Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Free Radical, by Vince Cable

Second paragraph of third chapter:
I did, however, have one major advantage. In an institution as ferociously competitive as Cambridge was — and almost certainly still is — there is considerable merit in starting at the bottom, unburdened by high expectations. A 'NatSci' at Fitz from an obscure north-country grammar school and digs miles from the centre of town was as low as it was possible to get. My new college friends and I felt lucky to have scraped into the university at all, and were proud to ride around in our gowns and entertain awestruck relatives by walking them round the old colleges. We developed a camaraderie based on affected yobbishness, exaggerating our provincial accents and proletarian ancestry. Our main aim was to survive, which sounds more challenging than it was, since outright exam failure was extremely rare. (Two of my friends managed it, however, one succumbing to a breakdown, another departing bewildered and in tears back to Accrington.)
I've actually had this on the shelves since before the 2010 election, which brought Cable to power as Business Secretary in the Cameron/Clegg coalition government, but have only now got around to reading it. Cable then was one of the Lib Dems' star performers, who crashed out of parliament in 2015, but in 2017 returned and was almost immediately elected leader of the party unopposed. (I noted with amusement that the current Conservative and Labour leaders, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, are each referred to precisely once in Cable's book, and both of their names are misspelt.) He was 65 when this book was written and he is 74 now.

His personal and political journey is indeed an interesting one. I too was a Cambridge NatSci from an unfashionable part of the UK, and I too was an election candidate in my late twenties, but otherwise our paths have diverged somewhat. Cable gravitated from academe to a brief spell in government in the late 1970s, and then worked for Shell, reaching the rank of Chief Economist, until he got elected to Parliament for the first time in 1997. (This was after unsuccessful runs for Glasgow Hillhead in 1970 and York in 1983 and 1987). Few politicians come to politics with his level of economic expertise, let alone combined with practical experience of industry. He then was fortunate enough to be able to make the running in critiquing the Brown government's economic policy as the Great Recession started to bite, and the book is in a sense a victory lap for what was generally perceived as an outstanding political performance in the 2007-2009 period.

There is also the moving story of his marriage to his first wife, Olympia Rebelo, a Goan from Kenya. I think Cable is the only leader of a major British political party to have had a non-white spouse. Both families were very doubtful about the match, the Cables out of sheer racism, the Rebelos out of snobbishness. But by Cable's account, they were mostly happy, and he was clearly devastated when she died after a long illness, just a few days after he retained his seat in the 2001 election. Her presence resonates in the background of most of the book. (Oddly enough I knew someone at Cambridge with the same unusual surname as Cable's second wife; presumably a niece or cousin.)

Nine years on, I'm not completely convinced by Cable. The one time I saw him speak in Brussels, in January 2015, I was a bit underwhelmed (of course, this was in the dying days of the coalition, so he can perhaps be excused). Just as I was reading this book last month, he screwed up a meeting with European liberal leaders pretty massively. I'm also not sure of the wisdom of instrumentalising the Lib Dems as "the party that will stop Brexit"; if Brexit is stopped, which I think now vanishingly unlikely, it will be because of a change of mind by the Conservatives (which is why I think it vanishingly unlikely), and if it isn't, the party that promised to stop it will have failed to deliver. But at the same time, I'm glad that there remains a centre party in British politics (I think I am still a member myself), and the book gives me a good understanding of why Cable is leading it in the way that he does. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next in that list was No Going Back to Moldova, by Anna Robertson, which I have since read and will write up next week.
Tags: bookblog 2018, lib dems

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