April 1, 2023

The politician, 79, on reading romantic fiction, racism in the 1960s, fear of water and getting called ‘old’
My earliest memory is the rag and bone men going down the street with a horse and cart. I was three. My other vivid memory was a year later, 1947. The Ouse, which often floods in York, flooded the streets where I lived. We had to walk around on planks on upturned buckets.
Bettering yourself was the dominant aim in life. I was part of a highly aspirational family. My father was ambitious for me. I was encouraged, mostly positively, sometimes in a more aggressive way, to work hard and go to university. We were what would be called respectable working class. The great ambition was to rise up the social scale and become middle-class professionals, which is what we did.
I ran into problems with my father when I fell in love with Olympia, my first wife, who was Kenyan Asian. We were cut off by both families. Once children arrived, their attitudes mellowed. Now a lot of people have mixed families, but in the mid-to-late 1960s there was a lot of hostility. We had to mind each other’s back.
The things I dislike about getting older? The assumption you’re “retired” and that, once you hit 80, you must be on some progression towards dementia. It was a problem in politics. I didn’t get into parliament until I was 54; the word “old” hung around. The cult of youth was very evident. Having greater years has its advantages in terms of experience. In some cases, like Mr. Biden, it gets you to the top.
I’m an optimist. There’s a lot to be pessimistic about – environmental deterioration, the mess in British politics – but sitting back and despairing is something I don’t do. It’s particularly unhelpful.
Dancing makes me happy. I still have lessons once a week; physical fitness combined with mental absorption. You’ve got to switch off for an hour and feel the music. When I was a cabinet minister under a lot of pressure, I needed and benefited from it. It was a sanctuary.
I have a phobia of water. I learned to swim in a crude way, just breast stroke, when I was 19. Now, I’m taking lessons to learn how to front crawl. I’ve got wonderful teachers who, I think, share my frustration that I never quite get beyond the sixth or seventh stroke.
I’m a romantic. I indulge in romantic fiction. Have I a pile of Mills & Boon by the bed? No, but I do like happy endings.
When have I been happiest? I wasn’t terribly happy as a child or young adult. I was very happy once I’d settled into my relationship with Olympia and later once I’d settled into a relationship with Rachel. A combination of love and security led to happiness.
The most important qualities of a politician are patience, endurance and resilience. It’s a difficult balance between self-promotion and working as a team. You get raving egotists – Boris Johnson, Trump – and you get others you’ve never heard of who are very good team players. At the top, you need to be a bit of each.
I tend not to regret. You make mistakes, but you have to learn to put it behind you. Otherwise you get bogged down in reliving the past. When I was in government a lot of mistakes were made by me personally and by my colleagues collectively. We had to deal with public expenditure cuts which, subsequently, were described as austerity. I like to think, in retrospect, if it had been left to me, I would’ve got a different balance, but I was there, I subscribed to it.
How to be a Politician: 2000 Years of Good (and Bad) Advice by Vince Cable is published by WH Allen at £16.99. Buy a copy for £14.44 at guardianbookshop.com


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