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Close But No Cigar – Scottish Review of Books
by George Rosie

Close But No Cigar

October 19, 2009 | by George Rosie

ITS ALWAYS THE STUFF we didn’t know about that makes a senior politician’s memoir worth reading. The less the politician has to lose the more beans he’s likely to spill. And in his autobiography Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell, the recently-deposed leader of Lib Dems, spills quite a few. Here’s how he describes a “discreet” face-to-face encounter with Gordon Brown during the last Holyrood election campaign. He writes: “Like me he was anxious about the possibility of the SNP governing in Scotland, our back yard. Was there common ground between Labour and the Lib Dems to tackle the SNP together? He made a number of suggestions”. What these suggestions were he doesn’t say, only that none of them was taken up.

But Brown continued to fret. A few days later he set up another secret meeting with Ming to see if something, anything, could be done to dish the Nats. “Throughout the campaign the polls had put the SNP ahead of Labour”, Ming recounts. “Was there scope for an arrangement between our two parties? What would be the consequences for Scot-land and our parties if the SNP used the £30 billion Scottish Executive budget to build support for independence over the next few years?” Serious questions, no doubt, but once again, no deal was struck.

This is a book that generates many a ‘what if’ and one of them popped into my head at that point. What if Ming, who was then Lib Dem boss in the UK, had come down hard on his Scottish contingent? What if he’d ordered, Nicol Steven, Tavish Scott & Co to fall into line with their Labour Party counterparts? Would it have been Labour/Lib Dem business as usual at Holyrood? Would the United Kingdom now be in safer hands? And would Gordon Brown, now the Union Jock par excellence, have been able to stop banging on about ‘Britishness’?

According to Ming, that could never have happened. In a post election telephone call he told Brown that the Lib Dems were committed federalists. “I had no right to muscle into the negotiations between Nicol and the other parties in Scotland” he writes. “I would be portrayed as the heavy hand of Westminster telling the Scottish parliamentarians what to do”. So Gordon just had to put up with Alex Salmond’s ear-to-ear grin. Brown’s hope, I imagine, is that sheer inexperience will lead the SNP into a ruinous trap. So far there’s little sign of that happening.

Gordon Brown’s plea for a coordinated Labour/Lib Dem assault on the Nats is, to me at least, just one of the revelations in Ming’s intriguing autobiography. Some of his tales out of school are fairly major, others are minor. Most are political but quite a few are personal. But it’s a book that offers a genuine insight into the life and work of a minority party which has little chance of power but which seems convinced that, one day, the tectonic plates of British politics will shift and they’ll move into the sunlit uplands. It may happen, but I’m not holding my breath.

I only ever met Ming Campbell once, and that was at a drinks party in the New Town of Edinburgh. He struck me as a resourceful, wise and witty man. But as we talked I could-n’t help musing that if he’d taken the same political path as his Glasgow University contemporaries (and friends) John Smith and

Donald Dewar he’d probably have scaled the political heights. And I might have been talking to the First Minister of Scotland or even the Prime Minister of the UK? Ming had the ambition, brains and the savvy to fill either (or both) of these posts. Instead his career ended on the periphery of power which is never a comfortable place to be.

Walter Menzies Campbell was born in Glasgow on 22 May, 1941, the son of George Campbell, a Glasgow building contractor and a mother who defied her family to marry the man she loved. His childhood was not a placid one. “My father was a drinker”, Ming writes. “His moods were unpredictable. When he had been drinking an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty entered our home. He was argumentative with my mother and, later, when I was a teenager, with me”.

As a result of George Campbell’s taste for whisky his son and his daughter Fiona hate the very smell of the stuff. Ming admits to having a cupboard full of whisky bottles at home, most of them “presents for speaking at this or that dinner or event” and all of them unopened. But his father’s drinking habits did give Ming some inkling of why people drank. Which helped when in 2006 he was obliged to confront Charles Kennedy over the latter’s drink problem. Drink, he writes “is often a refuge for those suffering from intolerable stress”.

Home was 19 Park Road in the west end of Glasgow. After a couple of years at Willow-bank Primary School young Ming found himself at Hillhead primary and, after a successful ‘quali’ (the old Scottish equivalent of the eleven plus), a pupil at Hillhead High School. “I became a tearaway fast bowler and an equally tearaway fast batsman on the cricket pitch”, he writes. By the age of 15 he was six feet two and one of the schools sports stars. “My running was getting better; I won the overall school sports championship in my age group at junior, intermediate and senior level. On the rugby pitch my team was more or less unbeaten for three years”.

The result of all this athleticism was that his schoolwork suffered. He did just enough to get into Glasgow University where he studied politics and economics before switching to law. I’ve yet to see an explanation of why Glasgow University in early Sixties produced so many high-flying political Scots, e.g. John Smith (leader of the Labour Party), Donald Dewar (our first First Minister), Derry Irvine (Lord Chancellor of England), Neil

McCormick (the SNP’s legal luminary) and Menzies Campbell himself. The answer probably lies in the Glasgow students’ enthusiasm for long, noisy, often acrimonious but always disciplined debates which Ming relished.

One of Ming Campbell’s singularities was his passion for sport. Sport is not a word that attaches itself easily to senior politicians. They can bang on all they like about their local football team but they don’t make very convincing sports fans. A few have a bit of sporting history: Gordon Brown was a useful rugby player until he almost knocked an eye out and Edward Heath was a genuinely keen yachtsman. But neither of reached the heights that Ming Campbell achieved.

The “flying Scotsman” is what the Ameri-can press dubbed him during his year-long stint at Stanford University in California in 1968 following a successful athletics career which culminated (more or less) as a member of the British sprint team in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Ming has fond memories of California. At San Jose “… on a brilliant blue Saturday afternoon, I ran 10.2 in the 100 metres, breaking the British record”. It was an achievement he was to repeat a week later on the track at Modesto, California. “I had reached the absolute peak of my running career”.

After swithering about whether to become an American citizen (and being put off by the prospect of being sent to Vietnam) Ming returned to Scotland and settled into a legal career at the Scottish bar. In 1970 he met and married Elspeth Urquhart, the newly divorced Lady Grant-Suttie and the daughter of General Roy Urquhart, one of the heroes of the World War II raid on Arnhem. Ming’s engagement seems to have dismayed his parents, particularly his mother who, as he says, “…had little time for the titled or for ‘toffs.’ Elspeth was both, one by marriage, one by birth”.

I suppose it’s fairly normal for a political career to stutter into life. That’s certainly true of Ming Campbell’s. In 1973 he failed to get nominated as Liberal candidate in Edin-burgh North but was invited a few months later to carry the Liberal torch at a bye-election in Greenock. He lost to Labour’s Dick-son Mabon (who was later to defect to the SDP). In 1975 Ming was elected chairman of the party in Scotland and the year after that was adopted by the Liberals of East Fife as their parliamentary candidate. But it was not until the General Election of 1987 – on his third and final attempt – that Ming finally made it into the House of Commons.

Not that he abandoned his legal work altogether.“Clashes between the law and politics still happened occasionally”, he writes “but I bowed to the inevitable. My legal career gave way to my political career though I didn’t regard politics the more important. My long-term ambition remained the same: I still wanted to become a Scottish Supreme Court judge.”

That particular ambition has an odd history. In 1996 the government offered Ming a slot on the Scottish bench which he turned down suspecting that it was a Tory ploy to get him out of Fife. But when he applied for a job on the bench a few years later he was told that he didn’t know enough about European human rights law – despite having been a member of the parliament that put it on the statute book “I found the whole episode extraordinary”, he writes.

Ming entered parliament just when the Liberals and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) were talking merger. His book reminded me that Charles Kennedy began his parliamentary life not as a Liberal but as an SDP MP. The very first mention of Kennedy is at the fraught conference in Lon-don where the leadership of the two parties started talks. “The new party was born on 3 March 1988”, Ming writes. ‘The joke was that the new Social and Liberal Democrats had a party but no leader: the Owenite rump of the SDP a leader but no party”.

Then began the business of finding a leader for the new Liberal Democratic Party. David Steel had stood down, “exhausted by leadership”, according to Ming. The tussle that followed was between the charismatic Paddy Ashdown and the cerebral Alan Beith. To the surprise of his friends and colleagues Ming backed Ashdown, “because I thought the party needed to take risks. Ashdown, an ebullient, energetic former unit commander in the Royal Marines Special Boat Section, was nothing if not a risk taker”.

Ashdown won and rewarded Ming by making him the party’s spokesman on defence. It was a tricky job. The new party was racked by the unilateral disarmament vs multilateral disarmament debate. Ming went some way to settling the issue with a powerful pro-multilateral speech at Brighton in 1989. “The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the Trident missile system,” he writes. “Paddy rushed over to me and pumped my hand in congratulation. Mark Bonham Carter and Laura Grimond hugged me. Roy Jenkins heaped praise on me. My face was all over the evening news bulletins”.

One of Ming’s revelations is just how close Paddy Ashdown was to Tony Blair. Ever since John Major’s surprise election victory in 1983 Ashdown had despaired of ever defeating the Tories. The only way forward, he thought, was some kind of ‘broad left’ coalition with the Labour Party. Such an arrangement would never have got past John Smith when he was Labour’s leader but after Smith’s death in 1984 Ashdown and Blair began to mull over ways of moving their parties closer to one another. The strategy had a code-name: ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ aka ‘the project’.

There were a few years of secret meetings based on the pessimistic notion that Labour could not win a general election outright. But after the Labour landslide of 1997 Blair didn’t need the help of the Lib Dems to foist a centre-left(ish) agenda on the UK. And while he went on talking to Ashdown there was no way that Labour (New or otherwise) was about to buy into the Lib Dem’s dream of proportional representation for Westminster. According to Ming it was the failure of ‘the project’ that persuaded Paddy Ashdown to stand down as leader in January 1999.

All of which, I have to admit, was new to me. Nor did I know about the succession deal that Ming had struck with 39-year-old Charles Kennedy. “If Paddy resigned early in the parliament I would stand for the leadership and Charles would support me”, Ming explains. “If Paddy resigned late in the parliament, Charles would stand for leadership, and I would support him… As it happened, Paddy resigned in the middle of the parliament. But I knew Charles would stand…”

Stand he did and easily saw off Simon Hughes. But Kennedy was hardly in place before Ming began to have misgivings about the new leader’s habit of suddenly disappearing into the toilet. “Was Charles the worse for drink? Was he sick? I had no way of knowing since I had never seen Charles behave like that before but I presumed it was drink”. He was right about that. For the rest of his tenure as Lib Dem leader Kennedy’s drinking was a “corrosive” problem and one that grew increasingly hard to cover up.

I’ve heard it suggested (and I’m inclined to agree) that Ming Campbell’s finest hour was not his leadership but his opposition to the Iraq war. In a lawyerly but passionate speech in September 2001, just a few days after the twin towers atrocity he told the House of Commons that “…any response should be based on clear and unequivocal intelligence, that it must not be disproportionate and that it must be consistent with the principle of international law”.

He went on: “There is a risk – a risk of what is sometimes called rich man’s justice – lest by the overwhelming zeal with which we pursue the perpetrators of these terrorist acts, we give the impression that the lives of citizens of the richest countries are worth more than the lives of citizens of the poorest.” Which is pretty well the impression the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created. Ming remains one of the most trenchant critics of the war in Iraq.

One of the starkest chapters in the book is Ming’s account of his struggle with cancer. He got the bad news at the end of November, 2002 in a basement room in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. “Nothing prepares you for the shock and the physical and emotional reactions that follow a diagnosis of cancer,” he writes. “I felt faint and suddenly hot. Sweat trickled down my forehead. I put my head between my knees… I made up my mind to leave the hospital as soon as I could, as if by doing so I would also leave the cancer behind.”

But of course he couldn’t. Instead he was faced with months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to excise the non-Hodgkin lymphoma that had found his hip and made walking an agony and almost impossible. He describes the treatment in a series of extracts from his own and his wife’s diaries. They are all the more moving for their brevity. Through these dreadful days he struggled to work and managed at least one trip to Westminster to vote against  the government on the Iraq  war. By April 2003 he was given the all clear by the doctors and by the end of the month he was back on the Lib Dem front bench. By the beginning of 2004 he’d been knighted.

On the face of it things looked to be going the Lib Dem way. In the 2005 general election the party won 65 seats their best score for 80 years. So it surprised me to read that instead of being encouraged, or even elated, the Lib Dems saw the result as a great big disappointment. “None of us could remember such a favourable conjunction of circumstances for a Liberal Democrat breakthrough”, Ming complains. “How long would it be before they coincided at election time again? A generation? More?” Yet again the tectonic plates of British politics had refused to shift.

And how long could the party’s morale survive the endless wink-wink, nudge-nudge that was going on in Westminster and the media about Kennedy’s boozing? When the story finally broke out in the press Ming felt he had no option but to confront Kennedy in his lair. “I said, ‘I think it’s in the interests of yourself, your family and the party that you should now step down. I don’t think we can go on as we are. It’s not tolerable. There’s drift and the parliamentary party is in a state of anxiety’.” After a few weeks of trying to rescue the situation Kennedy did the decent thing and on 7 January 2006 fell on his sword.

It was into that breach that Menzies Camp-bell stepped, first as caretaker leader then as leader. Getting there involved a rather nasty election campaign against Chris Huhne and ever-ambitious Simon Hughes which Ming won handsomely. “My victory was unlike any other in my career, whether on the athletics track, in the courtroom or in the County Buildings, Cupar, waiting for the returning officer to announce North-East Fife election results. Winning this time was not the end of the process but the beginning”.

No sooner was Ming elected than the hacks were reaching for the Thirties comic-book character ‘Ming the Merciless’ the evil adversary of that well-known planet-saver, ‘Flash Gordon’. The intergalactic Ming rules the planet Mongo with an iron hand (or great clunking fist?) from his throne in Mingo City. No sub-editor worth his/her salt could resist stuff like that. Before long the media was buzzing with Ming-type headlines: ‘Emperor of the Liberal Democrat Intergalactic Party’; ‘Ming the Merciless takes on Not-so-Flash Gordon’; ‘Can Ming be Merciless Enough?’ and so on, not quite ad infinitum but almost.

Meanwhile the earthly Ming had set himself three tasks as leader. “First, I had to put the party back on an even keel after the traumas of Charles’s resignation and the leadership election; second, I had to make the party more professional in its outlook; and, third, to ensure we would be ready for a general election whenever it might come”. But all that had to be achieved in the face of constant sniping from inside the party. The marksmen, Ming suggests, were led and encouraged by the party president Simon Hughes.

In the end the snipers prevailed. A power ful ‘Ming must go’ movement grew up and spread. There’s no doubt that Ming’s age and health record told against him. On 15 October 2007 Ming was told by his old friend Archy Kirkwood that David Steel and Paddy Ashdown wanted to see him. “He said ‘I think they’re going to ask you whether you think you can put up with this for eighteen months or perhaps two years because if the economy goes upside down and Brown’s forced to wait until 2010 you’ll be sixty-nine.’”

Kirkwood’s implication was clear. In the politics of the television age a camera-friendly face, preferably young, has the advantage. Age and experience count for little. It’s a lesson that Gordon Brown will probably learn sometime in the next couple of years. By the end of that sour day Ming was on the plane back to Edinburgh having resigned as leader of the Lib Dems. He left the position to be fought over by a couple of ambitious but inexperienced new boys – Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg.

It was, I suppose, something of a bitter end to a long political career. But not all that bitter. If all political careers end in failure that of Sir Menzies Campbell, PC, QC, was less of a failure than many. As he writes towards the end of this nicely written, often engaging autobiography “I had run in an Olympic final, pleaded a case as a QC in the House of Lords, become an MP after an eleven-year campaign, overcome cancer, been knighted for services to parliament, and led the party of Asquith and Lloyd George. It was indeed a long way from 19 Park Road, Glasgow”.

It was indeed.

Menzies Campbell
Hodder & Stoughton £20.00
pp326 ISBN 978 0 340 89866 6

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