A Life in Politics and Advice for Aspiring Leaders: An Interview with Sir Vince Cable – Global Risk Insights

January 15, 2022
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GRI’s Basim Al-Ahmadi sat down with the Rt Hon Sir Vince Cable to reflect on a distinguished career in public service, the state of British politics and advice he could provide the next generation of leaders.
Introduction to Sir Vince Cable
The Rt Hon Sir Vince Cable was Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade (2010-2015). He was the leader of the Liberal Democrats between 2017-2019 and served as Member of Parliament for Twickenham between 1997-2015 and 2017-2019.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GRI
What did the experience of being in a coalition government demonstrate to you about the importance of compromise?
Sir Vince Cable
In my view, compromise is grown-up politics. Compromise is when politics is doing the job it is supposed to do. And I think in functioning democracies that is the way the system operates, and if you look at the most successful democracies in the Western world, which are probably Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Holland, Canada, the UK probably not quite as much but roughly in that company, they are all based on parties compromising and working together.
The problem in the UK, of course, is that the coalition is a very unusual experience. The coalition had very bad consequences for the Liberal Democrats, which was the junior party. People are now reluctant to do something like that again, but it was a very successful period of government precisely because of the compromise and grown-up politics involved. I think the most alarming feature of Western democracy is that the United States’ democracy is basically disintegrating because of extreme partisanship and unwillingness to compromise on anything.
GRI
Is there more bipartisanship in the US and UK than is often recognised?
Sir Vince Cable
In the United States, there was some modest degree of compromise around the infrastructure bill that they managed to get through but virtually nothing else. There is some common ground on themes such as confronting China, which may be a bad idea but at least it has a cross party agreement. I think in this country we have gone away from the elements of good-natured compromise we had in the coalition – politics has become again even more tribal, less tolerant and Brexit did not help. The Brexit experience was extremely fraught. That was not entirely along party lines there – there was a big split in the Tory party and a smaller split in the Labour party, but Brexit has been a very divisive issue.
GRI
Did you feel the public appreciated that you were working with the Conservatives in a spirit of compromise to solve difficult problems?
Sir Vince Cable
It was precisely in that compromising spirit that we joined the coalition as Lib Dems. I think the problem we had was that the Conservatives were never entirely comfortable with the idea of a coalition and were desperate to get rid of us. Then indeed they succeeded in 2015 with a very ruthless campaign, which basically demanded that they were allowed to move the country forward on their own – that was a particularly divisive election.
The public at the beginning went along with the idea of a coalition but this was somewhat short lived and tribal politics reasserted itself. On the left, we were accused of being traitors who worked with the enemy – it became very nasty. And the Conservatives again were very tribal. They did not like having to work with us.
GRI
When did you realise you wanted to go into politics and how did your career launch?
Sir Vince Cable
I entered politics at a young age – I was in my 20s. I lived in Glasgow and I was a city councillor. I was also the youngest person in Scotland standing for parliament as in the 1970 election (as a Labour Party candidate) – I lost that election. I was part of a small number of people running the City of Glasgow as a city councillor. I was then a member of the Labour Party and was quite heavily involved in the party. I then dropped out of politics due to a mixture of professional and family obligations.
Then I resurfaced quite a lot of time later during the ‘civil war’ in the Labour Party and the subsequent formation of the SDP. I decided to stand as an SDP-Liberal alliance candidate in York for the 1983 and 1987 parliamentary elections – that is how I re-engaged in politics but did not get elected. I then moved to London and joined the Liberal Democrats and was elected to the seat of Twickenham in 1997 as an MP.
GRI
You experienced ups and downs as a politician and the road to becoming an MP, cabinet minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party was undoubtedly challenging – what would you say to aspiring politicians that believe that progressing through the ranks in politics is linear and straightforward?
Sir Vince Cable
It is an awful lot of luck to succeed in politics. It is being in the right place at the right time. There were only a few people who experienced a linear progression, such as David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg, who knew what they wanted – they got into parliament, and within a few years, they got into leadership positions, but there are not many people like that. The idea that politics is a kind of career and that you can just parachute into it is very mistaken.
GRI
Your experience of losing your Twickenham seat in 2015 and winning it back again in 2017 – what did that teach you about politics and resilience?
Sir Vince Cable
The loss in 2015 was quite painful because I was quite a conscientious MP and all the local surveys did show that I was quite popular and so to lose in those circumstances was quite traumatic. And I was already getting on in life – I was around 72/73 years old. Then there was an opportunity to try and win the seat back two years later, so I went for it and did so with a very big majority.
In 2015-2017, I was quite angry about the way not only me personally but the party have been treated by the Conservatives. So, I was very keen to get our own back, which was essentially what we were doing.
GRI
What are your proudest achievements in government?
Sir Vince Cable
I think there are two levels with regards to my achievements. On one level is when I was a member of the cabinet – I had quite a large Department (as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills) and I was also President of the Board of Trade, so I had a very big remit. We managed to do some very important things, such as setting up the industrial strategy, the Green Investment Bank, the British Business Bank, the Catapult network, getting through legislation on a variety of measures, including shared parental leave. There were a lot of achievements that I was a part of and bad policies that I was able to stop.
I think on another level which I was able to make an impact is when I was an MP for 13 years. The role entailed addressing granular issues which made a difference to people’s lives, ranging from helping somebody with an asylum application, tackling local homelessness problems, assisting a local charity that is raising money and a variety of different local challenges I was proud to address. These local issues are real and just as important as the ‘big’ things which I tackled as Cabinet Minister.
GRI
From your experience, what are the main differences between being a politician on the local and national level?
Sir Vince Cable
They are all worthwhile in different ways – being a politician is not necessarily a question of being a MP or a Minister. Being a member of the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly are quite high-level political posts. Being a councillor and particularly being in leadership positions on the local council is a big responsibility. Some of the big cities such as Manchester and Birmingham {the latter has an annual budget of 3.2 billion £} have sizeable budgets and even the borough I live in has quite a large budget. You would be running a very big operation. Unfortunately, the local powers are not as great as they used to be – they have been stripped away by an increasing centralised government, but these are nevertheless substantial jobs.  I think people like Mayor Andy Burnham in Manchester, have made the judgement that they can do more useful things as Mayor of Manchester then they can as a Manchester Member of Parliament or a member of the Shadow Cabinet.
GRI
Do you think this trend towards decentralisation will continue?
Sir Vince Cable
I think it probably will. I think there is a great urge to have decentralisation and get power away from London. So, I suspect there will probably be more of a tendency to give powers and prestige to devolved authorities.
GRI
Do you believe that Britain is still in a strong position post Brexit?
Sir Vince Cable
Brexit was a negative event – there is no point trying to conceal it and the economic impact has been negative and will continue to be negative. I think Brexit has happened and I take the view that the subsequent problems are real but one should not exaggerate them.
There are still a lot of good things happening in Britain and we have got to try and make the best of it. I think Keir Starmer has taken the Labour Party in that direction, which is a very good thing. It is quite positive for the country to have a pro-Remainer in Starmer to say “okay, we are now out of the EU, we have to do the best we can to maximise the advantages of being independent of the European Union and get on with it.”
Nonetheless, we are diminished post Brexit. There is no trying to deny it. If you deal with the Chinese as I do quite a lot, or the Indians, Britain is now perceived as being a smaller, less significant place than when we were a member of the European Union, but we are still a very important country with lots of attractions.
GRI
Do you feel that young people can go into the private sector instead to make a difference?
Sir Vince Cable
I think there is a very strong argument for having experience in the private sector, even if you go into politics later in life. I would not say that is absolutely necessary, but certainly a very useful stage in your personal development, and I would encourage people to do it. And of course, there are also people who go into business and do very useful things as businesspeople. They do not need to be an elected person to make a difference. Particularly given the risks and uncertainties with starting and developing a good business, it is a worthwhile thing to do in itself.
GRI
During your time as Secretary for Business, Innovation and Skills, how closely did government work with the private sector to bring about social change?
Sir Vince Cable
I spent a lot of time with business organisations. Every week I would go on visits to different parts of the country meeting businesspeople. I was mainly encouraging them to make success of their business. I was not twisting their arms to do socially worthwhile things – there are plenty of good companies that will do that anyway. They do not need to have ministers telling them to do it. I was encouraging businesses to grow, invest, take a long-term view, and develop export potential in emerging markets. That was the kind of thing I was working with business to achieve. And of course, we had an industrial strategy designed to improve the productivity and long-term capabilities of British business.
GRI
Which qualities or skills would you advise young, aspiring public servants to develop for them to have a successful career?
Sir Vince Cable
Well, I think I have touched on some of them, stamina, persistence, not giving up, resilience, fighting back – those are all the things that you need to do. I think probably the most important thing for me was having a stable happy family – lots of politicians do not have that. They sacrifice their families and their marriages because they are working long hours or get involved in entanglements, they are just single minded about their politics, which gives you a certain short-term advantage but having the emotional security of a stable family setup is, to my mind, very important and often forgotten with ambitious young people.
Moreover, having a hinterland is rather important – in other words, having other interests. I do a lot of reading, dancing, travelling – there are other things other than politics that I care about and I think it is very important because you can get into a very difficult situations when you are a politician – you are very exposed. You get involved in hostile media coverage, you may face the situation of losing your seats or be sacked from the government and so on. People need some emotional strength to be able to cope with these difficult moments and having a stable family and a hinterland of interest is to my mind a very important part of that.
GRI
Do you feel that the emotional strength coming from a stable and loving family would enable you to make better decisions as a politician as well?
Sir Vince Cable
Yes, I would agree and as part of a family unit, you are taking other people into account which is quite a lot of what being a good public servant is about.
 
-Edited by GRI’s Basim Al-Ahmadi and Eden Fall-Bailey.

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