The Rt Hon Sir Vince Cable was Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills; Member of Parliament for Twickenham (1997-2015); deputy leader of the Lib Dems (2007-2010) and shadow chancellor (2003-2010). In addition to his political roles, Vince has held a wide variety of other positions, including: Deputy Director of the Overseas Development Institute, special advisor on Economic Affairs for the Commonwealth Secretary General and Chief Economist for Shell. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of topics from his love of dancing to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is The Wealth of Nations. It has been an honour to interview Sir Vince Cable and we hope you enjoy reading about his journey.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I write books, mainly non-fiction but this year a novel; work in universities as a visiting Professor; chair social enterprises; and dance.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I was a good all-rounder and saved from being the ‘school swot’ by being keen on sport, and quite good at it.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: On the whole, my school reports were flattering, except for the comments on my appalling handwriting.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I studied at the University of Cambridge, Fitzwilliam College, and yes it was my first choice.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: Started with Natural Science and later switched to Economics. Also, I spent a lot of time on student politics, becoming President of the Cambridge Union.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: I was extremely lucky to be lectured by disciples of Keynes: Joan Robinson, Richard Kahn and James Meade.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: I was advised that I needed a PhD to be taken seriously as an economist; this was bad advice.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: The University of Glasgow; I lectured during the day and did a PhD in my spare time.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: Economic integration and the industrialisation of small, developing nations: the case of Central America. I used some excessively complicated theory and modelling to show that common markets are a good idea.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: I tried to cover too much ground trying to be the Renaissance Man. Also, I feel it was a mistake to do a PhD rather than a good taught Masters, in hindsight I needed a stronger base in mathematics and basic theory.
Q: Could you tell us a little about your professional journey to date?
A: It has been extremely varied, including: University lecturing, Treasury official (Kenya), Diplomatic service (on secondment), Think tanks (ODI), International civil servant (Commonwealth Secretariat), Economic journalism, Political adviser (John Smith), Business economist (Chief Economist, Shell), Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister.
Q: What do you think is your biggest achievement?
A: As Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in the Coalition Government I had a legacy which I think is proving of enduring value: launched the Industrial Strategy; made a big push for apprenticeships; set up the British Business Bank and Green Investment Bank; reformed banks (ringfencing); promoted science and innovation (set up the Catapult network); well-funded universities; saved and expanded the Post Office network; promoted gender equality in companies, ‘long-termism’ in business and checks on executive pay; laws introducing shared parental leave; protection for suppliers to supermarkets and for pubs inter alia.
Q: Can you tell us about your current professional focus?
A: I am currently working in the LSE on international economic issues, and with Nottingham and the Open University to produce a MOOC for distance learning; on adult and further education including a project with the NUS; Chair of HCT, a large social enterprise, and Hampshire Community Bank; supporting a variety of local charities.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be working on in 2116?
A: I suspect that global warming and mass migration will have created a totally different, unrecognisable, political environment from now.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: I have two books in the pipeline: a second novel to follow Open Arms which appears in the autumn; a book on the ‘politics of economics’ describing some of the key political figures in history who have shaped the way we do economic policy from Alexander Hamilton to Deng Tsao Ping.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: See the world and travel as far as possible, on your own. There’s plenty of time later to discover the UK and Europe. Also, read the great classics of literature, history and science. You will be too busy later in life.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: If you mean economics, make absolutely sure you have a strong base in basic theory, basic econometrics and mathematics. If you mean politics, make sure you start local in community campaigning and local government.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: Perhaps discovering Shakespeare as a teenage actor: Macbeth and Julius Caesar.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: Try at least skimming Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and Robert Skidelsky’s Life of John Maynard Keynes.
Without critical thinking, much of what we take for granted, will wither and die.
Q: Why do you think being a freethinker is important?
A: Without critical thinking, much of what we take for granted, like science, social science, democratic politics, creative writing and arts, will wither and die.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: I normally just ask for an apple juice.
If you’d like to find out more about Sir Vince Cable you can check out his Twitter page, personal website and Wikipedia page.