In those heady post-election days last May Cameron and Clegg, smirking at the media assembled in Number Ten's garden, assured the nation that Coalition would be the only remedy to the maladies which Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling had so cruelly brought down on our innocent heads. One of the most conspicuous advantages sprouting from this venture into the New Politics (a phrase with implications rather more menacing than they were ready to acknowledge) would be the governmental presence of Vince Cable, influencing official policy on the economy. With all that what could possibly go wrong?
Well just a little over six months later the answer is that an awful lot is going wrong – and not only with what are called the ordinary people who fear for their chances of surviving the cuts but also for the Coalition itself, which can hardly be described as stable and united. For one thing there is the Alternative Vote, suspected by Tories nervously sitting on wafer-thin majorities as a convenient back-door into Parliament for any thrusting LibDem. And then, more calamitous, there has been the schism within LibDem ranks over their surrender to raising university tuition fees after they had in the mass signed that pledge not to do any such thing. Even worse – leading for them on this issue has been the hitherto saintly, all-knowing, all-wise Vince Cable who had the job of working out the details of the policy and then trying to persuade the rest to go along with it.
Cable rocketted to national prominence in December 2007 when, as stand-in leader while the LibDems were electing a successor to Ming Campbell, he drew attention to the new Premier Gordon Brown's “…remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos”. (We should not be misled by the consequent rapturous laughter into rating this feeble effort at a joke as historically amusing – MPs are irritatingly liable to relieve their boredom in that way. Even if it had the effect of giving Cable some much needed publicity). Cable's leader Nick Clegg is not famous for making jokes – perhaps because of his sensitivity in the matter after David Cameron said he was one. But he does display a kind of infant passion to develop the necessary political cunning. Looked at in that way it is not difficult to detect a possible strategy involving Cable's allocation to defend the rise in tuition fees.
It is, after all, not so long ago that Cable was a serious contender for the leadership and – after the Mr. Bean joke and Clegg's first fumbling among the front bench there was expressed regret among the LibDems that he had been so easily allowed to drop out. It could not have helped his case to have to defend the official party line in what Clegg expected to be a “train wreck” of a debate – before which Cable behaved like someone suffering from a serious head injury, apparently unable to decide whether to oppose, or support, or abstain on the increase according to whether he was talking about keeping a pledge or defending Coalition unity or what he called the national interest. In the end, of course, he gave in to blatant, self-interested ambition and held on to his wretched job by going along to the Commons where, professorial spectacles clinging perilously to the end of his nose, he mounted an emphatic defence of the policy which he was supposed to have grave doubts about.
It is clear from Cable's record that he is no stranger to doubt and confusion. Beginning as a Liberal he moved to Labour then the SDP before returning to what had been re-invented as the LibDems. During this journey he experienced what must have been a seriously instructive spell in the 1970s Scottish Labour Party, including a period as a Glasgow councillor. Eventually his multiple attempts to get into Parliament yielded him the verdant, pricey seat of Twickenham. Heavily qualified as an economist, he was a university lecturer and a Treasury Finance Officer in Kenya. From 1995 to 1997 he was Chief Economist to the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. During that period the suppression of the people of Nigeria whose lives had been devastated by the Shell operations became an international scandal as the murderous military dictatorship of Sani Abacha developed in intensity and barbarism. In an abrupt loss of his famous powers of grasping a situation, Cable denied any responsibility in, or knowledge of, those calamitous events: an interviewing journalist found him “deeply evasive and avoiding all questions”, another who later asked a spokeswoman for a comment was told “…he does not feel that he knows enough about the latest developments to be able to comment”.
This kind of record is important in sizing up a political ruler who, with an eye to winning high office, is touting for our support. In the case of Vince Cable we have to consider his reputation for unwavering prescience about capitalism's endemic crises which enabled him to sprout into prominence with his (distinctly unoriginal) forecast of the doom which would follow the credit boom. But how usefully did he apply this? In fact he allowed his insights to languish unattended, unspoken. Asked whether he had publicised the disastrous image in his book The Storm he lamely replied: “No, I didn't. That's quite true… But you're quite right…I haven't been to the States for years and years, so I wouldn't claim to have any feel for what's been going on there.” This unconvincing blather leads us to question what gain there is for human society in putting our confidence in leaders such as Cable. How could he be any more reliable and effective than the hordes of malicious swindlers before him? What is stopping us from preferring to have confidence in ourselves to change the world as it needs to be?