Vince Cable to liberals: Don’t despair, go local, celebrate identities and embrace social democratic policies

Last night, Vince Cable gave the annual John G Gray Lecture to the Scottish Liberal Club in Edinburgh. John G Gray was a leading Scottish figure in the fightback from near extinction in the middle of the last century. He was at one point the only Liberal councillor in Scotland. Vince observed that at the same time as he was successfully fighting a ridiculous proposal for a ring road in Glasgow, Gray was doing the same in Edinburgh, making sure that a proposal that would have damaged much of the city’s heritage never came to fruition.

The subject of his talk was Brexit, Trump and the Crisis of Liberalism. He set out four things that we should do to stop the “insidious” politics of populism and nationalism taking root.

Firstly, he looked at some of the reasons for populism taking hold. History has many examples, from the South Sea Bubble, to the Depression to the 2008 crash, of economic heart attacks being followed after some years by populism. When people lose out, they turn to the extremes and we have over the past decade seen the fall in post war living standards. Significantly, the measures used to keep the economy afloat, low interest rates and quantitative easing, ensured that pensioners’ savings didn’t grow. That resulted in discontent and nostalgia became a powerful emotional driver.

He warned that as the populists fail, the search for a scapegoat would turn on the judiciary and the other elements which underpin our democracy. He highlighted the Daily Fail’s talk of the enemy within – where the Lib Dems were top of the list. Populists do what they can to delegitimise anything that gets in their way. 

A common ploy of populists, which we can see from Farage, Trump and the Brexiteers, is to present themselves as the voice of the people. They claim that only they can do the people’s bidding.

We know that Vince is good at predictions. After all, he said the 2008 crash would happen years before it did. What many may not know is that in 1994, he wrote a pamphlet for Demos in which he explored issues of globalisation and identity politics. He mooted the possibility of a General Election fought over the EU, immigration and Scotland.

So, what do we do about it all. The first thing was not to despair. The populists, where they are winning, are doing so by very low margins, but liberals in places like the Netherlands and Canada are winning too. En Marche and Macron give France a powerful liberal force.

Liberals need to tackle identity politics by recognising the validity of identities – and people can have many. He talked about his own local area where people would variously identify as Punjabi, Sikh, Londoner and British.  Celebrating multiple identities is important

I’ve long thought that conversations on the doorstep are the best weapon in getting the liberal message across. Vince said that back in the 1970s, it was the local engagement of the Liberals which helped rebuild us on a national level. The Liberals, he said, were the ones who came round and collected recycling – even then being ahead of the curve.

The third requirement in tackling populism was political and electoral reform so, simply, that people got the Parliaments they asked for. Later on, under questioning, he added that this was more necessary than before as parliamentary democracy has “decayed to a dangerous degree” with Corbyn’s Labour providing no opposition. We faced a constitutional crisis, he says with an effective one party state in England and across many councils such as Manchester.

The final element of our populism-busting toolkit was what he described as “economic activist government.” He said that we must not be shy about governments using the levers of the state to create greater equality. We absolutely have to help the casualties of globalisation. He talked about his efforts with the Workers’ Educational Association to provide education to middle aged people to give them the skills they need in today’s economy. The state needs to do more to encourage social cohesion in an age of great inter-generational unfairness, when people’s jobs and pensions are not as secure as they used to be and it takes two full-time incomes and borrowing to the hilt to be able to afford an average home. Social Democrat redistributive policies were essential to combat this.

Questions: safe spaces, experts, and can Brexit be stopped?

There was time for questions afterwards. One strand was around the Govian denial of experts and increased polarisation and lack of exposure to opposing points of view. Vince was scathing about the idea of “safe spaces”, and said that attempts to suppress debate in universities were “absolutely dire.” He added that he had been partially successful in stopping Theresa May’s attempts to ban radical Islamic speakers – not the sort who advocate terrorism, of course, but those whose ideas need to be challenged. He argued that open debate was an essential liberal response to populism and all people needed to accept that they were going to be offended.

The drift way from disciplined thinking and the disregard of experts in fields like climate change was very worrying.

I sensed a softening of his position on Brexit since last Summer. Then, when I saw him at the Book Festival in Edinburgh and when he wrote here, he was pretty much of the opinion that Brexit was going to happen and we should get on with it. Now, he says he sees a small chance that it can be reversed although he is not wedded to the idea of a referendum on the deal – he reckons that a General Election would give people the opportunity to have their say.

He finished by saying that all politics should engage our emotions, not just the populist sort. Liberalism could and should engage heart as well as brain.

All in all, it was an excellent and stimulating evening. Vince as ever was thoughtful and though-provoking. It was encouraging to see such a packed room with lots of new members, including some brand new people, there as well. I did feel quite guilty as I kept seeing posts on Facebook saying “I’d so love to be going to see Vince but canvassing for the local elections is more important.” I hope that this gives those people who were out on the frontline a bit of a flavour of what went on – and in producing it, I’ve been forgiven for not being out on the doorsteps.


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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Mick Taylor 5th Apr '17 - 2:40pm

    I agree with Vince that there should be General Election rather than a referendum at the end of the Brexit process, but before we sign any deal. Fought properly with our party clearly outlining the benefits of the EU rather than, as previously, shilly-shallying about it would give pro EU forces a party to rally round and with our dreadful election system could lead to a pro EU majority in the HoC as the anti EU parties will be split.

  • Caron, “He mooted the possibility of a General Election fought over the EU, immigration and Scotland.”

    What is he saying about Scotland now – assuming that we will be taken out of the EU on the votes of the bigger neighbour down south ??

  • David, he generally kept out of the indy question apart from to say that he thought that he supported Willie’s line on us being the pro UK pro EU party.

  • Caron, thanks for the answer. Would have been there but for a 90 minute hold up on the East Coast main line after ‘an incident’ in Northumberland.

    I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that’s not really keeping out of it – rather – it’s skirting round it. Much as I like and respect Willie (yes, I really do) , I know his view on the matter is not universally supported. Many people are too polite to say so.

  • David, our members are not known for polite submission to our leaders. The big test, I guess, is the motion passed at Conference which had overwhelming support in the room. Maybe only one or two against.

  • John Littler 5th Apr '17 - 4:22pm

    Brexit can be stopped and as the economy goes down the pan most people will clammer for it to stop. If you look at the Daily Fail columns after the 100,000 city jobs going claim appeared, comments have shifted a great deal from the usual 90-95% EU hating little englanderist positions.

    Perhaps the government stops it progressing and wears severe egg on face, which will not look good, while starting a massive Tory Party split, which would also not go well?

    Alternatively, the government listens to it’s right and Ukip and trys to pretend that it just needs to go ahead to implement the stupid vote and it would be slaughtered at the next General Election and likely to be out of power for some time.

  • John Littler 5th Apr '17 - 4:33pm

    1) During the campaign, Remainers said thousands of jobs would go if we left the Single Market;

    2) After the campaign Remainers said thousands of jobs would go if we left the Single Market;

    3) business has been telling the government every day, that thousands of jobs would go if we left the Single Market;

    4) The EU says thousands of finance jobs would go now the UK is leaving the Single Market;


    Nationalists are dupes, enabling the ultra rich and the worst corporations to carve up business at the expense of workers, consumers ( food standards & labelling) and the environment and risking a collapse of world trade, a recession and another major war.

    The EU was put together primarily to make wars impossible by tying together countries. Any details about the structure, trade, or bureaucracy are just reletively small details.

    As it happens, trade is made easier and less bureaucratic, a total of 80 countries have EU free trade deals, it is more democratic than the UK, will likely now outlast the UK, has a more stable currency and the bureaucracy of the commission is just the size of Southampton Council.

    If the EU did not exist, we would have to invent one. Demographics alone would take us back in eventually, but opinions will change in it’s favour a lot sooner.

  • A general election on the terms of the EU deal is far more achievable than a referendum, but Vince himself explains both the reason why the Government might concede, and why it would be flawed. We need electoral reform, and general elections are heavily flawed at the best of times.

  • Bill le Breton 6th Apr '17 - 7:58am

    What Cable seems to be saying is that in 2007 we strayed from the path of our Community Politics heritage at huge cost and that we should get back onto that path.

    Secondly that we should not dismiss the significance of feelings of identity. In that he is in line with David Goodhart and others.

    The two of course are related. We strayed from Community Politics when we started to be led by those with great privilege who thought they had special knowledge of how to run the Liberal Democrats, knowledge that previous leaders and influencers didn’t have.

    This was to distance the Party from the lives of most people in our cities. towns and villages. It was the path of elitism. It was the path to the ‘bedroom tax’ and the other horrors placed on the poorest and most vulnerable. It was the path to electoral suicide.

  • Andrew McCaig 6th Apr '17 - 10:36am

    Don’t forget throwing away the votes of a whole generation of intelligent young people by showing our promise on tuition fees to be utterly cynical. In 2010 we had the support of over 40% of under 25’s.

    Community politics is all part of “the way we do politics”. For years we built our support by keeping our promises to local people. I believe that is more important than any individual policy, because you need to carry people with you when later the policies you promote are necessary but not popular. The End does not justify the Means.. Recent polls show that we are still not trusted by the majority of people and that is the legacy of the broken Pledge above all. And of course the power of the Pledge in the first place was that everyone saw that it COULD be kept by individual MPs regardless of any coalition.

    Vince has to take a big, big share of the responsibility for what happened to our Party in 2010, and I do not mean going into coalition, which I supported as a necessary evil at the time (Royal Mail privatisation is another blot on his record in my opinion…)

    Meanwhile sticking to our guns on Europe is the consistency people expect from political parties and will only do us good in the long term, even in Leave voting areas. No-one (ok, hardly anyone!) seriously believes that the local community politician is an “Enemy of the People”

  • Andrew McCaig 6th Apr '17 - 10:39am


    I agree 100%. Without PR General Elections are the worst possible way to try and decide an issue like Europe

  • Bill le Breton 6th Apr '17 - 11:15am

    Andrew, yes you are right.

    But in many ways I am more hopeful than any time since the arrival on scene following our 1997 success of people who had a very ‘professional’ idea of politics and representation. People who thought that constituency work was somehow demeaning and a distraction from the real practice of politics which was ‘governing’ and centred on the Westminster Village. Who actually believed that we were ‘not professional’.

    Such people sneered at ‘identities’, unappreciative of the very particular and really non-representative identity that school, university , contacts and particular world of work that this milieu had had said was their special entitlement.

    Yet the many identities by which people not in this charmed set expressed their community memberships were thought to be outdated, somehow post-industrial, under-educated relics.

    Our great advantage, the reason why we were able to succeed before these people arrived, was because we saw value in every life , saw how such people and such communities had had their power stolen or suppressed and campaigned along side them to help them assert themselves, value their identities and in so doing value the identity of others, of neighbours, of newcomers, of difference.

    It is among those communities that our true place of work exists. It is with people whose identities are sneered at as well as people with identities similar to ours that our mission lies. It is on empathy that we build.

  • Sue Sutherland 6th Apr '17 - 2:56pm

    Bill, I agree with much of what you say. I also think that being in Government, understandably, went to a lot of our MPs heads and that we need measures in place so this doesn’t happen again. You talk about people who’s identities are sneered at and it seems to me that , apart from Remoaners, the people who are sneered at most are those who voted Leave because they had been persuaded that the EU was to blame for everything. A lot of these people hadn’t voted in an election before but took the opportunity the Referendum offered of making their vote count. I can remember fighting to get people to vote through the old two horse race literature and on the doorstep and some did vote and I hope we represented them when we won.
    I think the best way we can represent them now is by pledging to reverse austerity and offer them hope of a new kind of society and to stop denigrating them if we have done this. Their experience of the EU years has not been the same as most of those who voted Remain so, of course they were an easy target for the Brexiteers. They have experienced their lives as a downward spiral while those who benefitted from the EU saw it as enhancing their opportunities.
    The problem we have is that we won’t be the ones who make a decision on a second referendum or a general election to decide on the outcome of Brexit. However, we can campaign for a change of heart as well as preparing ourselves for a GE fight about leaving or staying in the EU. We can also campaign on the issues which some Lib Dems criticise about the EU at the same time and we need to be keeping up our contacts with the EU so that they can work towards giving us the opportunity to reverse the decision or rejoin. Please let us campaign together for a brighter future for our country and for Liberalism.

  • @ Bill and Sue Absolutely right.

    If Liberalism isn’t about social justice it means nothing. Individuals don’t flourish in a desert……. they need sustenance and support provided by society and the different levels of the public sector and the state. That’s what the well heeled free marketeers don’t get.

  • John Littler 10th Apr '17 - 12:07pm

    A general election on brexit terms would be a messy affair with an unpredictable outcome.

    So many issues are conflated, people often vote tribally, the FPTP voting system does not easily allow single issues to be reflected in results, as where voters live has arguably a bigger effected than what voters vote.

    Referenda create conflict and often do not end arguments, but now this issue has been opened the only probable way to deal with it would be with a meaningful vote on the outcome.

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