Vince Cable argues that the Liberal Democrats were defeated by fear. Illustration: Martin O’Neill for New Statesman
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Vince Cable on the Lib Dem collapse: the Tories won because fear triumphed over hope

In an exclusive essay, Vince Cable reflects on a “devastating” election for Labour and the Lib Dems – and explains why Scotland could become “like Ireland a century ago but without the bombs (hopefully)”.

In Scotland, the general election encapsulated Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope: an expression of optimism, pride and national self-confidence that defied the cynicism (or realism) of the established order. In England, the opposite happened. Fear triumphed over hope: fear of “chaos”; fear of Ed Miliband’s socialism; fear of being held to ransom by the Scots. This fear was carefully – brilliantly – mobilised by the Conservatives and used to devastating effect in a targeted campaign that included 23 Tory-facing Lib Dem seats (all lost).

I know; I was a victim of it. My comfortable majority disappeared as thousands of suburban Londoners quietly feared for their (generally prosperous) existence. Fear is not anger. I have never been through an election (my ninth) and been greeted with, and misled by, so much personal goodwill and affection on the doorstep.

The fear was heard in growing volume through two seemingly innocuous words. The first was BUT: as in “We think you are doing a great job as our MP” and “We think your coalition is good for the country” BUT Miliband/Scotland/. . . “is a nightmare”.

The second word was TACTICAL. Tactical voting is normally embraced by Lib Dems in my part of the world as a signal to Labour and Green voters to “keep the Tories out”: our defence mechanism against the first-past-the-post system. After five years of Tory-Lib Dem coalition this message was more complicated, but, to my pleasant surprise, many voters heeded the advice of the Daily Mirror and Polly Toynbee and voted for me. Had that tactical vote remained at the 2010 level, I and a few more colleagues would have survived. But that wasn’t the central problem. For floating, uncertain voters the Tories had managed to redefine tactical voting: “We would like to vote for you as our MP locally but we have to vote tactically to keep out Labour nationally.”

One illusion buried by this political avalanche was the power of the brand “Popular Local Champion”. My own approval rate was plus 40 per cent – about mid-range for an incumbent Lib Dem – but this was not enough. I have no doubt that defeated but assiduous MPs north of the border, Lib Dem and Labour, feel much the same.

So where did these powerful emotional currents, fear and hope, come from? Why, in our well-ordered country, after five years of stable government following a “hung parliament”, was fear of “chaos” so potent? The immediate response is to blame Ed Miliband, who was successfully caricatured as someone trying to turn our country into an Anglo-Saxon version of East Germany. He clearly misread the public mood, which was fearful of change, or experiment, and distrustful of promises of a better life, especially when financed by the taxpayer. But he was as much a victim of circumstances as the creator of them. He was the product of a tribal Labour culture that had become severely disconnected from social and political realities.

The seeds of his failure were sown in the early days of the coalition government, before he was elected leader. I recall the howling, angry, self-righteous sea of Labour faces on the benches opposite. Furious at loss of office, bitter at the sense of betrayal (by Nick Clegg in particular) and without a shred of humility. I have always acknowledged that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling made a good fist of managing the financial crisis and that the Blair-Brown years produced good, progressive change, especially at the beginning. But in 2010 there was a sense of entitlement to power, a belief that Ed Miliband reflected: that a capitalist crisis must inevitably require socialist solutions. Public finance was not understood, or even taken seriously; even as one of the lesser villains of the coalition, I was taunted for five years for making 25 per cent cuts in the departmental budget that my Labour predecessors had already inked in. The Tories’ skill was in crystallising the public distaste for Labour’s record and offer.

But if this alone were the source of English fear I would still be an MP with a comfortable majority. What none of us predicted was the Scottish effect. I wrote two Demos pamphlets about the “politics of identity”, the first of them two decades ago, speculating about how our politics could be moving from the old certainties of class and left-right debate to new divisions based on national identity, race, religion and language: Europe, immigration, Islam, Ireland – and Scotland. And in Twickenham, even though I often witness the passions of sporting nationalism, I never imagined that the Battles of Culloden and Bannockburn would be refought in the minds of my constituents. But in the event, the Scottish Problem carried a lot more weight than the bedroom tax or even the mansion tax.

The English reaction isn’t a racial thing. The prevalence of Scottish voices in our media reflects an underlying respect, liking and sense of trust. And Nicola Sturgeon’s appeal to many English people was not only to star-struck lefties, but also a positive reaction to an articulate, clever and attractive female politician. The greatest fear and loathing of Scottish nationalism I encountered came from Scottish expatriates settled in London. What they and many English voters resented was the idea of their country – Britain – being redefined without their consent, and without being consulted. To add insult to injury, Scotland seems to have much the better deal from the Barnett formula. The fear of a weak, Labour-led UK government being held to ransom by the SNP was just too much for a lot of my voters.

As I warned them, unsuccessfully, on the doorstep: be careful what you wish for. A Conservative UK government with minimal legitimacy in Scotland is just what the Nationalists want. Every failure and hardship north of the border will be explained away as the fault of the Tory Toffs in London. Attention can be deflected from those overdue, awkward questions about the chummy relationships with right-wing billionaires such as the Souters and Murdochs, or breathtakingly cynical policies such as paying for free university tuition by raiding the funds of further education colleges and schools (as well as English taxpayers).

 

***

 

Now that the Conservatives and the SNP have consummated their loveless marriage of convenience, they will have to learn to cohabit. The basis of the relationship is that the SNP cannot afford to lose a financially favourable settlement and David Cameron cannot afford to lose Scotland. It is possible this mutual self-interest will enable them to progress beyond the present top-down decentralisation of spending responsibilities to a genuinely federal arrangement – home rule. Scotland would be responsible for revenue-raising as well as spending and would continue to participate in a wide range of shared services, defence, foreign policy and common money. The parallel problem of “English votes on English issues” is more tractable and there are sensible, practical voting solutions already being touted in parliament.

What makes this scenario worryingly unpredictable, however, is that any new constitutional arrangements will no longer be the preserve of clever anoraks and bloodless public servants. Fear and resentment now lie not far below the surface. The politics of identity rests on raw emotion, not reason. Scotland could become like Ireland a century ago but without the bombs (hopefully). And what complicates the relationship further is that another issue of identity has to be tackled at the same time: Europe and the overlapping question of immigration.

Ukip had a good election, mostly at the expense of Labour and my party. The comical antics of the Ukip hierarchy and the lack of parliamentary representation can’t conceal the fact that Nigel Farage’s team is now in the Champions League of European Nationalists: not quite in the same class as Marine Le Pen’s outfit, but close. With their Conservative fellow-travellers they have now been gifted an open goal: to spend the next 18 months to two years championing the No campaign in the promised EU referendum. Those of us who warned of the unintended consequences of a referendum were right, but have lost; so the referendum will happen and will dominate our political life. The Yes campaign will, I assume, be led by the established political class: those who believe in the European project and those who believe we have to put up with it – Cameron, Clegg, Alex Salmond, Miliband’s successor, the CBI and the TUC – a less-than-happy band of brothers trying to sing from the same hymn sheet.

The chances of things going badly wrong are endless. Cameron’s negotiating dem­ands may not be met and his backbenchers will set impossible objectives in any event. Another, possibly terminal, Greek crisis or some other explosion in the eurozone will undermine the case for the status quo. The underlying sources of discontent will not and cannot be dealt with, because, as Farage correctly points out, freedom of movement (ie, immigration) is integral to the “four freedoms” of the single market; nor will the UK budgetary contribution be renegotiated again. The astute Mr Farage will have calculated already that he doesn’t need to win. An ideal outcome would be a 45 per cent losing vote, as in Scotland, providing a basis for perpetual English grievance and constant campaigning against the horrors of rule from Brussels.

The politics of fear may come back to haunt the Tories. It has unleashed English – alongside Scottish – nationalism. Ultimately this may prove more dangerous to them than the traditional enemies of Conservatism. They have started a fire and clever Lynton Crosby will no longer be around to advise them on how to put it out.

Whether the fire can be contained at all will depend in large measure on whether the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats can recover and offer plausible alternatives. Both for now are in a very bad way politically, and it is possible that the Labour Party’s advantage over the Lib Dems is merely that it is bigger, and that it has more to lose and further to fall.

My own party, I hope, will progress soon from shock and gallows humour to rebuilding from the rubble. Our stock price is so low that it offers a buying opportunity and we have had a flood of 10,000 enthusiastic new members within days of defeat. My own team is back on the doorstep recruiting and is finding it difficult to find anyone who will own up to voting Conservative, though many claim to agree with us while looking at the floor. We already know that many of those who were frightened into voting Conservative are suffering buyers’ remorse, or soon will be, and will be less easily intimidated next time. We know that many of our basic values and messages have enduring value.

It is just possible that disillusionment with the Tories and with the nationalists in England and Scotland will set in so fast and go so deep that, as in the mid-1990s, there could be a pincer movement from the centre and centre left under plausible new leaders. Merely to state the hypothesis suggests, however, how far away it is. But to make it even possible, a lot has to happen, including our two parties deciding whether they are for ever locked in mortal tribal combat or, more sensibly, whether they are potential allies in a wider, progressive purpose of constitutional reform; a liberal approach to civil liberties; anti-nationalist and internationalist; and with a modern fusion of social democracy and market economics.

Vince Cable was the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015 and was first elected as MP for Twickenham in 1997

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).