Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade – and, as he also informed us, Minister of Time (i.e. he decides what time it is in Scotland and whether it should be the same as in England), gave the Andrew Williamson Memorial Lecture at Stirling University yesterday. He is an extremely good speaker: no jargon or spin, small doses of unpatronising humour, clear thinking. A politician who taught economics at Glasgow University and had a job in Shell.
Two things struck me about his lecture. One was that he openly said that he had changed his mind about the necessary speed of dealing with government debt. It takes inner security to admit to changing your mind. He could, I suppose, explain it by saying that only in office could he learn the seriousness of the situation. I wondered whether in fact he had had to toe the line unwillingly for the sake of the coalition – but he conveys a kind of integrity that makes me not want to think that. I want to think that there is an intellectually honest politician in government.
The second thing was the culture-divide between academia as it was, and still is in part, and the enterprise-driven world of research that universities are being forced to become. As Vince Cable insisted, Government has no money to dish out. Other funding bodies (e.g. industry) want results for their cash. ‘Pure’ research, and study of subjects that are simply interesting for their own sake, are rapidly becoming an unaffordable luxury.
Yet, it’s often some way down the line that people realise the importance or even usefulness of a researcher’s ideas. And even if they are never really ‘useful’, do we really want a world that has nothing to wonder at, to delight? I would still argue for a ‘contemplative’ side to our culture, which rests on pure research, as well as poetry and music and art – and religion.
But the most intriguing bit of the evening was looking at Vince Cable and wondering whether with his passion for ballroom he really will go on Strictly Come Dancing …