With only four weeks to go until the landmark referendum on staying in or leaving the EU, it was suitable timing that Sir Vince Cable, the urbane former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills appeared as our speaker on May 27th. As a leading campaigner for staying in the EU, Sir Vince gave us some behind-the-scenes glimpses of how membership had been beneficial during his time in the Cabinet - such as during the days when General Motors were thinking of closing their Vauxhall factory at Ellesmere Port. Sir Vince flew to the US to discuss the crisis and finally won an agreement for the factory to remain open - just so long as the UK remained within the EU, so that trading benefits were maintained.
Sir Vince suggested being within the EU made business much easier for small companies and quoted an English entrepreneur, creating a cereal-based food, who wanted to break into the Australian market, but abandoned the attempt following endless regulation. In the end, he concentrated his efforts within the EU, especially Holland, and found that his business expanded successfully - largely through the harmonisation of rules. Sir Vince argued that most regulations which small businesses find irksome emanate from UK governments and not the EU - and he added that access to the single market was one of the major reasons why small businesses should vote to stay in the EU.
He said that exporters were not the only beneficiaries. Nearly 30pc of the produce on the shelves of High Street stores comes from the EU and yet, following a Brexit vote, all of those goods would be subject to tariffs, which smaller businesses would then have to pass on to customers. He added that Brussels did not control all aspects of life in the UK - far from it - and quoted as one example the planning system, which is still very much controlled at local level. (However, questions at end of his talk suggested some still had to be convinced about the benefits of EU membership)
Sir Vince admitted the referendum outcome was in the balance but added that, irrespective of who wins, the result might be challenged if it were based on only a 50 per cent turnout. He pointed out there was no guarantee that the UK would be able to negotiate a favourable deal in the case of Brexit and that an uncertainty possibly lasting up to at least three years - with no clear alternative arrangements - would be bad for business and the economy.
As Business Secretary between 2010 to 2015, Sir Vince had to toe the line as member of the Coalition but, after leaving office, he was now in a position to comment and told us his concerns over the current emphasis on consumption rather than investment, the decline in productivity and innovation. as well as the continuing reliance on house-price inflation as the driver of growth. Recently, for example, a Swiss bank put London at the top of their global real-estate "bubble-index".
As for his own achievements, he highlighted various policies, including setting up a British Business Bank, an apprenticeships scheme (as an antidote to "graduate factories"), flexible working and getting more women on to the boards of major companies. However, controlling spiralling executive pay and building more houses (a fraction, he said, compared with when he sat on Glasgow City Council many years ago) had been less successful. Whilst the living-standards of millions of people had stagnated, the top one-per cent of earners had raced ahead, with multi-million pound bonuses, and he told us he would like to see shareholders be more open in their attempts to control soaraway pay-packages - making it an obligation on institutional shareholders to declare how they voted.
Sir Vince's book, called The Storm, analysing events surrounding the 2008 financial crash, was a best-seller and the sequel, called After the Storm, was just out in paperback. It looks at the period 2010-15 from the vantage-point of the Coalition and offers insights into some of the tensions between partners - and provides a perspective on the state of the global financial markets. The UK's recovery is the slowest for a century, real-wages are lower than pre-crisis levels and productivity growth (rise in output per worker) has failed to recover and productivity is 30pc below that in the US, France and Germany. Sir Vince suggested the growing risk of a financial earthquake emanating from China is one reason for serious concerns, with a slow-down there having a hugely damaging knock-on effect on the British economy.
Over 140 people packed into the hall on yet another warm evening to listen to Sir Vince after his demanding day. After starting out in television studios in Manchester, he had taken the train to London for another meeting and then - braving roadworks, traffic-jams and crashes, had taken three hours to travel from Twickenham to Wootton - and he still had to travel on to the New Forest. However, whilst the itinerary was hectic, he said the schedule was still far less intense than when he was Secretary of State
"What a charming, urbane and persuasive politician - Sir Vince put forward such convincing arguments for creating a more equal society in the UK and he seemed frustrated that he hadn't been able to achieve more towards than end whilst in office. His arguments for staying in the EU also seemed to stack up and were hard to resist...it was an enthralling evening, offering hope that decent politicians do exist, and it's tempting to think Sir Vince was the best Prime Minister we never had. The thunderous applause - the longest I can remember - showed just how impressive Sir Vince had been - Roy Neild, Oxford