Thursday, September 24, 2015

There may be trouble ahead

A week, as they say, is a long time in politics. Unfortunately for former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Vince Cable, now is probably not the best time to be a politician trying to promote a book - unless, of course, you're Lord Ashcroft.

Cable came to Abingdon last night to give a public talk as the keynote speaker at Our Lady's School's Reading Week, and while he alluded to "David Cameron and the pig", he didn't allow himself to be sidetracked from the issue at hand - namely, talking through some of the issues covered in After The Storm.

The book is a sequel to The Storm, which, as the first book about the financial crisis that kicked off in 2008, rapidly became a bestseller but which, as Cable himself conceded, was somewhat rushed as a result and so isn't the best book on the subject. His new tome has been written in recognition of that fact, and takes a more considered with-hindsight approach to that turbulent period. It looks both backwards, to the crisis and its causes, and forwards, to where we are now and what might happen next.

Cable's first key point was to underline the existence of two distinct narratives about the causes of the crash at the time: one that identified the irresponsibility of the banks as the critical factor and another that pointed the finger of blame at government spending. He prefers the former, noting that Labour's spending was reasonable and a deficit was an inevitable consequence of the crash, but George Osborne (or, as Cable referred to him in an ironic tone, "my Conservative friend") and chums prefer the latter and have managed to ensure that their austerity narrative has become dominant and the banking narrative erased from memory. After The Storm, Cable said, is his attempt to bring the first narrative back into view.

Somewhat amusingly, Cable took issue with his own choice of book title, explaining that he's fond of using metaphors but now wishes that he had chosen a different one. Rather than the crisis being like a storm, he spoke about the economy as being like a patient that has suffered a heart attack - it has survived and is showing good signs of recovery in some respects, but ultimately it has suffered a uniquely traumatic experience that has wreaked (and continues to wreak) lasting damage. Things, he argues in the book, will never be quite the same again.

Generally speaking, Cable's perspective is moderate and sober. Austerity, for instance, isn't something he feels is a black and white issue - rather than being simply "for or against austerity", it's a matter of being in favour of it to a greater or lesser degree. His argument is that, while reducing the deficit should certainly be an objective, it shouldn't be the top priority, not least because previous governments have operated perfectly well when saddled with much higher levels of debt and because the cost of borrowing is so extraordinarily low. So, while he accepts the need to keep control of public spending, he is strongly opposed to the extent and severity of the measures being imposed by the Tories. One can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for this mild-mannered economics whizz to find his careful and considered reasoning drowned out and ignored by his Tory colleagues in the Coalition government. Now that the Tories are in power on their own on an austerity mandate, I would have been fascinated to know how he thinks they've managed to persuade or manipulate us turkeys to vote for Christmas.

However, Cable seemed almost as wary of Jeremy Corbyn as of Cameron and his cronies, largely because of the way that the new Labour leader tends to frame and present his policies and recommendations, in political and ideological terms, rather than because of the policies and recommendations themselves, with which he conceded to having some sympathy. There was more than a whiff of party politics about his description of Corbyn as "unelectable" and his fear that the Tories will as a result move further to the right, knowing the electorate will let them get away with it. He may no longer be an MP, but he remains committed to the idea of there being a place in British politics for a social democratic party like the Lib Dems - though, as he admitted, it's the centre left that (somewhat surprisingly) has been hit hardest by the fallout from the crash.

Perhaps Cable's most interesting point, and one that might have been elaborated upon had time allowed, concerned the way that the housing crisis, both in terms of affordability and availability, is creating a generational divide between those who own their own homes and those who don't and can't - a generational divide that, while initially economic in nature, will inevitably have profound social and political consequences over time. Indeed, this divide already exists in the sense that the Tories are keen to protect pensioners' perks at the expense of services for children and young people simply because pensioners are both eligible and more likely to vote. Given his talk of the rise of "the politics of identity", one wonders whether age may soon become as much of a politically charged issue as race, religion, sexuality and national identity.

In the wake of the David Mitchell event last November, the event was another significant coup for Mostly Books and the Abingdon literary scene - and at just £4 a ticket including refreshments, £3 of which was redeemable against a copy of the book, the evening was evidence that Cable hasn't followed the lead of another deposed politician, Tony Blair, in charging exorbitant sums for public appearances...

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