Review: Vince Cable at the Edinburgh Festival

Our Glorious Former Leader, Vince Cable, came to Edinburgh yesterday to talk to Iain Dale. It was great to see him for the first time Bournemouth  Conference in 2019. He looks well and hasn’t aged even now he’s turned 80.

There was a time when our press office held its breath whenever he came to Scotland. I remember one Conference in particular, ahead of the independence referendum where he said something that wasn’t quite our line which the press and the SNP made hay with. Today, he could not have been more on message, praising what Ed Davey was doing in terms of building the party’s infrastructure and campaigning capacity.

Talking of Ed, he’s going to be here on Saturday at 4 pm, talking to Iain and his For the Many partner Jacqui Smith. You can get tickets here. If you haven’t listened to this podcast, do, it is bloody hilarious and you need it in your life. And if you are going on Saturday, get in touch with me ([email protected]) and I’ll let you know where we are meeting beforehand.

Iain started by asking him about his time as a Labour Councillor in Glasgow in the 1970s. Vince described how he was chief whip at a time when corruption was rife, and four of his group ended up in Barlinnie. He left for the SDP and has never felt  tempted by Keir Starmer’s Labour who are not offering anything positive. He criticised Wes Streeting for saying that it is better to offer no hope than false hope and thinks that they should be doing more to inspire people.

Education, he says, should be the priority at the next election, rather than the NHS. The Tories have failed so comprehensively on it and it desperately needs investment to improve attainment.

He reckoned that there was not much chance of us going into coalition after the next election. We would be heavily outnumbered, and the party would be reluctant to go there again.

Iain asked him if he was “pissed off “that he was seen as too old to go for leader back in 2006. He was, but he accepted the mood to hand power to the next generation

He talked about the coalition years, saying that he winced along with many of us at the Rose Garden scenes.  He says he’s probably the last man standing, though, who thinks that we were right to go in to the coalition and reeled off a long list of things that we had done,  the Green Investment Bank, the industrial strategy, investing in children from deprived backgrounds in school.

He vigorously defended privatisation of Royal Mail saying it was the only option to enble it to modernise as it wasn’t allowed to borrow.  He blamed the union for not co-operating. Iain pushed back on him as he thought the union leader was pretty reasonable from his interviews with him on LBC but Vince said that if they had co-operated, the privatisation would have brought in more money for the taxpayer. He also said that the most recent problems within Royal Mail were the result of bad management rather than the privatisation.

He considered resigning several times during the coalition years – over the  sting when he said some inappropriate things about the BSkyB takeover, when cuts started to hit his department, particularly in the further education sector and  towards the end when it was all going wrong.

He talked about his time as leader and the stroke which led to him stepping down. While he made a full recovery, he decided to stay quiet about it at the time in case it was seen as s sign of weakness.

He says that if he had stayed on for another 6 months, he would not have joined the SNP and Brexiteer Tories in agreeing to the 2019 election, nor would he have gone for the policy to revoke Article 50. However, he did not criticise Jo Swinson, whom, he said, was dealt a very difficult hand. The difficulty was that people were less scared of Brexit than they were of Jeremy Corbyn in No 10.

Vince attracted criticism almost exactly two years ago when the Young Liberals felt that he was too soft on China in the wake of the Uighur genocide. He didn’t shy away from the fact that the Chinese regime was authoritarian, bad for human rights and getting more so.  He takes a more pragmatic line than I am comfortable with, but his reasoning is that we have to work with them as a global superpower. He talked about how he and other minsters would raise human rights issues with the Chinese government. I remember a Director of Amnesty saying that when this was done, the authorities backed off a bit, but they are definitely a lot worse now.

He gave an example from his time as business secretary when he raised the issue of workers’ rights when he was business secretary and observed to his hosts that workers in capitalist Britain had better rights than those in marxist China. Apparently he then shared all sorts of information with them on things like the minimum wage.

He criticised our government for paranoia. He thinks the decision to ban Huawei was wrong – while it is a risk to have them involved in infrastructure projects,  he says that the advice he had in Government was that our people could manage that.

Now, I love Vince, but there are often  facepalm moment in interviews with him. He certainly did have a go at Lee Anderson for his disgraceful comments about asylum seekers, describing them as crude and nasty. He then went on to say that Robert Jenrick’s order to paint over the children’s cartoons in the reception centre was cruel and nasty. So far so good.  But then he said he was going on Lee Anderson’s show next week. I don’t think I could bring myself to do that, especially when the show is being investigated by OfCom too. I understand the argument that challenging these people publicly is important, but I don’t buy that you have to go on their shows to do it. Especially when the presence of people on the other side of the argument could be a fig leaf to get round the impartiality thing.

I really enjoyed the show, as did the friends I went with. I might not always see eye to eye with Vince, but he is always thoughtful and interesting to listen to.

We enjoyed talking to him afterwards too. He knew what was happening in Scotland and where our best prospects were for the election.

Vince is also doing Alex Salmond’s and David Davis’s show, so maybe the press office shouldn’t relax just yet…


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Good to hear Sir Vince is hale and hearty …… as was Alistair Darling when I saw him interviewed by Glen Campbell of the BBC at ‘Fringe by the Sea’ in North Berwick last Monday – it was also good to see David and Judy Steel at the event, though I was sorry to read yesterday that Glen Campbell (a really first class journalist) is about to start treatment for a brain tumour.

    On another matter, I was surprised to hear Sir Vince, “vigorously defended privatisation of Royal Mail”, Caron. As a consumer, I notice that a first class stamp (41 pence in 2011 at privatisation) now costs £ 1.10 – to have risen by the Bank of England inflation calculator a first class stamp should now be 64 pence.

  • william wallace 10th Aug '23 - 10:54am

    I’m another who thinks that we were right to go into coalition in 2010. We were much too trusting of the Conservatives in coalition; we should have resisted their insistence that public spending was cut as radically as it was; we made a number of other mistakes. But compared to the chaos, Tory infighting, deeper spending cuts and growing inequality that the UK has suffered since 2015, it looks in retrospect like a period of competent government. And we (Ed Davey) pushed environmental and climate change issues much further than the Tories would have.

  • George Thomas 10th Aug '23 - 3:31pm

    As far as I can see Vince is saying that China won’t want to work with us if we describe their actions as amounting to genocide but will be willing to work with us if we only describe their actions as “authoritarian, bad for human rights and getting more so”.

    LD’s were right to go into the coalition but austerity is such a bad policy that there is substantial damage to take for propping it up.

    People were tired of talking about Brexit and believed it could be finished by voting in Boris, people didn’t believe Corbyn’s fantasy plan was believable and were worried about what would happen if he was voted in. It turns out that Boris’ plan was fantasy and people should have been worried about what would happen whereas Corbyn could have been restrained easily where necessary. Vince gets it wrong again.

  • David Blake 10th Aug '23 - 4:33pm
  • @ George Thomas I’d be most grateful if you could stop referring to the (thank goodness) deposed former Prime Minister as ‘Boris’. If you refer to him in this intimate way it is equally revealing when you refer to the former Labour Leader merely as ‘Corbyn’.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 11th Aug '23 - 2:39pm

    really interesting insights, thanks

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