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Menzies Campbell: “I fear it will take a major convulsion to jolt politics back to normal”

Sir Menzies Campbell delivers a speech, during a debate on Europe, on the third day of the Liberal Democrats Autumn Conference Photo: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Lib Dem elder statesman Menzies Campbell talks about the polarised nature of modern politics.

In common with a great many others, ‘Ming’ Campbell was impressed with the speech that Theresa May delivered from the steps of Downing Street when, almost two years ago, she became Prime Minister. ‘She made it clear how much she wanted to be on the side of the many and not the few and you couldn’t honestly have faulted a word that she said,’ the grand old man of Liberal Democrat politics tells me in the Lords Tea Room.

‘It makes you wonder what kind of a Prime Minister she would have been without Brexit hanging around her neck and she had been able to go on and secure a majority of say 30 or 40 seats. Now, of course, we will never know. Brexit has pre-occupied her and it will define her. Few, if any prime ministers, have had less of a chance to be who they really are.’

May has seldom sought the counsel of the nation’s elder statesmen and women, certainly not on the Remain side of the argument. Lord Heseltine said they’d never met before she abruptly sacked him as an unpaid adviser. There is, however, a lot she could learn from all of them, not least the former Lib Dem leader.

He had a ringside seat as the tragedy that is Brexit played out and he well remembers Nick Clegg, as his party leader, telling him he had pleaded with David Cameron not to commit to an EU referendum in the 2015 Tory election manifesto. ‘Cameron likes to give the impression that it was all out of his control, but he was the author of his own and our misfortune,’ says Campbell. ‘The campaign he ran in the 2015 election targeted the Lib Dems, and, so, when he got his majority, he realised he couldn’t blame us for staying his hand on a referendum.

‘The referendum campaign he headed was all about putting the fear of God into people rather than a positive argument for staying in the EU. The campaign to leave was, meanwhile, one of studied ambiguity. Neither of these was remotely relevant to the decision that had to be made.’

The rest, of course, is horrible history, but Campbell, a passionate Europhile all his life, says there are some grounds for optimism. ‘I did think we were heading inexorably towards Brexit, but now maybe there is a 10% chance that it will not happen. I would add the rider that anyone who tells you they have any idea what will happen next is deluding himself and misleading the public.’

The Lib Dems should now be coming into their own as the one mainstream party offering an exit from Brexit, but Campbell sees his party’s current disappointing poll ratings as the inevitable consequence of a wave of populism that is now pushing people to the extreme left and extreme right across the world. ‘This has happened before and I fear that it may well take some convulsion – and God forbid it should be anything like what we saw in the 1930s and 1940s – that gets us back to more normal standards of behaviour.’

His party’s broken pledge on tuition fees is an all-too-familiar taunt for Lib Dems, but Campbell, a seasoned political strategist, reckons Clegg should have driven a harder bargain with the Tories before he went into coalition with them. ‘A lot of people who are in a position to know told me we should have made tuition fees a red line as they would almost certainly have given in. The Tories were desperate to strike a deal.

‘We should have said, too, that we would give them two or three years and give them confidence and supply and treat every policy on its own merits, but it’s easy to be wise after the event. People forget now that the country was in paralysis after the election of 2010 and it was necessary for us to put the national interest first. We paid a very heavy price for doing that, of course, but we were a restraining influence on the Tories in the way that the DUP certainly is not now.’

Of the country’s current fix, Campbell believes Remainers need above all things to be realistic. ‘The really passionate people on both sides of the argument will not recant, ever. It is the ones in the middle, who were in two minds when they voted in the referendum, or maybe didn’t vote, that need to be won over. They may yet turn things around. It is possible that in time people will come to see the term Remoaner as a badge of honour. ‘What did you do during the Great War, Daddy? Oh, I was a Remoaner.”

Campbell admits his own conviction that we are better off in the EU, rather than out of it, is as emotional as it is practical. He well remembers the bomb craters in the Glasgow he was brought up in during the 1940s and the lesson he at least took from the Second World War was that we could not afford to be isolationist. ‘We didn’t complain then about the Polish coming over here and flying our Spitfires. My father-in-law was Roy Urquhart – who led the 1st Airborne Division and was portrayed by Sean Connery in A Bridge Too Far – and I well remember him telling me, too, of the terrible casualties the Polish sustained at Arnhem.

‘My generation learnt the hard way what can happen when Europe is disunited. But now it is important to communicate a clear vision of what a good relationship with the EU will look like. It is not enough just to say Brexit is a bad thing and must be stopped. My own party has been talking about this for a long time. The key words here – subsidiarity and proportionality – are already contained in EU treaties, but they must be adhered to. A lot of our problems with the EU go back to Labour’s decision to open the doors to immigration while they were in government. Other countries did it on the basis of gradualism.’

Campbell has been a critic of the Upper House, but he admits his fellow peers have been more than justifying their existence lately in bringing to bear their vast experience scrutinising the Brexit legislation, sometimes sitting up to 12 hours at a stretch.

A recent victory was to delay leaving Euratom – the European Atomic Energy Community – if no suitable alternative agreements are in place in the run-up to leaving the EU. This seemed to Campbell to be no more than common sense, given that the only reason he could discern that the Brextremists wanted to abandon this body that is so vital to our security was because the word was prefaced with EU.

Campbell believes Brexit was born of an idea of an England – propagated by a number of people, but especially Boris Johnson – that never really existed. ‘I sincerely hope that I will be proved wrong, but if it goes as badly as I fear it might, then the people of the United Kingdom will not all raise their hands and say ‘it was our fault, we voted for it’. They will say two things – one, ‘why did the Leavers not explain to us in full detail the consequences of leaving?’ And, two, ‘why did the Remainers not make a better job of spelling out to us precisely why we should have stayed in the EU?’ The truth is they will blame all politicians and that – for people like me who fundamentally believe in our system – will be the worst possible outcome for everyone.’

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