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.
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
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
You seem to have had quite a strong drive to improve
yourself through education. Was that a reaction against your
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.
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
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
Was it there that you became interested in
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
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
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
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
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.
Would you say you were a person whose moral standards
had been influenced by religious faith, rather than being a
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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
Finally, I hear that you'd love to own an Aston
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
1 In fact, on May 13 the Daily Telegraph
'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
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
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
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
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.