Books of my Life by Sir Vince Cable

Sir Vince Cable (PhD 1974) is former Cabinet Business Secretary and leader of the Liberal Democrats, and he was an MP for more than 20 years. He’s also the author of books such as The Chinese Conundrum, Money and Power and a book written jointly with his wife Rachel Smith, Partnership and Politics in a Divided Decade. This interweaves Vince’s account of the events of the last ten years – being a member of the Cabinet, experiencing Brexit – with Rachel’s diaries.

The book that makes me laugh the most
Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt. He describes his experience as a harassed, overworked junior doctor in a typical hospital, and the number of people he almost killed by accident. It’s hysterically funny. Some of it is extremely vulgar; I once read out a few of the jokes at a medical conference, and there was a sort of hushed silence. I realised they were just a bit beyond the pale. But to read, it’s hilarious.

The book that makes me cry
I think the most emotionally moving book I’ve read recently was Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. It meant quite a lot to me personally, even though it was written long after I lived in Glasgow. I was a city councillor for three years in the early 1970s, representing Maryhill, so I encountered quite a lot of the social issues in working-class Glasgow communities at that time.

The book that got me through the hard times
When I've been under a lot of pressure, I like a good page-turner. It was tough being in the Cabinet and there were quite a few issues which I got caught up in that got emotionally draining. The way I kept sane was by always having a good book to read at bedtime and switch off. Probably the best was John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, about a young man growing up in Catholic Ireland before it liberalised. I’d also recommend The Paris Library (Janet Skeslien Charles) and All the Light we Cannot See (Anthony Doerr). All very moving books, and they held my attention at a time when life was quite difficult.

The book that changed my mind
Mao: The Unknown Story by Chang and Halliday. I’d always thought of Mao as being a rather nasty dictator, but when you actually look into it further and read the gruesome history, you find out that he was a good deal worse – an absolute monster. A very powerful biography, and one of the factors that got me more interested in reading and writing about China.

The book I like to recommend to others
Recently, Reputation by Sarah Vaughan – a political thriller about an MP who is caught up with all the dramas around the social media and harassment. It grabbed me because it was so telling and true and I’ve encouraged all my political friends to read it.

The book that’s my guilty pleasure
One I always look back on in that kind of spirit was when I was about 16, getting hold of a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (DH Lawrence) when it was just legalised. My father found me with this illicit copy, and I expected all hell to break loose – attitudes in the 50s and 60s weren’t quite what they are today. But to my amazement, he and my mother actually read it and gave some quite grown-up and balanced reactions to it – that’s stuck in my mind.

The book I loved most in childhood
I was a great fan of Biggles (Captain WE Johns) – terribly politically incorrect and would probably be banned today! Then there was Our Island Story by HE Marshall, a children’s history of Britain written in the early 20th century, full of all the stereotypes you can expect from patriotic history writing – King Arthur was presented as a historical figure, just as much as King Alfred, and kings were, by definition, either good or bad. But I loved it and read it over and over again.

Vince is in the ‘foothills’ of writing a new book, which will be about the next superpowers, China and India, which he believes will emerge in the next 20 years as the biggest economies in the world.

This article was first published April 2023.

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