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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?

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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