Since the advent of the coalition a little over a year ago anyone with a passing interest in British politics will have been fascinated by the remarkable transformation of Vince Cable from one of the few politicians the public trust into the government’s patsy of choice.
He flicked off the last few scraps of his chrysalis this week with a speech given in his role as Business Secretary to the annual conference of the GMB trades union in Brighton that resulted in at least one delegate walking out and another holding up a banner reading ‘Vince Cable is not welcome here.’
He started well enough praising the unions for showing moderation at what are difficult times for their members and saying that ‘the right to strike is a fundamental right’, before suggesting that this might change if in response to the savage cuts to public spending coming down the line the ‘usual suspects call for general strikes and widespread disruption’ and in doing so ‘impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric.’ Were that to happen then, Mr Cable implies, the pressure on the government to further curb the powers of the unions that were dramatically curtailed in the eighties and never restored by a New Labour government keen to curry favour with big business would ‘ratchet up’.
Cue much deserved booing, heckling and stamping of feet, within the resulting din it was just possible if you listened closely enough to hear the small but heavy clink made by a halo slipping to the floor. Meanwhile in the Tory backwoods there was much rejoicing over another former liberal being converted to the cause of demolishing workers rights.
Back when the coalition was new and the world was innocent the presence of Vince Cable and other Liberal Democrats at the heart of government was thought of as being enough to rein in the worst excesses of the Conservatives; that didn’t go to plan now did it? What happened was that they allowed themselves to be implicated in a frenzy of slashing and burning aimed at dismantling many of our public services that has more to do with ideology than deficit management.
Nick Clegg may think he has won a victory for his beleaguered party by getting Andrew Lansley’s plans to reform the NHS put on the back boiler, in fact all that has happened is that the damaging upheavals he proposed have been delayed until the Conservatives win a second term; something they look dangerously like doing as the Labour Party continues to fight amongst itself.
Opposition to the spending cuts and the withdrawal of the state has been left to the likes of Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, I don’t normally favour giving faith leaders a free pass into the political arena, but when they, as he has with his article for the New Statesman this week, use it to ask awkward questions I can accept that it is an idea that is not without its virtues.
The unions too, if the language of Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka and other union leaders is less polite than that of Dr Williams, are asking searching questions about the direction in which the government is leading our society. It may surprise the Tory backwoodsmen but the unions have always favoured jaw, jaw to war, war; but they are increasingly being forced into a corner by a government that is being egged on to a fight by the sillier sections of the right wing media.
As a liberal Vince Cable should as a first response attempt to see a situation from a perspective other than that of those who hold power. The people for whom de-industrialisation and the withdrawal of the state aren’t abstract concepts to be discussed around the cabinet table or in a seminar room; they are disasters with the potential to wreck whole communities.
The excesses of the 1980’s showed that allowing the gap between the rich and the poor to widen unacceptably doesn’t create prosperity and opportunity; it creates resentment and disorder, now it looks like every mistake made then is going to be repeated once again.
It doesn’t have to be that way, which is something the British public recognised way ahead of their political representatives and demonstrated at the ballot box in May 2010. We don’t want the old way of doing political business where everything comes down to an unending wrangle over power, we want a mature and progressive consensus where parties work together for the best interests of the people they represent.
There was once a, naive as it now seems, hope that Vince Cable amongst others understood this and with the formation of the first coalition government since the war would take such an understanding into the corridors of power. How wrong we were.
I used to wonder why David Cameron didn’t dispense with his services after he was caught on tape making idiotic remarks about ‘declaring war’ on Rupert Murdoch by undercover journalists from the Daily Telegraph; I don’t any more. A government going in the wrong direction in a hurry will always have a use for someone like Vince.