviously economics is your portfolio, and apart from the Strictly Come Dancing stuff people don’t actually know an awful lot about you as a person, do they? Are you trying to give a more rounded picture of you as a person?
Yes, I don’t enormously enjoy exposing all, you know. I have a private kind of life which I value. But I think I was warmed by the general reaction, which was about things that most families experience - how you deal with bereavement and long terminal illnesses, and a less common issue, but an increasingly common one, which is cross-cultural, cross-racial marriages and all the issues around that. I think there was such a degree of interest that I thought I should write this up properly. Not everybody will like it, but, going back to your question, I think being seen as a human being rather than just a number cruncher and a party politician is important. I think it’s quite helpful to have that dimension.
How important is that in a modern day politician, to be willing to bare your soul a bit and actually show that you’re a human being just like any other voter, and you’re not on this pedestal, you’ve experienced life just the same as everybody else?
I think it is important, and increasingly so. We can speculate as to why it is, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the decline of ideological politics and the traditional tribal class dividing lines. People are looking at parties which are populated by personalities and they want to know who they are. There is this search for authenticity. It’s tricky. Obviously one has to strike a balance between being open about your feelings, but at the same time we all have a private life, and nobody wants every single detail of their life from year one exposed to the public gaze. The book is an honest one.
Was it difficult to write?
It was quite difficult, yes. You’re writing about other people as well yourself, obviously, and the key people in my own drama are dead, but one has to be sensitive about it, particularly if there are critical things. Yes, it was a very difficult thing to do, but it is a recognition that if you are out there in public life people want to know a bit about you and what motivates you.
And can I ask what your wife made of you doing it?
My current wife?
I didn’t want to say your current wife because it sounds a bit odd doesn’t it...[laughter]
It sounds like a sort of harem or something, but no, my second wife, Rachel, was very supportive. She typed it up for me and made comments as we went along.
She bought into it?
It must have been quite painful to write about your late wife in the sense that it brought back some very good memories but some very painful ones too?
Well it was a happy marriage overall, and a good marriage, so in that sense it was an easy thing to do, but she was a very strong personality and I think that probably comes across.
And what experiences do you relate in the book about being married to someone of a different race?
These days it’s quite commonplace, not controversial at all, but when I was first married it was highly controversial and both my family and her family were strongly opposed. In my father’s case it was on very straight-forward racial grounds. Withher family it was a bit more complicated, but it had to do with a different culture. She had a young man lined up, as was traditional in Asian families. So for the first four or five years of our marriage we had no dealings with our parents at all. Eventually they came round, as often happens. When they see grandchildren they become much more positive. Eventually Olympia became really quite close to my father despite his vehement prejudices. So it was, in many ways, quite a heart-warming outcome.
When you first got into parliament what was your ambition?
Having got in aged 54, I didn’t see it primarily in terms of a greasy pole and climbing to the top of it. Like most newly elected MPs with small majorities, my ambition was to get re-elected, so during most of my first term, as well as caring for Olympia my other preoccupation was doing local things and being a good constituency MP. I wasn’t looking at all beyond that. It was only in the second term that I started getting a profile. Charles Kennedy had already appointed me as our Trade and Industry spokesman. I made a bit of a splash with one or two issues like abolishing the DTI. I got a headline I was rather proud of. It was Richard Littlejohn identifying what he described as the first Liberal Democrat policy he’d ever agreed with [laughs]. But my profile was overwhelmingly local and it was only in the second term that I started doing more stuff that got national attention. I went into the last election campaign as our Treasury spokesman. I wasn’t thinking about ambition in terms of leadership and the rest of it. I was, I think, pleasantly surprised to discover that I was, A, in parliament, and B, had been re-elected with a big majority and was starting to get national attention for some of my ideas. Although I admit I am an ambitious person, otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am, I guess.
Was Parliament a culture shock? You’d been in quite a senior position in Shell, and a lot of people who have been in business come into Parliament and are shell-shocked by the way it operates.
It is a completely different world. I suppose the difference in my case was that I had had earlier immersion. I had been involved as a councillor in Glasgow and stood for parliament four times before I got in. So Parliament was new but politics wasn’t new.
You say you are an ambitious person. I think you can divide Liberal Democrats into two categories: those who are quite happy to be in parliament, do the job of an MP and make the case for liberal democracy, and then there are others who actually want power. In the end, if you’re in politics, you’ve got to be in power to change things. Does it frustrate you that, being in a third party, power is fairly elusive?
Yes, it is, and I suppose that of the two categories you’ve mentioned I am probably in the second, because that is why we’re here ultimately. It’s not just to have views and make speeches but to actually try to do something. So yes in that sense, but I’m not thinking of it just as an individual. My ambitions are for the party.
I’m not going to ask you the normal questions about coalitions because...
You know what the stock answers are, don’t you? [laughs]
In the event of a hung parliament, wouldn’t going into a coalition with one of the parties be a good thing for the Liberal Democrats, because then you can actually prove, you’re running a government department, you can prove that you can do it and then move on from that?
Well it might be, and we’re not ruling that out. But I think the point we emphasise is that it’s not our call ultimately. If you get a government with a minority then they have a choice. They can run as a minority government, or they can turn to other parties and ask for help. The spirit in which we approach it, and I don’t mean this in a pious way, would be to act in the national interest, because we still do have an emergency situation. It’s their call, it’s not our call.
Forget which party it would be, but if the day after the election there was a hung parliament and you got the call saying, right Vince, we’re in a terrible situation, the country has more confidence in you than it does anybody else to sort us out, we want you to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, you’d find that a bit difficult to turn down wouldn’t you?
I wouldn’t, because I’ve made it very clear from the outset that I’m not acting as a freelance individual.
No Jeremy Thorpe here [laughter]
What’s that? I can’t remember that era.
Well, that’s basically what he did in ’74. He couldn’t take his party with him.
OK, well I’m not acting as a freelancer. It would be up to the party leader and our team to decide what they do, and I’m part of that, but I’m not going off on my own, that’s very clear.
Do you see the Liberal Democrats as a centre-left party?
No, I don’t use that description, I know some of my colleagues have in the past. There are some areas where we are, to use the jargon, centre-left progressive. A redistributive approach to taxation is obviously one of them, but there are other respects in which we are genuinely liberal, which puts us on the other side. Lots of the writing I’ve done on economics is very much about a liberal approach to economic policy, free-trade and open markets. I don’t use that term because, although some of the things we say can be very clearly put in that box, in other respects we are economically liberal. I think the other thing is, a lot of the things we’re about have nothing to do with the traditional left/right spectrum - localism, environmentalism, civil liberties, you can argue these from either a libertarian or a leftist perspective.
I was going to say, you sound like David Cameron there for a second [laughter].
Did I? Hopefully that’s a compliment.
What do you make of him? Do you have much to do with him?
Not on a personal level, no. He’s very professional, and he’s obviously done a lot to decontaminate the Tory brand, and as a political professional one observes that. I think there are some problems with the position he’s got. It isn’t entirely clear how deep and sincere all of this is. We’ve moved a long way from hugging huskies, the environmental stuff has gradually sort of disappeared, and I suspect it isn’t all that deep. They’ve got themselves into this problem recently with these loony European parties, which suggests he does feel he has to give his right-wing red meat. It may indeed be that’s what he believes. So, I think they have a bit of an identity problem. He’s taken them so far that some of the nasty Tory stuff has been neutralised, but I think there is a genuine issue now about what he really believes, and the way he really wants to take them. I see locally, also, the old nasty Tory stuff, and quite a lot of it’s still there at grass-roots level.
Does Nick Clegg have a problem with David Cameron in that he’s seen as a ‘Cameron-lite’?
Well, he’s the same generation but I don’t think they have much else in common. I suppose they are both nice-looking, youngish leaders, but politically I don’t think there’s much in common. This was said of Nick when he first became the leader, but he’s trodden a separate path. He’s now got a very clear sense of identity. He’s come well out of the last year and on a whole series of issues he’s carved out a distinctive position - on expenses and the Gurkhas, for example. I think he’s now much more publically identified than other leaders we’ve had at the same stage, and the image is a positive one.
Did you regret not standing for leader?
No, I didn’t. You probably know the story. It was never actually an option in the circumstances where the issue arose, when Ming Campbell stood down in a hurry. I just got on with the job.
So you don’t do what Ming Campbell used to do every morning when he was shaving and think, God, I wish I’d stood against Charles Kennedy?
No, absolutely not, I genuinely don’t. I quite enjoyed the ‘acting leader’ period , and did quite well, but I’ve got a very full role. I have a dual role. One is the economics stuff, which I enjoy and have a competence in, and I wouldn’t, frankly, have been able to do it if I’d been the party leader. I wouldn’t have been able to write that book which has, I think, been quite influential. I get round the country for the political stuff. Every weekend I go off to some exotic place. So I get the high level politics and the economics, and without a lot of the stresses that you have in a leadership role.
Do you feel that there’s sometimes a danger that you slightly overshadow Nick Clegg in some ways? I mean, in some ways that’s a good thing because it means there’s more than one Liberal Democrat with a national profile, but I wonder whether sometimes he’s frustrated by that?
I don’t think so. I’ve never sensed that and I think it’s helpful to the party, and to him, and to me in a way, that we’re a team. The Tories are putting themselves forward in a presidential way whereas we’re presenting it much more as a team approach and I think that goes down well. But he’s very clearly the leader now. That image has been very clearly marked. He’s got some distinctive issues that he’s done very well on. I think people did say that a year ago but I don’t think it’s an issue now. It’s an inevitable consequence of the fact the economy has been at the top of the agenda.
What do you think the most important thing Nick Clegg has done since he’s been leader?
I think there’s an overall climate of professionalism in the way that we do things. He’s a very good team leader. The way he deals with the party and the public is very professional. I think that’s what’s now coming through: we’re serious. It goes back to your earlier questions about whether these people are capable of exercising power and responsibility, and I think that he has got it across that he personally and we as a team are able to do that and I think that’s probably the biggest achievement.
ID: There’s five months before the election will be called. What do you think is the overwhelming priority for the Liberal Democrats in those five months? How can the Liberal Democrats differentiate themselves in five months?
VC: If it all has to be done in five months then that’s difficult. But there is a hinterland of policy and record which is what we’re building on, so it isn’t starting from scratch. There will be clear dividing lines with the Tories over fairness in taxation. We’re very distinct from the Labour government in our approach to radical reform of the banking system and economic institutions, and on their centralisation of power and contempt for local government. We’d certainly argue that we were greener than the other two major parties. But these are things that haven’t just come out of nowhere.
ID: Is Afghanistan the issue that’s going to do it for you?
VC: It’s certainly increasingly important. In the last few weeks – starting at our conference – Nick has carved out a position which is much more critical of the position that the government is in; you just cannot continue to go along with a deeply corrupt, undemocratic government and continue to send troops to die for that. We’re raising questions about future strategy in a way that the other two parties are not willing to do.
ID: But can you imagine a scenario where you go into the next election campaign saying, “we think we should pull out”?
VC: I think we have to be very careful about how the whole issue of withdrawal is dealt with, because it’s different from Iraq – Iraq was an illegal war. We all supported intervention in Afghanistan. It’s quite different in that sense and a lot of British troops have already been sent and died there for this cause. But certainly we have raised and will continue to raise the basic question of how much longer can you send British troops to die for a cause when there’s no clear strategy at present and where the government we’re trying to protect isn’t defensible politically. Where that leaves us in six months’ time I can’t speculate on, but Nick’s been very clear about the
ID: Every extremist politician in Europe has been elected by proportional representation and we’re seeing that here now with the BNP. Doesn’t that make you stop and think about the merits of PR?
VC: You can argue this both ways. The BNP started making inroads into British politics under the existing system, and they’ve got a significant number of councillors elected on first past the post at local government. The systems vary across Europe as you know. I don’t think the emergence of the extreme right is a function of the electoral system; there clearly is a constituency in almost every European country that is very nationalistic, xenophobic and it expresses itself in different ways.
ID: They wouldn’t have two MEPs under first past the post and Nick Griffin wouldn’t have appeared on Question Time.
VC: They might not have done, but under our existing first past the post system they could have laboured away at one or two constituencies in Britain and got an MP, and under our system that would give them much more exposure than they’ll ever have with two MEPs. I don’t think we can blame the system. The fact is there is a strand of public opinion which is responsive to what they’re saying and that’s very worrying in itself and that’s what we’ve got to deal with. Where we’ve seen proportional representation in action in Britain – as in Scotland – where there’s much healthier politics, much more diversity at local and national level and you’ve got parties that are willing to work together, it hasn’t actually unleashed extremism.
ID: What was Susan Kramer’s response to your mansion tax plan?
VC: She was critical of it.
ID: Because that could have lost her her seat couldn’t it?
VC: No I don’t think so. Our position on the mansion tax is that we think it’s a good idea that people with large amounts of personal wealth should pay a bit more in order to cut taxes for people at the bottom. We’ve taken it through our party’s federal policy committee that determines policy, so it will be there. But how exactly it applies is something we’re working on. Obviously we have to be sensitive to the concerns people have raised.
ID: That sounds a bit like backtracking.
VC: No, I think you’ll find it will be in our electoral manifesto.
ID: But you will know from your own constituency, particularly in London, there are lots of houses that have a high value, but the people who live in them are not cash rich.
VC: Yes there are some in that category.
ID: But how do you differentiate between them and the people who are genuinely rich?
VC: Well that’s an issue that arises at the moment in the council tax system, which the Tories bought in. We’ve expressed unhappiness about it and that affects every single household in London. We’re talking about a very minor subset of an existing problem, which is for people who have very large assets but don’t have very large incomes. We’ve suggested that if people have retired we would roll up the tax payments, which is what councils are already doing if people have very large commitments and residential home fees. There are ways of dealing with it, but we are looking at the details of how you would deal with that genuine practical problem.
ID: Wasn’t that announcement a victim of the fact that you needed a big announcement at conference and you actually made it a bit too quickly? A lot of your colleagues were incandescent with you about it, weren’t they?
VC: Well, one or two of them were concerned about it.
ID: Your local government spokesman [Julia Goldsworthy] didn’t even know about it!
VC: It was a national tax policy, but as I said at the time she should have been told more about it. I actually raised it two years ago at one of our party conferences and got predominantly positive reactions to it, so the concept was already out there and had already been floated.
ID: You’ve got this tremendous reputation in the country as someone who’s interpreted the economic crisis well and come up with some solutions and all the rest of it – but the media love to build someone up and then knock them down. I was watching the interview you did with Andrew Neil, which you didn’t look particularly comfortable in. Did you get the feeling that that was the start of people trying to chip away at the reputation of Vince Cable as an economic guru?
VC: Like everyone else you get some things wrong but I think I’ve been predominantly right. I don’t think that’s been in anyway changed. I think I had two interviews with Andrew Neil, one of which went perfectly well, the other of which there were a couple of areas where he got selective quotes of things I said, but in so far as I recall I had perfectly good answers to. But it’s quite right that over a period of years you take a different position on things.
ID: Do you enjoy that kind of combative interview?
VC: Yes and I certainly don’t look out for soft interviews. Some of the interviews I’ve found least interesting are some of the ones where you are just given an opportunity to say your piece.
ID: But he pointed out that you’ve changed your position on Quantitative Easing.
VC: No I haven’t actually, he got that wrong. I’d probably been a little bit too clever in an article by using irony.
ID: Always dangerous!
VC: It is always dangerous, and I said that potentially large scale printing of money could lead you down a hyperinflationary route and it was said in a kind of semi-jokey way. But from the very outset I have argued very strongly in support of what the Bank of England was doing, and it clearly is a very necessary part of the monetary response. There was no inconsistency; you’ll find a passage in my book which is very supportive of it.
ID: In September 2008 you said the government must not compromise the independence of the Bank by telling it to slash interest rates, and then a month later you urged the Chancellor to write to the Governor of the Bank of England demanding a large cut in interest rates.
VC: Yes that is true and I think like a lot of other people, I realised in the autumn of 2008 that we were on the verge of a completely catastrophic failure of the system – a once in a lifetime experience. The whole banking system was in danger of going down and this was a system for which the Bank of England had not been prepared. The mandate of the independent Bank of England, which I supported was not just concerned with those issues, it was concerned with a broadly stable environment. I had supported the independence of the Bank of England and I still do and I think its role will be increasingly important in future years when we get a lot of inflationary pressure. But that moment in September and October when they had to do something dramatic and where their existing mandate was simply about responding to and anticipating inflation rates, this was not actually the primary concern. And I was certainly the first person out of the traps saying that, although it was a departure from the line I had been giving before.
ID: Do you think in retrospect that it might have been better to let one bank go under? Wouldn’t that have made the bankers ‘get it’? Or would the consequences of that have been so catastrophic as to have been unimaginable?
VC: When the Northern Rock crisis broke, my view was that that probably should have been what happened – the government should have rescued the depositors and let the bank go. That was how I responded to it for precisely the reasons you implied. But once the government had decided to put in taxpayers’ money, it seemed inevitable and right that you had to take it over, because you then had the problem of the public taking the risk and the private donors taking the profit. But the moral hazard argument was and is a powerful one. The problem with it in practice is that in the panic environment you had last year, any sense that our government or the American government were just going to back off a major institution would have just fuelled the run. And we all know what happened with Lehmans. The principle of moral hazard is this: if a bank has got itself into trouble through chronic mismanagement then the senior management and directors and shareholders have to take a big hit. And that’s the principle. Whether or not the institution is then taken over by the state or run down – there are different techniques of dealing with it.
ID: Imagine you have six months as Chancellor of the Exchequer. What’s the one thing you’d like to look back on and say, I did that in my six months?
VC: I would put sorting out the banking system at the top of the list. I think the government did the right things in October last year. It behaved well in the emergency – it was prompt and the rescue operation was necessary. I acknowledged it at the time and it’s still true. But they’ve let the situation drift, and if I had six months as our Lib Dem chancellor, I would first of all be much more proactive in making sure that the semi-nationalised and nationalised banks are lending to solid British companies, because they’re not doing it at the moment – they’ve lurched from extreme recklessness to extreme conservatism. So they’ve got to use the directors on the bank to make sure that they lend to good companies.
ID: Why aren’t they doing that?
VC: The government is obsessed with not being seen to interfere. I suppose I can see where they’re coming from – they didn’t’ want to be accused of over-loaning and steering money to workers’ cooperatives, so they had an ideological thing. But it’s totally wrong and it’s done an enormous amount of damage and British companies are suffering from it. But I think the thing is to act on what the governor of the Bank of England has been saying about splitting up the banks. He’s quite right: that has to happen. This government has bottled out of it and the Tories have been very ambiguous about what they think, but I’m quite clear that that is the right route.
ID: Dirty dancing or Flash Dancing?
VC: Dirty Dancing
ID: Arleen or Alesha?
VC: I’d take both.
ID: That’s just plain greedy.
ID: What book are you reading at the moment?
VC: I’m reading this Swedish trilogy Stieg Larsson – his crime thrillers. I’ve just finished the second and I’m going onto the third. It’s a wonderful series of crime thrillers.
ID: All women shortlists: good or bad?
ID: What’s your favourite view?
VC: From the top of Lake District mountains.
ID: Most formidable political opponent?
VC: Ken Clarke would be fairly high up on that list.
ID: What makes you laugh?
VC: Good comedians – Rory Bremner.
ID: Has he done you?
VC: Yes, though it wasn’t a major part of his routine. Jasper Carrot’s another one.
ID: What’s your favourite meal?
VC: South Indian curries.
ID: The thing you most like about Nick Clegg?
VC: Good, open, honest – good colleague.
ID: What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done?
VC: Married two lovely women.
ID: Which was the best year of your life?
VC: Probably 1997.
ID: Worst PM in history?
VC: Probably Chamberlain.
ID: The political decision you most regret?
VC: I think probably going back to York in the mid-eighties and fighting for a second time. It took a terrible toll personally and was completely futile.
ID: Abba or Kylie?
VC: Abba definitely.
ID: Your favourite Tory and Labour MPs?
VC: Ken Clarke and Frank Field.