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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

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?

Photo: STEFAN BONESS/PANOS
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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

***

Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?