Mitchell’s “plebs”, lunch with Grey at White’s and the mystery of Vince

The New Statesman's editor ponders upon the man in the black fedora.

I enjoyed Vince Cable’s speech at the Liberal Democrats’ conference in Brighton, especially the “pleb” gibe made at the expense of his Conservative cabinet colleague, the heavily fringed Andrew Mitchell. The more tortuously virtuous and self-pitying his leader, Nick Clegg, becomes, the more Cable, who will be 70 in May, seems to be enjoying himself. For those who don’t know him well – and even for those who do and work alongside him – Cable remains a mystery and an MP without close political friends or allies.

What I like about Cable is that his politics and ideas are never predictable – he supports wealth and land taxes and the free market – and, unlike most politicians, evades easy categorisation. He has been called many things: a socialist (which he is not), a flinty Gladstonian (by his Tory colleague David Willetts, the higher education minister), a left libertarian (by Samuel Brittan of the Financial Times), the government’s oneman think tank (by Robert Skidelsky), an “antibusiness” business secretary (by Tory MPs who support deregulation and supply-side reforms) and a social democrat (his self-description).

I never believed that he would quit the government out of unhappiness or contempt for his Tory colleagues, as was widely predicted in the early months of the coalition. His lugubrious countenance disguises a jaunty sense of mischief and resolute ambition. It’s long been clear to me – I’ve interviewed him and he has been a guest several times at the NS editorial lunch – that he enjoys the responsibility of power too much and here he is, once more, positioning himself craftily to be the man in just the right place should Labour come a-wooing.

Minority report

Does anyone older than 30 doubt that Mitchell used “pleb” as his police tormentors claim? It’s just the kind of word you’d expect someone of his generation and background, so alert as he and so many of his friends are to the gradations of the class system, would use to describe the grubby struggles (or, in this case, interventions at the gates of Downing Street) of mass man.

This week, our economics editor, David “Danny” Blanchflower, erupted into the office as he does from time to time. We talked about Mitchell and the narrow social backgrounds of the cabinet and what this tells us about social mobility in Britain by comparison with the US. Danny is a professor at the Ivy League Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, which, like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, operates a needs-blind admissions policy and actively seeks to privilege bright children from poorer families.

More than a third of Dartmouth’s students are from minorities and 13 per cent receive Pell Grants, which are mostly given to students with a family income under $20,000. Universities such as Dartmouth and Harvard do not simply take SAT test scores into consideration when selecting students but are as interested in contextual data – school, family circumstances, interests. “It’s all about determining ability and potential,” Danny told me. “Harvard and Dartmouth take the black kid from the Bronx with a high IQ, who will get a free ride for all four years. Oxford takes the rich white guy every time.”

Peer group pressure

Talking of rich white guys . . . to the high Tory White’s club on St James’s Street for a London Magazine lunch hosted by Grey Gowrie, the flamboyant hereditary peer who served as a minister in the Thatcher government and was a friend and confidant of the American poet Robert Lowell. I sat next to Ferdinand Mount (the baronet and author most recently of The New Few, a book about the excesses of irresponsible/ predator/crony capitalism and much admired by Ed Miliband), close to Melvyn Bragg (a life peer) and opposite a poet who was also a knight. Titleless in such company and in such a setting, one felt, to use the word of the moment, something of a pleb, an expression that I heard used a lot in the Eighties and Nineties but not much since. Grouse was served, as you would expect at White’s at the start of the season of mists and mellow . . . etc, with a good red Burgundy and, after I was called alongside him for an intimate conversation, it was amusing to listen to Gowrie reminisce about the (Lady) Thatcher years.

Return to sender

The London Magazine, now owned by a benevolent businessman, Burhan al-Chalabi, and edited by Steven O’Brien, has had a long and often troubled history. In the 1820s, it published Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth, as well as instalments from Thomas De Quincey’s great memoir of addiction and the disintegrating self, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. At various times, it has disappeared altogether because of an absence of funds and readers, only to be optimistically revived.

In its present incarnation, it has been continuously published since 1954. For many years, it was edited by Alan Ross, minor poet, cricket enthusiast and belletrist, to whom in my early twenties I once sent a short story. It was promptly sent back to me a few days later, accompanied by a short, handwritten note from Ross, politely declining my story and reminding me “next time” to enclose an “SAE”.

I was pained by the rejection but delighted that he had bothered to reply at all. As it turned out, there would be no next time and I remain grateful that the late Mr Ross rejected my story. Had he accepted it, I might have spent many wasted years attempting to write many more.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special