What did you make of Vince Cable’s speech?

by Stephen Tall on September 22, 2010

It was the speech which revived the Lib Dem conference, oddly listless after Nick Clegg’s speech on Monday: Vince Cable’s rallying final day speech gave members and activists a real lift, and provided plenty of red meat for the media to chew on. Here’s my first impression…

Perhaps what was most impressive about Vince’s conference speech was how unchanged it was from his usual fare: uncompromising, wise-cracking, punchy, intelligent.

The right-wing media has focused on Vince’s attacks on capitalism, with the Daily Mail in typically shrill mood, and ConservativeHome giving it the silly billing of ‘Red Vince Day’.

That’s the thing about some right-wingers: too often they are unable to see past their own dogma which assumes Big Business must always be right. It’s the same blind spot left-wingers have about the unions.

Liberals — and I’m not using that as a party label because it also encompasses Adam Smith — understand that unfettered capitalism is not the same thing as the free market, and capitalism does not automatically promote market competition. That is why liberals, and Liberal Democrats, believe in a regulated free market, to curb the excesses of capitalism and to promote the interests of healthy market competition from which individuals and society can benefit.

Of course we argue plenty among ourselves about where to draw the line. But Vince is a consistent promoter of competition — his relative Euroscepticism (for a Lib Dem) stems from his dislike of its rigging of markets through the egregious CAP. The right-wing press’s, and some Tories’, inability to understand why liberals dislike vested interests always and everywhere is why some of them think Vince is some kind of quasi-socialist.

Vince’s speech was unapologetically trenchant, then, in its re-stating of his belief in the virtues of liberal economics:

The Government’s agenda is not one of laissez-faire. Markets are often irrational or rigged. … Capitalism takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can, as Adam Smith explained over 200 years ago. I want to protect consumers and keep prices down and provide a level playing field for small business, so we must be vigilant right across the economy … Competition is central to my pro market, pro business, agenda.

It says much about the Tories, and just as much about the Daily Mail, that this is seen as ‘revolutionary’ talk.

True, Vince’s rhetoric is colourful, with references to ‘spivs and gamblers’, and to be honest I’m not sure such broadbrush language is helpful or necessary to his cause (however much spontaneous joy it gives party activists). But look at the message, and look at the content, and it’s clear how Vince is delivering a liberal economic agenda in government.

In his verdict, The Guardian’s Tom Clark notes, “It was the speech Clegg could and should have given, for Cable did not budge an inch from the agreed coalition policy. Indeed, he attacked Labour’s deficit-denying, effectively making the case for cuts, but added the necessary caveats to achieve a measured tone that his leader abjectly failed to strike.” He is right.

Looking back on Nick’s speech, it is defensive and dry. In fact the best critique of Nick’s speech was given by Nick himself in an interview with the Observer at the weekend, when he said the last thing he wanted to do was “perpetuate the idea that the point of being in the coalition for the Liberal Democrats is to have a little shopping list of achievements, the assumption being the rest of it is Conservative policy.”

Yet on Monday, that was exactly what he delivered to the party conference. It was an approach that was caustically skewered by Simon Hoggart’s sketch, anticipating how one of Nick’s lines might go down in a doorstep conversation with an ordinary punter:

“Imagine how it will feel to say that Liberal Democrats have restored civil liberties, scrapped ID cards, and got innocent people’s DNA off the police database!”

“I’ve been out of work for four years, and you’re banging on about DNA? Gerroffit!”

Of course it’s only fair to point out that Vince has a lassitude Nick does not. Part of the reason the early talk that the Coalition would collapse within months has gone away is precisely because Nick has worked so hard to show he’s getting on with the job of Deputy Prime Minister in tandem with David Cameron. Had Nick actually given precisely the speech Vince delivered I suspect those stories would have been swiftly revived.

But — oddly, given the media’s repeated attempts to stir by suggesting Vince is on the point of quitting — it was Vince who gave the impression of being more at ease with the Coalition, fronting up to the fact that some policies dear to the Lib Dems had been dropped, but that was also true for the Tories, and besides there were any number of ways in which we are having an influence. And he did it not with lists, but by painting an authentic story of a Lib Dem making sense of Coalition, battling hard and compromising wisely.