Critical review of Vince Cable's autobiography

This book review was published in the New Statesman

30 December 2009

Free Radical: a Memoir
The Cable guy

If Paddy Ashdown is the best foreign secretary Labour never had, Vince Cable is the best shadow chancellor the Conservatives might have had in place of the current clumsy occupant of that post. Cable is the undoubted darling of today's Commons watchers. They hate Gordon Brown and, other than the oleaginous BBC, they are suspicious of David Cameron. But they all agree that Vince is a decent chap.

Autobiographies usually come at the end of a political career. Yet the Liberal Democrats' steady drift towards Thatcherism-lite is likely to persuade voters that they might as well return to the Tory fold in Twickenham and other, basically Conservative seats that the appeal of Ashdown and Charles Kennedy won for their party. Cable is sensibly cashing in on his cele­brity status, therefore. Once he loses his seat, the Daily Mail will probably dump him and his hastily written book on the economic crisis will be remaindered.

This is both a shame and of huge political significance, as the broad alliance for progressive politics (which Ashdown, Kennedy and Tony Blair uneasily kept alive) is likely to be replaced by a return to the old binary politics. Labour voters should certainly still vote tactically to defeat Cameron's Tories. But, like generals fighting the last war, today's Lib Dem leaders cannot think strategically, and fail to see that Labour's enthusiasm for electoral reform, now made into a formal manifesto pledge by Gordon Brown, could usher in an exciting era of politics.

Cable's memoirs don't touch on this. Instead, they show a decent man from a modest background who took advantage of the post-1945 Labour settlement to advance from a grammar school to Cambridge and then to various public-sector jobs that the ever-enlarging state offered to the baby-boom generation.

He writes with controlled emotion about his beautiful Kenyan Asian wife, Olympia Rebelo, and the racism she encountered from Cable's Tory father, a college lecturer who rose to be president of the reactionary National Association of Schoolmasters. After several false starts in the Labour Party, Cable switched to the Liberal Democrats when he moved to Twickenham, winning his seat in 1997, just as his wife was entering the final stages of a 15-year battle with cancer. This is human life in the raw. In the current atmosphere of Salem-like hatred for MPs, it is useful to be reminded that they are human beings.

But is Cable an effective politician? I have a rare copy of The Red Paper on Scotland, edited by Gordon Brown in 1975. At the time, Cable was a Labour councillor in Glasgow and contributed a piece that ended with the following prediction: "Scotland could, in all probability, expect in the 1980s to be more prosperous as an independent country." This bizarre misjudgement came at the end of his first period as an elected official. He had to wait another 20 years before he became an MP.

By the time he reached parliament, Cable was a staunch deregulator and an uncritical supporter of big oil companies who helped to move the Lib Dems rightwards. He gathered signatures to overthrow Kennedy as leader of the party and, despite his Labour past, his speeches in the Commons gave no hint that he found any fault with the capitalist model as it existed before the crash.

Like George Osborne, Cable has found many lines to criticise the government but it is hard to discern any overarching philosophy, or a desire to do much more than catch tomorrow's headlines. You learn about his ability to put together press releases, his appearances on Have I Got News for You and his writing for the Daily Mail, a paper that champions the antithesis of almost every decent liberal value. But he makes no criticism of the dreadful development project sanctioned by his local Lib Dem council that will destroy a beautiful part of the Thames. And he admits shedding his pro-Europeanism to placate the Tory vote in Twickenham. All of which means that it is hard to work out what Cable stands for, other than Vince. The book feels as if it was written in a hurry while the aura of celebrity remains. That said, it is touching to see him find new love and happiness in his sixties after the loss of a much-loved wife.

As a story of postwar, English, middle-class professional life, this memoir is interesting, but it could have been written by a million other people. Britain is about to enter a moment in political history when great changes need to happen. Free Radical is flat and offers no guidance or vision.

The Lib Dems will be vital to the resistance against the tsunami of reaction that a Cameron government is sure to unleash. But, judging by the evidence of Cable's memoirs, they are already preparing for the political afterlife.