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This week Vince Cable told Ben Parr what he thinks about fossil fuel investment, his party’s revival plans and Jeremy Corbyn, and why he doesn’t regret that U-turn.

Sir Vince Cable was at the heart of government for five years. A key player in the coalition, he served as Business Secretary before losing his seat in this year’s General Election.

Often seen as more popular than his party, he was once described by the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, as being ‘so plausible he could make eating babies sound entirely rational.’

Appearing at the Festival of Ideas in Bristol, he talked calmly and eloquently to a packed audience about Britain and the world’s economy.

Talking to me afterwards, Cable described the current state of the Liberal Democrats. ‘We lost very badly. Both we and the Labour party are now in very bad shape. What the country desperately needs is an alternative to this awful government who are moving to the right.’

Since losing his seat, he has finished his third book, After the Storm; a follow up to his previous book on the economics surrounding the 2008 financial crash. The book is critical of, among other things, the poor quality of economic debate in the run up to this year’s election.

I don’t know whether you want to go over that history, but I actually think it has worked out quite well. Students were very rebellious at the time, but the policy has worked.

Many cite the Lib Dems breaking their pledge on tuition fees as the key reason why they were hit so badly in the election. As one of the key architects of the fee rise in 2010, when asked about the Government’s recent Green Paper suggesting further fee rises, Cable comes across defensive.

‘Well I was substantially responsible for the changes that took place in 2010. I don’t know whether you want to go over that history, but I actually think it has worked out quite well. Students were very rebellious at the time, but the policy has worked.

‘More and more people are still applying to university, people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still applying, the system of repayments, which is based on people’s ability to pay, is reasonably progressive.

‘Universities have got plenty of money, and so the model we have developed seems to me to make a certain amount of sense.’

Cable is quick to point out what he sees as the policy’s shortcomings: something he was more reluctant to do whilst in government.

‘But, where it fails, was that of course all universities, regardless of quality, are charging the same amount.

‘We should not have universities with relatively poor quality degrees charging the same as, say, Bristol, where you’ve got very – I don’t know but I’m assuming – very high standards of teachers and researchers. So you want to get some kind of differentiation in.

      Vince Cable has entered the British National Dance Championships this year

‘I mean, if I were a student, I would be worrying if this was a back door way of increasing fees… But, I think the idea of helping to assess teaching quality is a good idea…

‘If I were a student I would want to know how my university ranked in terms of teaching quality and contact hours.’

Cable has worked for the oil company Shell, so I ask him what he makes of the University of Bristol coming under fire over its investments in fossil fuels, and whether ‘ethical’ economic strategies in general are possible.

‘I’m all in favour of having ethical judgements, but I think one needs to be careful about how it’s supplied. I mean fossil fuel companies vary a great deal in terms of how committed they are to sustainable development and less polluting fuels and so on.

‘I think one needs to make a judgement on how hard they’re trying rather than simply the fact that they’re fossil fuels.

‘I have to say that in government I did believe that we should be working with the Chinese, and Russia actually, for that matter. You know, you need a sense of values but, you know, you have to sup with the devil if you sup with a long spoon.’

During his talk and listening to him afterwards, Cable comes across as an academic and a realist above all else. He was critical of those who were against austerity as well as those who deemed it necessary.

The whole debate, he argued, is wrong in that it assumes you have to be one or the other.

On Labour’s new economic position under Jeremy Corbyn, Cable is quick to reiterate Corbyn’s lack of involvement in coming up with their economic strategy. ‘No no, Corbyn isn’t personally engaging in economics.’

Nick Clegg and Vince Cable

However, Cable is critical of Corbyn’s controversial quantitative easing proposals, claiming that ‘there are circumstances when that kind of radical monetary policy is necessary, but… it shouldn’t be political.

‘I mean it’s got to be the judge of the independent central bank as to how to deploy it.

‘Once it becomes politicians controlling the printing presses then you’re in serious trouble. That’s why I was suspicious of this idea coming through that channel.

‘If people like Lord Turner are advocating it and are ultimately in charge of it then I would be reasonably reluctant. But if it’s done by a revolutionary socialist party then disaster is around the corner.’

Cable’s party was reduced to only 8 MPs at the general election, so despite his analysis, his influence on economic policy is now significantly reduced.

I put to him that the South West was once the Liberal Democrat stronghold, but after the 2015 election, the region lost every one of its Lib Dem MPs, including Bristol West’s Stephen Williams.

However, despite ruling out returning to Parliament himself, Cable appears confident that his party will bounce back.

‘No, we’ve got to fight our way back and I think there will be a revival. The South West is an obvious area for it to happen. People in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset; they are not going to lurch to Labour.

‘If there is an alternative, it is us. We’ve just got to rebuild trust and believe that we can win elections, starting at a local level.’


Should Vince Cable regret increasing tuition fees? Is he right about Labour’s economic policies? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @EpigramFeatures.

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