How to Be a Politician by Vince Cable review – teachings of the former Lib Dem leader

This political primer from the former Lib Dem leader favours head over heart – but can it speak to gen Z activists?

Have you ever thought of going into politics? Oh, come on – if Boris Johnson can do it, surely it can’t be that hard. And if it doesn’t all work out quite as planned, then you can always dash off a quick book about it, as the former Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has.

How to Be a Politician is, much like the coalition cabinet in which Cable once prominently served, a strange hybrid: half jolly careers talk, of the sort many MPs are likely to have delivered to sixth formers when visiting schools in their constituency, and half loo book. It’s padded out to a rather eye-opening extent by page after page of well-known quotes from famous politicians, which can’t have taken a researcher all that long to Google, grouped roughly by themes such as operating in government or dealing with failure. Each chunky selection of other people’s witticisms is prefaced with a short essay by Cable drawing on the experience of his own half-century in politics, also liberally sprinkled with yet more quotes from other famous politicians presumably left over from the research process (there is a lot of “To quote George Bush” or “As Pericles put it … ”).

It’s not as gleefully scurrilous as Gerald Kaufman’s classic primer How to Be a Minister, and unlike Jess Phillips’s funny and heartfelt The Life of an MP, it isn’t particularly intimate or confessional – the author steers prudently clear of insider gossip from the administration of which he was part. But the advice Cable gives is clear, pithy and perfectly sensible, and while a lot of it won’t be news to anyone already working in and around Westminster, it would be accessible to someone trying to break into this most mysterious of cliques from the outside. He is scrupulous, too, about making sure it applies across all parties and political traditions. Cable’s own career started in the Labour party, where he was special adviser to the late John Smith before defecting to the SDP/Liberal Alliance and then finally getting elected as a Lib Dem – that lack of tribalism gives him an unusual amount of insight into how the other parties work.

Not that some things aren’t universal, of course. There are two ways, Cable writes, for an ambitious young MP to get on: one is to make some brilliant eye-catching intervention that gets everyone talking about you, but “the other more common route is obsequiousness”. Crawl for long enough and you’ll probably get some kind of job. As for going into politics thinking you’re going to change the world, Cable suggests saving the starry-eyed stuff for your speeches: in this job, “your heart may be in the right place but it is more important to have your head screwed on the right way”.

While the author’s pragmatic tone stays just the right side of bitterly cynical, I do wonder how well it is likely to speak to generation Z activists, with their passionate and often absolutist convictions and their expectation of bringing their “whole selves” to work. How many idealistic teenagers now even want to spend years hauling themselves up the greasy pole into traditional elected politics, national or even local, when issues-led campaigns and grassroots movements so often seem to be where the energy is? A little more exploration of how political activism can work outside conventional party structures might have been a useful addition.

But there’s nothing terribly wrong with this book, or nothing really beyond the lingering suspicion that the author’s heart is not entirely in writing it. He has, after all, already done his memoirs. Something tells me this book is not so much the passion project he has been burning to produce all his life as the latest thing to end up crossing his desk, on which he has nonetheless tried to do a decent job. But then again, isn’t that politics all over?

How to be a Politician is published by Ebury (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Gaby Hinsliff

The GuardianTramp

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