One of the many advantages of living in Bristol (UK), which has been my pleasure and privilege for the last five years, is the annual Bristol Festival of Ideas. I say the “Bristol” Festival of Ideas but how many other such events are there in the UK? The only big one I’m aware of is in Cambridge, with all due respect to Sedbergh in Yorkshire. There’s also one with the same title in the north-west but that is rather different, focusing on ideas related to social issues. Where my (new) home city leads, others will surely follow, as the late great Isambard Brunel might have said two centuries ago and Bristol’s Merchant Venturers’ Society, still active after eight centuries, would surely also say.

What I do know is that if you type “Festival of Ideas” into Google, the Bristol event always heads the list. Is this because it’s the best event of its kind or because Bristol is more competent at IT, or more specifically how to appeal to search engines?

That’s enough boasting about Bristol, except to say that the last event of the main Festival of Ideas this year was a lecture by Vince Cable. This is probably the most trusted politician in Britain today and a man that even his political opponent Alan Duncan called “the Holy Grail of economic comment these days”.

In the unlikely event that you had forgotten, ‘Cable’s the star of Newsnight’s credit-crunch discussions, the go-to guy for a sagacious economics quote for broadsheet front-page leads … ‘ (Guardian). He’s also ‘everything a politician should be and everything most politicians are not’ (Mail on Sunday) and ‘a heavyweight in anybody’s cabinet’ (The Times)

And in the middle of the recession, we had him in Bristol! I don’t know why the venue was only 80% full, but those who stayed at home missed a lot. Economics is supposed to be “the dismal science” but dismal Vince Cable is not. Even while describing events that were, and remain, apocalyptic to the trained economist that he is, his intelligence and wit shine through, as did his insistence that “I’m not here as a party politician,” a claim he backed up by a reluctance to score blame-giving points and a tendency to give credit where it was due. Who knew politicians could do that??

But what I liked best of all was his tendency to put all the figures he mentioned in perspective; in context. Comparisons create a picture of the significance of the data in a way which can’t be done by just throwing out an impressively large number on its own, as most politicians like to do. The examples of this exemplary trait were too numerous to mention and the habit shines through Dr Cable’s new book “The Storm”. This analysis of the world financial crisis has been so comprehensively (and favourably) reviewed that I don’t have to repeat the process. Suffice it to say that my gang were unanimously of the view they had been at a memorable event.


  1. As part of my job, I had to go and hear Lord Desai talk about the economy in the Wills building. I would have given anything to hear Vince Cable instead.

  2. Yes, Vince Cable was excellent. A compelling mix of theory and practice, plus a bit of humour, all delivered without any party point-scoring. Very positive audience response, especially in the Q&A afterwards, when a questioner added a supplementary: "would you be our Prime Minister, please?"

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