Vince Cable: Beneath the halo

Vince Cable is hailed by right and left as a prophet who predicted the crisis. But is he quite the informed economist of repute? And what about his time at Shell?

 

Is there any politician in Britain more popular or acclaimed than the Honourable Vincent Cable, member of parliament for Twickenham, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Lib Dem shadow chancellor? Cable commands swooning adulation from left and right; he has been nicknamed Prophet Elijah for his supposed prescience in financial matters. A Guardian leader hailed him as "one of the classiest politicians . . . with the confidence of an informed economist". A Daily Mail editorial claimed he was the one political figure who, on this economic crisis, "has consistently outshone his opponents on both sides of the House". "How we need him as our prime minister!" exclaimed the paper's Tory-supporting columnist Peter Oborne. Yet what has Saint Vince done to deserve such praise and admiration? Is he really the nation's Cassandra, or have we simply succumbed to the cult of Cable?

That Vince Cable is a nice man is not in question. Nor can one doubt that he was proved right about the need to nationalise Northern Rock. And he has been correct to call for curbs on bank bonuses. But neither of these positions required him to look into a crystal ball, or actually prophesy the fall of Northern Rock in September 2007, or predict the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

So where is the evidence of his omniscience? His supporters would point to the now famous intervention in the Commons in November 2003 when he asked the then chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown: "Is not the brutal truth that with investment, exports and manufacturing output stagnating or falling, the growth of the British economy is sustained by consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt, which is secured, if at all, against house prices that the Bank of England describes as well above equilibrium level?"

Brown dodged the question and accused Cable of spreading "alarm, without substance, about the state of the British economy".

That exchange is reprinted triumphally in full in The Storm: the World Economic Crisis and What It Means, Cable's bestseller about the financial crisis. In that same book, however, Cable concedes that Britain's "personal debt" did not, in and of itself, cause the crash. "The trigger for the current global financial crisis was the US mortgage market," he writes.

So the issue is, did the Lib Dem deputy leader have the foresight to draw our collective attention to this particular trigger before publishing his book this year? "No, I didn't. That's quite true," he told Dominic Lawson in a Sunday Times interview in March. "One of the problems of being a British MP," he said, "is that you do tend to get rather parochial and I haven't been to the States for years and years, so I wouldn't claim to have any feel for what's been going on there."

This is a rather strange admission, though honest, for a man who claims to have seen the crisis coming. Not quite the informed economist of media legend.

Then there is the matter of City regulation. It was, in the words of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, the "zeal for deregulation [that]set Britain up for a fall". Weak regulators allowed reckless bankers to take enormous risks with astounding sums of money. So one might have expected Cable the political prophet to have been arguing consistently for better, firmer and stronger regulation of the City from the outset.

On the contrary, in June 1999, speaking in a Commons debate on the Financial Services and Markets Bill, Cable endorsed "the liberal market"approach to the regulation of financial services. "No one," he said, "is arguing for an increasingly severe, more onerous and dirigiste system of regulation." Any regulation, he said, should be "done on a light-touch basis".

A decade on, once again with the benefit of hindsight, Cable calls for "radical safety measures" to be built in to a new regulatory architecture for the City. But this is too little too late. You cannot advocate light-touch regulation on the floor of the Commons but then, a decade later, pretend you were ahead of the curve in predicting the ensuing financial crash.

In fact, Cable's denunciations of the excesses of the free market ring hollow precisely because he is a robust free marketeer himself. Having defected from Labour to the Social Democrats in 1981, he is not a leftist. Rather, in the words of one backbench Liberal Democrat MP to whom I spoke, he is a "classic economic liberal". Cable was a prominent contributor in 2004 to the Lib Dems' pro-market Orange Book, which advocated introducing a US-style private health insurance scheme to replace the National Health Service. (Who says Daniel Hannan speaks for right-wing Tories only?)

At the time, the Lib Dem peer and former frontbencher Lord Greaves condemned Cable and his fellow contributors to the Orange Book as "pseudo-Blairites with little following in the wider party". Five years on, one Liberal Democrat frontbencher to whom I spoke told me: "People do regard Cable very well in the party, but among a tier of the party, and including among some of his parliamentary colleagues, he has remained less popular."

Why? Because on Cable's watch, the Lib Dems have lurched to the right, dropping their plans for a 50p-in-the-pound tax rate on high earners and committing, at their party conference in 2008, to combined tax and spending cuts - presumably in order to chase Tory votes at the next election and perhaps even prepare the ground for a coalition with the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament.

In a pamphlet published in 2005, it was Cable, described to me by one of his frontbench colleagues as "clever and ambitious", who first intimated that the Lib Dems might drop their policy of "equidistance" between the two main parties. As he wrote, "If the pendulum swings, it may swing to a combination of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats."

Cable has strengthened his own support at the right end of the political spectrum by writing a regular column for the Mail on Sunday, in which he has railed against a "public-sector fat-cat culture" as well as the "writhing nest of quangos" - both, it is worth noting, Tory talking points. Interestingly, in the particular week in June when he issued his denunciation of public-sector "fat cats", he wrote a cover story for this magazine in which he attacked bankers' pay. Different audience, different message - the classic Liberal Democrat tactic.

Vince Cable was born in York in 1943, the son of a working-class Tory lecturer. He attended Nunthorpe Grammar School, and then read natural sciences and economics at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, completing a PhD in economics at Glasgow University. Before he entered parliament in 1997, Cable spent three decades as an economic adviser to organisations as varied as the Kenyan government, the think tank Chatham House and the World Bank. But perhaps the peak of his pre-political career was a two-year spell as chief economist for the oil giant Shell in the mid-1990s. In a fawning profile, the Guardian's Michael White wrote: "Please note that is not a job major multinational oil companies give to dumbos they want to shift out of accounts: it is proper work."

Proper work it ay be, but was it the kind of work that a self-described liberal and progressive should have been doing? Cable joined Shell in 1990; he was appointed chief economist in 1995, the same year as the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the southern Nigerian Ogoni ethnic group were executed by the Sani Abacha military government. This was after a wave of state-sponsored violence in the south. In May, campaigners accused Shell before a court in New York of complicity in the violence in order to protect its oil interests. The following month, in an out-of-court settlement, Shell agreed to pay the victims' families $15.5m, but refused to accept legal responsibility for the nine deaths.

So has Cable ever spoken out against the firm? The journalist Mark Lynas, who interviewed Cable when he worked at Shell, remembers him as being deeply evasive and avoiding all questions about Saro-Wiwa. Lynas is astonished at Cable's transformation into Britain's favourite politician. "I don't know how anyone could have stayed at Shell during that period and slept at night," he told me. "Because of Shell, I've always questioned his judgement on human rights."

I asked Cable's spokeswoman if he would like to comment on Shell's payout to the victims' families. She told me that "he does not feel that he knows enough about the latest developments to be able to comment".

For a politician who has spoken of his desire to reconcile "economic liberalism with wider moral values and social justice", why the silence about his former employer and this shameful episode in its recent history? Campaigners in Britain and in Nigeria are outraged. "For a former high-ranking Shell official to parade himself as a progressive liberal smacks of rank opportunism and cynicism," Sanya Osha, author of a book on Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ogoniland, told me. "One can't take such a volte-face seriously." But perhaps he had no idea of what was going on in Shell's Nigerian operation? Osha disagrees. "I think it is inconceivable that a chief economist at Shell would be unaware of the activities of the [Nigerian] military regime in relation to the plight of the Ogoni people." Ben Amunwa of the Remember Saro-Wiwa project agrees: "I find it hard to believe that senior Shell staff were free of responsibility for what happened in Nigeria."

It is a sign of the easy ride that the national media give Cable that he has avoided any detailed examination of his time at Shell. These days, however, it is a little local difficulty that is in danger of tarnishing his national halo.

In his Twickenham constituency, Cable seems to be displaying the partisan posturing that has made voters so cynical about politicians - and the lack of leadership for which he once condemned Gordon Brown, comparing him to Mr Bean (a gag he borrowed, incidentally, from a Leo McKinstry column in the Express).

Richmond Council is determined to sell a popular riverside site in Twickenham that is home to a children's playground and a David Bellamy Award-winning garden - to property developers. In a local referendum, nine out of ten residents rejected the council's plans. Cable has said that "while I continue to have a high profile at a national level, I shall continue to be active as a local MP". But he has gone out of his way, campaigners say, to avoid commenting on the development and has failed to attend any meetings of Friends of Twickenham Riverside, a community group opposed to the proposed sell-off. A local reporter told me, "It's the biggest thing that's happened in Twickenham, and people feel he has abandoned them. He seems distracted by national, not local, issues."

“I represent Twickenham in parliament, not on the council," Cable has repeatedly told irate constituents - but residents point to several examples of their MP campaigning against the council when it was run by the Tories. Nowadays Richmond is Lib Dem-controlled.“He won't go against his own council," says Scott Naylor from the Friends of Riverside group. "He may have his national halo, but as a result of this, his local halo has fallen off." Julie Hill, owner of the David Bellamy community garden, says: "Vince Cable promised to 'kick up a fuss' over the council's plan . . . but when the time came, this was one media spotlight he didn't want to be in. World economics mean more to him than voters in his own backyard."

With the town's Conservative candidate trying to capitalise on the row, and with a Tory landslide expected next year, it would be a paradox if his local reputation cost this supposed soothsayer of the crash his place on the national stage.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the NS. Read his blog at www.newstatesman.com/blogs