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High Profile

Gold standard?

Justly or not, most MPs have seen their stock dramatically devalued in the last few weeks. Dr Vince Cable is a notable exception. Third Way found him open and unguarded in his office in Portcullis House.

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The family you were born into was working-class -

To start with, yes. To start with.

Wasn't your father a craftsman?
He was, but he became a tech college lecturer in building when I was a child, so we made our way up the soc­ial scale a bit to the lower middle class.

But your family had a very strong work ethic.
Phenomenally, yes. It was very Puritanical - it was hard work, education and, you know, no apparent earthly vices. It was Calvinism without the Calvin, really.

My mother and father were stern Baptists when I was young, though they dropped out later after a dispute with the minister, I think. They were very conservative, with a big 'c' and a small 'c' - and in a nice way and a not-so-nice way. Respect and patriotism and law and order and all those things were deeply en­trenched, but there was a nasty, prejudiced side to it as well. People with different colour were not thought very highly of, and different religions as well. There was an intolerant streak to it.

Did that make you resolved to be more liberal yourself in your approach to life?
I didn't sit down and say, you know, 'I must be different,' but I suppose I started quarrelling with my father in my mid teens - as children do, but it took a fairly pol­itical form. I had a fairly good, broad education at school and I had friends across the political spectrum and I brought ideas home and started quarrelling with my father about them. To his credit, I think, he ar­gued back; he didn't just say 'Shut up!' and get on with something else. But our discussions were often quite bad-tempered.

The issue only really came to a head, however, when I got married. My late wife was Kenyan Asian and there was the conventional racial response, which was not very nice; and so we had no dealings with my parents for four or five years after that.

You seem to have had quite a strong drive to improve yourself through education. Was that a reaction against your father's prejudice?
No, he also cared passionately about education, both for himself and other people - it wasn't entirely selfish. When he retired, he became a governor of a secondary-modern school and, I think, really cared a lot about kids who were not well-off and had failed the 11-Plus and were trying to get some kind of vocational trade.

My mother, too, had left school at 14 to work in a factory but cared passionately about education. Quite ap­art from anything else, it rescued her sanity: she had a breakdown when I was about 10 and she pulled herself together really by going to adult-education classes in music and art and things like that.

Education ran through my family rather like [the letters through a stick of] rock - and my achievements at school were the pride of the family, until I blotted my copybook.

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You went to Cambridge University. You seem to have felt very uncomfortable with the cloistered atmosphere of college life and to have been quite glad to live in digs - and yet you became president of [the debating society,] the Union. Is there a certain tension there?
Yeah. I suppose I went up there with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, really - a fairly humble background, fair­ly humble school, doing science - and I saw all these public-school kids and felt rather bloody-minded. At the same time, I wanted to do as well as I could there, so I worked very hard and got involved in the politics.

Was it there that you became interested in leadership?
I don't think I thought of it as leadership as such, but I did start to lead things. (I had been head boy at school, as well.) I became president of the university Lib­eral club and em­barked on a slightly whacky scheme to amalgamate it with the Social Democrats - this was 20 years ahead of the merger [in 1988].

Did that count against you?
Yes, it did. Neither side understood what I was trying to do: I was the sort of leader who charged out in front while the troops stayed behind scratching their heads and wondered what on earth was going on. So, I wasn't a great instinctive, charismatic leader; but I did like to be in a position where I had some say in things.

I think you're the only politician I've ever seen described as a romantic - and certainly the story of you and your first wife, Olympia, is very romantic. You seem to have had a real struggle with your respective families.
I've often wondered why both families reacted in quite that way. I think my parents were just coming to terms with the fact that York was becoming more cosmopolitan - I mean, I don't think I had ever met any black or Asian people, let alone got to know them, until I went to university. Olympia was also Catholic, and that, too, did not commend her. At the same time, she did have virtues that my father in particular came to apprec­i­ate and eventually, later in life, he overcame his prejudices and they became very good friends.

With her family it was less prejudice, I think, than a feeling that she was the eldest daughter and they ex­pect­ed her to set an example; and they had arranged a good marriage and then this English guy pitches up - wrong colour, wrong caste, wrong religion. Her father did his best to stop us getting married; but he relented after a couple of years.

Was religion important to you?
It was quite important to me, but in a slightly mixed-up way that you may find rather unsatisfactory. I was bap­tised a Baptist but joined the Methodist Sunday school because it happened to be at the end of the road - I took the temperance pledge when I was nine or so - but the thing that mattered to me most was that when I was 11 or so a close friend of mine took me to Quaker Sun­day school. I was always rather semi-detached - I never got deeply into it - but I suppose that if anything my values were derived from the Quakers.

When I was in the Sixth Form I was very interested in religion: I wasn't very strong on faith and commitment, but I knew it was important and I went round all the churches in York - it was hilarious when I look back on it. I went to the Christadelphians and the Unitarians, the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses, just to see what they had to say. But I think it was the Quakers I identified with, more than any other group.

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Would you say you were a person whose moral standards had been influenced by religious faith, rather than being a believer yourself?
Certainly the first. I would consider myself a Christian, but I'm not very active - as I say, it's rather unsatisfactory. I'm an occasional attender, and… there have been occasions - notably when Olympia was dying - when I sort of did take refuge in prayer and going to church on my own to think about things.

But I feel rather uncomfortable if I'm in a meeting where everybody's declaring their faith in a completely uncompromising and unfettered way. My faith is more nuanced. I do ask questions, and always have, really.

The world is more influenced by religion today than it's been for quite a long time. How do you feel about that?
I broadly welcome it. I mean, when people start hacking other people's heads off in the name of religion, ob­vi­ously you see the negative side of it; but I'm not a complete secularist and I do feel that religion has quite an important role to play (though I wouldn't like to see it being all-enveloping and oppressive, as it's in danger of becoming in the United States). When I lived in Glas­gow as a young adult, I was quite strongly opposed to faith schools because I thought they were divisive, but I've gradually changed my views over the years, and I now take the view that having a spiritual element in the school system is a healthy thing - though drawing the line bet­ween that and fanaticism is quite difficult.

Certainly in my own constituency I'm very conscious that it's very often the churches that have a sense of society which is often missing - you know, a lot of people, quite understandably, are just concerned with their property and their self-interest and their personal ambitions, whereas the church is very good at thinking about the wider context, our obligations to each other - and also very good in constantly challenging us all on matters of conscience. If there is an issue about Third World poverty or disarmament or whatever, the chur­ches will always be in the middle of it, and often leading it. And if they didn't do it, nobody would, to be frank.

Do you think religion should have a role in influencing political life in this country?
Yes, I think so. There are many issues we have to deal with that just can't be dealt with within the confines of party-political decision-making. The whole moral ag­enda, fertilisation, embryology - you know, what is life? And what is the meaning of life? Euthanasia, assisted suicide - these are incredibly tricky issues, and I think just ap­proaching them from a mechanical, secular perspective is not adequate. You do need a (it does seem to me) religious take on them, whatever it happens to be. And when we're dealing with the big issues of war and peace and social cohesion, these are issues that I would expect religion to have a view on.

I mean, I don't always agree with a lot of the Chris­tian groups who write to me, but I do feel I need a steer from people who are approaching things from that di­mension - they give you a framework within which to look at id­eas. The problem is that very often I will get a com­plete­ly un­bending, rather fundamentalist view from people who are campaigning on these issues, but what I would call a mainstream religious view is nonexistent, or so nuanced you don't know what it is. It may ac­tually be helpful to be told that the church thinks that an issue is very difficult and has two views on it.

This big storm that's going on at the moment, about how much greed is necessary and justified in a competitive society and where do you draw the line - I had a conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury about this - he invited a few of us in to talk to him over dinner - but I sensed that he was groping for the ans­wers as much as we were.

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I think you have said that really there is no alternative to capitalism.
Yes, I think that is broadly my view. I mean, you can re­form it, you can iron out the inequalities, but what other fundamental organising principle can you have? Communism has failed (quite apart from any unpleasantness associated with it). The very nationalistic types of system - the extreme, pathological types like Naz­ism or the softer version we have today - I find unattractive and also impractical in an increasingly integrat­ed world. So, we are left with competitive capitalism of some kind, and all the arguments revolve around what particular mutation we should be encouraging.

But isn't there at the heart of capitalism a consumerism that is actually not conducive to a happy and fulfilled life? Some people suggest that if we lived more simply we'd have more time for the things that are important.
Yes, I do agree with that - but actually I don't think it is necessary to have rampant consumerism as the basis of a mixed economy.

I've never been addicted to consumerism myself - I've always been quite frugal. My parents had a certain disdain for consumer goods: we were always the last people in the street to get television or a car or a wash­ing machine.

You have often said that fairness is key to your approach to social justice. What would fairness entail today?
'Fairness' is a terrible political cliché which we all use, often rather carelessly. It's got different dimensions to it. I think I and my colleagues probably use it as shorthand for not having extreme inequalities of wealth and income, but it actually must be more than that: there must be a sense that if people get rewards, it is for ach­ievement within a framework of rules, and if they fail, then that is reflected in their rewards. So, fairness is ab­out having a sense of responsibility and being rewarded for it appropriately. I suppose the Parable of the Talents comes in here at some point.

It isn't necessary to have extreme equality in order to have fairness, but when you have real extremes it's got to be moderated - and in particular, I think, we all have to have a sense of responsibility for people who have lost everything and are absolutely down and out. That's part of fairness, too.

You've had some extraordinary jobs, in the civil service, in academia, in the diplomatic corps, in business. You've said that you wanted to change things. When you came into politics, did you believe that that was where you could most effect change?
Yes, that's right. I think the first political experience I had was as a city councillor in Glasgow when I was in my twenties. I realised even in that very limited sphere that you could change things to an extra­­ordinary deg­ree if you worked in the political process. There were things I did then that have had lasting benefit. I managed to stop the urban motorway programme in Glasgow - driving motorways on stilts through the working-class communities that I rep­resented. I started a computerised system to help poorer people get benefits - it was very primitive, but it has survived in some form. I stopped the city council from just bulldozing slums and instead got it to convert them into renovated tenements which were then used for much more mixed housing, which was what people desperately wanted.

I mean, those may or may not have been good initiatives, but what I learnt was that by being part of the political process - in that particular case, it was being part of the Labour machine - I could, working with others, achieve things. And that gave me a determination to stick with my political interest, though I went on a vast circuit of high roads and by­roads before I finally got into Parliament.

Some people would say that if you want to wield power you shouldn't become a Liberal Democrat.

Yes, well, I think that's rather an old-fashioned view. It was the view I grew up with, actually. My mother took refuge from my father's extreme Conservatism in voting for the Liberals in the Fifties, when they were a tiny force and, yeah, you could say they were inconsequential. The phrase at the time was 'a wasted vote'. But even then they were very influential in certain key areas. They led the debate on Britain joining Europe, and in the late Sixties, even though there were only a dozen of them, they led the opposition to [what became the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act], which I felt very passionately about at the time. They were very much at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement (though a lot of Labour people were as well). So, even as a very small party the Liberals had disproportionate influence.

But these days [what you said] is not a sustainable proposition. The Lib Dems control [or share control of], I don't know, seven out of 10 of Britain's largest cities, for example - and you can do a lot at a local level. And we're growing in parliamentary terms.

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Do you think there is a failure of leadership in politics at the moment?
Well, it's certainly a mess. Whether it's a failure of leadership… You know, Gordon Brown has made a complete hash of things, but to pin everything on him is not right, I think. We all have some responsibility for this. I think Parliament should have got itself sorted out a long time ago, but we didn't do it.

What degree of transparency should we require from people in public life? There is a tension, isn't there, with an individual's right to privacy?
I don't think there is a definitive answer to this. As you quite rightly say, there is a tension and I think it would be dishonest to say that I believe in complete openness. One does have a private life, one has relationships with people who are not themselves politicians and don't want their lives to be trampled through the press all the time. I'm probably more open on a personal level - you know, in the things I've been saying to you - than a lot of MPs would be. I think that what almost certainly is right is that where public money is involved, one has to be completely open about how it's used.

You have been publishing your expenses for a while. Was it your initiative to do that?
A year or so ago, when Nick [Clegg] became leader [of the Lib Dems], he encouraged us to publish everything rather than have it dragged out of us, and I'm sure that the instinct was right. No doubt people will discover something at fault, but my expenses are seriously un­complicated and as far as I know there isn't a great deal that could be embarrassing.1

What are your current political passions?
Well, obviously the headline stuff is getting the economic mess sorted out, and that has become all-consuming in the last two years. I know these things can be very complicated, but they do actually affect people's lives and we're going to see one in 10 of the labour force out of work by the end of the year - and these are people who've done nothing wrong, they just happened to be working for the wrong company at the wrong time. And in many cases the people who have done wrong are just walking away with fortunes. So, it isn't just a technical puzzle. I do actually feel very passionately about the economic crisis and what it's doing. I think people have every right to be angry about the fact that we built up a very complicated financial system that at the end of the day wasn't much more secure than a pack of cards.

But there are other issues that I have been involved with over the years that are just below the surface - I could give you a long list of the various campaigns I've been involved in. One of the issues I spent a lot of time on when I first came to Westminster, and am still interested in, is policing. You know, I feel rather passionately about getting the police treated with respect - they are actually public servants - but also subject to strong rules, of the kind we have seen kicked over recently.

You are said to be the most popular man in politics, and certainly you have had an extraordinary rise to celebrity.
Yes, well, I'm as surprised as everybody else, I think. I don't know quite where it comes from.
I do think I've got a reputation for dealing with is­sues head-on where pos­sible. I always think it's better to answer a question, even if it's uncomfortable, than to constantly hedge and trim, which I've noticed is the house style in Parliament. And I try to be honest about what's going on and don't try to hide difficult truths.

You are often asked whether you regret not being the leader of the Lib Dems -
You'll get the same answer as everybody else.

I'm very comfortable doing what I'm doing. I've got a very, very busy job - extraordinarily busy, because I don't just have the economic stuff that you see, I'm also deputy leader of the party, so every other weekend I'm going all round the country speaking to the troops on the parade ground and trying to gee people up and trying to raise money… I also do my constituency work, so I'm exceptionally stretched. And I find it very fulfil­ling, actually.

I'm perfectly happy with Nick. He's doing a very good job, he's very able and will increasingly be recognised as such by the public when they see more of him in a general-election campaign. So, I'm very comfortable with the arrangement and it doesn't worry me.

Is there a particular aspect of your political life that you enjoy more than anything else?
I think there are two things that I enjoy particularly. One is real debate, real debate about issues, which you sometimes get in Parliament but more often get in the media or in public meetings. I'm actually quite good at public debate, and I find it invigorating.

The other aspect is getting the satisfaction of sorting out individual and local problems. Partly because my profile has risen, I now get horrifyingly large num­bers of people coming to my constituency surgeries, which I can barely cope with; but you do get satisfaction from first of all reassuring people that someone is on their side and then actually finding a solution.

I don't like a lot of the processes of Parliament. Leg­­islation is a terrible pro­cess, very time-consuming - and unproductive, because op­position parties are hardly ever listened to. Fortunately, I have wonderful colleagues who are willing to take on the chore of the Finance Bill every year and look after it as it goes through Parlia­ment and I'm deeply grateful to them, because I hate it. So, there are pluses and minuses.

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Your family is very important to you, I understand. Do you manage to find time for them?
Last weekend, I spent Saturday with my brother and his son and his son's girlfriend, who I haven't seen for yonks, and they took me off to Wembley to see York City; and then I drove down in the evening to see my wife and we had 24 hours together, and my son came along with his wife and my grandson and we went off to Exbury Gardens. So, in a busy political week I managed to get 30 hours or so with family. It's not satisfactory, and obviously I would [like to] spend much more time with them, but, you know…

I was amazed to hear how often you go dancing.
Unfortunately, that has fallen through the cracks in the last few months. I had a wonderful dancing teacher, who taught me for years, and I used to go to her twice a week and do all the medal tests; but she's retired and I haven't yet set up an alternative arrangement.

Finally, I hear that you'd love to own an Aston Martin…

I suppose it's one of my vices, really. I'm not into booze and betting and all those things, but I love speed, actually. I've got a Vauxhall Astra, but I have aspirations to drive fast.
I took up skiing a couple of years ago, which I had never done before. I'm not very good, but I just love the exhilaration of going fast.

NOTE
1  In fact, on May 13 the Daily Telegraph noted:
'As an outer London MP … Mr Cable is entitled to claim the Additional Costs Allowance for a second home up to a maximum of £24,006 … Instead, he commutes daily from his constituency home to Parliament by train.

'In terms of overall allowances Mr Cable came 568th in the MPs table for 2007-08. He did not take a recent 2.33 per cent salary rise.'

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BIOGRAPHY
Vince Cable was born in 1943 and was educated at Nunthorpe Grammar School in York. He studied natural science and economics at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and then did a PhD at Glasgow University.

From 1966 to '68, he worked as a finance officer for the Kenyan treasury. He then lectured in economics at Glasgow until 1974, when he was made a First Secretary in the Diplomatic Service.

In 1976 he became deputy director of the Overseas Development Institute, including a stint as a special adviser to John Smith, then Secretary of State for Trade & Industry. From 1983 to 1990, he served as a special adviser on economic affairs to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Sir Sonny Ramphal.

He then went to work for Shell International, initially in its group planning department and then, from 1995 to '97, as its chief economist. From 1993 to '95, he was also head of the economic programme at Chatham House.

He first stood for Parliament, as Labour candidate for Glasgow Hillhead, in 1970. (He was a member of the city council from 1971 to '74.) He then joined the new Social Democratic Party and in 1983 and '87 contested York for the SDP/Liberal Alliance. He stood in Twickenham for the Liberal Democrats in 1992, and finally won the seat in 1997 with a majority of 4,281. He has held it ever since.

He spoke for the Lib Dems first on finance, sitting on the Treasury select committee in 1998-99, and then on trade and industry until 2003. Since then, he has shadowed the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was voted deputy leader of his party by his colleagues in Parliament in 2006, and was acting leader in 2007.

He is a fellow of both Nuffield College, Oxford and the LSE.

Before becoming an MP, he contributed regularly to the Independent, the Economist and the BBC World Service. His books include Globalisation and Global Governance (2000), Multiple Identities (2005) and The Storm: The world economic crisis and what it means (2009).

He has three children by his first wife, who died in 2001. He married again in 2004.

This interview was conducted on May 11, 2009.