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Exclusive: Ming Campbell speaks to

Tony Grew March 20, 2007
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When spoke to Sir Menzies Campbell at his office in the Palace of Westminster earlier this month, the Liberal Democrat leader discussed his values and attitudes towards gay rights, and how British society has changed since the days of Ted Heath and Jeremy Thorpe.

It is just over a year since Sir Menzies Campbell won the leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

The vacancy arose when disgruntled MPs ousted the popular Charles Kennedy, an act of political regicide that led to a period of turbulence that continued throughout the election to find his successor.

The tabloid newspapers gorged themselves on a series of sexual revelations during the two-month campaign.

Leadership hopeful Mark Oaten was revealed to be a serial hirer of rent boys.

Simon Hughes, the respected MP for Southwark Bermondsey and a leading candidate, was forced into admitting he used gay chat lines.

The party, reeling from these lurid tabloid nightmares, turned to Ming Campbell.

He already had the backing of a third of the party’s MPs and a string of Lib Dem grandees, among them former leaders Paddy Ashdown and David Steel.

As the Lib Dem Foreign Affairs spokesman, he had led his party’s principled opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

He was, in the words of another backer, Baroness Shirley Williams:

“Completely honest, completely devoted to his wife, most unlikely to be engaged in financial trickery. He is a good, upright Edinburgh man.

“Given that the media concentrates so much on personal weaknesses, you really needed someone who that could not be alleged against.”

Since taking charge of the party, Ming has experienced some political turbulence himself.

Not least from persistent, off-the-record voices within the parliamentary party who claim he is too old to take on David Cameron at the next election, which may not happen until 2010.

At that point Campbell will be 69.

Whether his maturity is an advantage or disadvantage is debatable, but it certainly allowed to explore with him the changing attitudes towards gay and lesbian people in Britain.

Campbell himself says he has always been supportive of the rights of gay and lesbian people to live their lives in freedom – a belief he ascribes to his liberal values.

When the 18-year-old Campbell arrived at Glasgow University in 1959, he says he already had those values.

Many of his university contemporaries would later become prominent in British politics.

Among them was the former leader of the Labour party, John Smith, and Donald Dewar, who helped found the Scottish Parliament. Both died young.

“It was not quite the Sixties, it was the eve of the Sixties, and we were beginning to cast off the shackles, as a group of people in society, to want to make more choices for ourselves,” says Campbell.

“I went up to university in 1959, it’s no secret. By then things were beginning to change.

“I was developing, I was growing up, moving from being a schoolboy to being an adult, but I think at that particular time, there was a very ‘small l’ liberal sort of atmosphere and attitude.

“It was a perfectly natural thing for me to be associated with a party that believed in these things and to form views and opinions of my own which were consistent.

“There were all of the social consequences of rigidity. The unhappiness that people, homosexual people, lived through.

“The fact that in some cases they felt it necessary to take their lives, or they were repressed or deeply, profoundly unhappy.

“Not that I had any direct experience, but we knew, there was sufficient evidence of all of that, to tell you that this was something that was most certainly not in the interests of society. You are asking me to explain something that was a gut feeling.”

The lack of personal experience of the lives of gay people at the time is easily explained.

“People did not come out. I mean they just didn’t come out.

“Although there was this liberal consensus among Glasgow university students, people just didn’t do it.

“They just did not reveal themselves because the attitudes were not always going to be as liberal as mine. There were derogatory words like poof and queer and bent and all the rest of it.”

Campbell’s party has been consistent in their support for gay rights. In fact, the party’s constitution talks about no one being enslaved by conformity or discrimination.

He speaks warmly about the new Sexual Orientation Regulations, which are due to become law on 30th April, subject to a vote by both Houses of Parliament.

The regulations have raised serious objections from the Christian churches and most other denominations.

They claim that services they provide, including adoption agencies and schools, will be forced by law to promote a gay lifestyle they regard as morally wrong.

What is the correct balance between the secular and the religious?

“If they want to teach a particular view, then I do not stand in their way to do that, but I am not going to allow the fact that they have that particular moral view to stand in the way of people who are entitled to their own lifestyle,” is Campbell’s response.

“Freedom is indivisible, and the freedom which I have to worship is the same freedom that others have to worship, to follow a particular lifestyle which their orientation makes them comfortable with.

“You can’t start dividing freedom up, you can’t start saying there are packages of it.”

That being said, Campbell is not hostile to religious belief.

“I am an occasional Presbyterian. Let me put it this way, I think that everyone’s lives are in general made better by a set of ethical beliefs.

“And mine are I suppose the traditional ethical beliefs of someone brought up in particular way at a particular time, against the background of the Church of Scotland, whose radicalism and liberalism has long been well-known.

“I suppose I am a product of that. I do not believe in a man with a beard, of course I don’t.

“But do I believe that there are ethical principles, which I find myself in sympathy with? Yes.

“But I do not think that my views are exclusive, and I certainly don’t think that any view I have would allow me to be intolerant of others.”

Exclusive: Ming Campbell speaks to

Campbell took his time getting into Parliament.

While his university friends John Smith and Donald Dewar were making names for themselves in the Labour party, he was losing election after election as a Liberal candidate.

His former university colleagues did try to convert him to Labour.

“I joined the Liberals when I was 18. If I had wanted to be the Prime Minister of the country it was hardly a very constructive career move.

“At the time the Liberals had six MPs and were hanging on by their fingernails.

“I don’t determine my views by those around me, I determine them by what I think I believe and what I think to be right.

“I happen to think that liberalism is a fundamentally important philosophy. Every democracy is a better democracy the more that it espouses the principles of liberalism.”

Campbell gained a repuation as a barrister, or advocate as they are called in Scotland.

He was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1968 and two years later he married Elspeth Suttie.

They have no children of their own, but his wife has one son from her first marriage.

Her divorce lawyer, eccentric Tory Sir Nicholas Fairburn, is said to have introduced the couple.

Campbell finally won a parliamentary seat, North East Fife, in 1987.

When he took his seat at Westminster, 34-year-old Tony Blair had been an MP since 1983.

Parliament was already eight years into the Thatcher revolution, and the Liberal party was eyeing up a merger with the SDP in an attempt to consolidate a third party voice to counter the binary division of Labour and Conservative.

That merger of the Liberals and the Social Democratic Party in 1988 resulted in the Liberal Democrats, and the party have increased the number of MPs since then, under popular leaders Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy.

Ashdown led the party to great success in 1997, taking 46 seats, an increase of 28.

Charles Kennedy consolidated the party’s position in 2001 with a further eight seats overall.

By 2005, Kennedy’s immense popularity with the public, coupled with a strong party and an unpopular government and opposition meant that at the last election the Liberal Democrats won a record 62 seats.

Campbell was a senior frontbench spokesman on defence and foreign affairs from 1992.

He highlights his decision to support calls to allow gay people to serve in the military as an example of his liberal approach:

“One of my proudest possessions is a letter from Ian McKellen. He wrote to me after I took the view in relation to the Armed Forces that the situation was not sustainable.

“We associated ourselves with the Stonewall campaign. That is something of which I am rather proud.

“That is an illustration of where, if liberalism is sufficiently organised, you can change things.”

He was appointed LibDem Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1997.

He decided against standing for leader against Charles Kennedy when Paddy Ashdown stood down in 1999, and admitted he apparently regretted the decision “for about 10 minutes a day.”

In 2000 he was an unsuccessful candidate to become Speaker of the House of Commons in a farcical election process in which 14 MPs put themselves forward.

It could be argued that he was more high-profile earlier in his life than as a Lib Dem spokesman.

Exclusive: Ming Campbell speaks to

Campbell was a sprinter who represented the UK at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and captained the Great Britain athletics team from 1965 to 1966.

From 1967 to 1974, he was the fastest 100m sprinter in the country, while also practicing as a barrister.

His thoughts on why there are so few out gay sportsmen seemed apposite.

“I have never really thought about any of this, so this opinion is rather ill-formed, but I think in hierarchies it may be more difficult, because people are so conscious of their place in the hierarchy that to admit to be different or to admit to a difference might lose you your place in that hierarchy.

“I played a bit of rugby, these are parts of society where, let’s put it this way, tolerance is taking a little bit longer to reach.”

Despite his earlier assertion that he had no personal experience of the pressures on gay people in the 1960s and 1970s, Campbell revealed he may have known one person who suffered from the oppressive nature the hierarchical society of the time.

“I had one close friend at university, whom I think was gay. Clever, clever man, never got married, died early, because he drank too much, and when I look back now I realise.

“With the benefit of hindsight, I suspect he was, in fact I am pretty certain that he was gay. But these pressures I have been talking about really made it impossible.

“He was an exceptionally successful lawyer, a partner in a very successful firm, but I think the pressure of his sexuality certainly influenced his drinking, and the drinking ultimately caused him to lose his life.”

The unhappy tale of Campbell’s lawyer friend has some parallels with former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe’s fall from grace in 1979.

The scandal surrounding Thorpe’s trail for conspiracy to murder in 1979 cast a long shadow over the party.

Campbell was Leader of the Scottish Liberal Party at the time.

Thorpe was in many ways one of the most gifted politicians to lead the Liberals in the 20th century.

He inherited a party of twelve MPs in 1968 and became a media celebrity of sorts. His youthful, charismatic style and distinctive Edwardian suits made him a household name.

In the February 1974 election the Liberals took 20% of the vote, and Thorpe was reportedly offered the Home Secretary role in a possible coalition with Ted Heath’s Conservatives.

By 1976, though, Thorpe was engulfed in a serious sex scandal.

A former male model called Norman Scott claimed to have been involved in sexual relationship with Thorpe between 1961 and 1963.

The Liberal party had investigated the claims in 1971 and found them to be baseless.

In 1975 Scott was confronted on Exmoor in Devon by an armed man, and a dog accompanying him, Rinka, was shot.

At the gunman’s trial, Scott once again claimed he had an affair with Thorpe and that the Liberal leader had threatened to kill him if he continued to talk about their relationship.

He then released sentimental letters sent to him by the Liberal leader to the press.

Thorpe had to resign.

To make matters worse, he stood trial in 1979 alongside David Holmes, then deputy Treasurer of the Liberal party and two others, charged with conspiracy to murder.

A week before the trial Thorpe lost his seat in the 1979 general election.

All four were acquitted of the conspiracy charge, but Thorpe was a broken man. He retired from public life for good. Still alive today, he has never commented on his sexuality.

What sort of pressure would compel such an ambitious and talented politician into these almost unbelievable circumstances?

“I knew Thorpe reasonably well, not as well as most,” says Campbell.

“I am back to my hierarchies. For Thorpe, if he were gay, and I don’t know whether he was or not, but put it this way, a lot of evidence points in that direction, I think for him to have admitted that would have damaged his place in the hierarchy and so in the end it becomes “what is most important” and it’s your place.

“Like my friend, the place as a partner in a successful law firm is more important to you than the freedom and the release which you would have from being open about your sexuality.”

Simon Hughes knows something of that pressure. The veteran MP was forced to admit his bisexuality during last year’s leadership contest.

The revelation was particularly ironic for those old enough to remember Hughes’ first election to Parliament in 1983.

He was the SDP candidate who split the Labour vote in a by-election campaign notorious for the homophobia directed against Labour candidate Peter Tatchell.

“I think if Simon Hughes were here he would say, “the problem was what I said about it rather than the fact of it.”

“Simon is a close friend and I would not want to hurt him,” explains Campbell.

“But I think part of it too was the context of the by-election with Peter Tatchell.”

Mr Tatchell himself spoke up for Mr Hughes in the aftermath of his admission of bisexuality.

For Campbell, his age is a constant theme in criticism of his leadership.

Although he has packed his frontbench with young talent, notably the 27-year-old Jo Swinson and rising star Nick Clegg, 41, he is most regulary portrayed as an out-of-touch pensioner.

His performances at Prime Ministers Questions have also been a focus for criticism from opponents within his own party.

BBC TV satire Dead Ringers is fond of portraying Ming as an avuncular granddad.

Surely that must hurt?

Campbell claims to not watch the show.

“If you put yourself into the public arena, then you have to accept that there are certain advantages that go with it, and certain disadvantages.

“So long as humour is not distasteful, so long as it doesn’t mock disability, then I think you have to be tolerant of that as well.

“I am not going to be deflected from my belief in that by the fact that there is a rather poor impression of me on television. Not actually that good. If it were better I might watch it more often.”

Exclusive: Ming Campbell speaks to

In the modern political climate, there is something comforting about Campbell’s refusal to be made over into an appealing figure.

When the workaholic Chancellor and PR savvy Leader of the Opposition’s attempts to appear down with the kids is raised, Campbell seems to revel in being rooted to his generation and class.

Like he said, he is pre-Sixties and has none of that baby boomer desire to appear hip that so famously led to Tony Blair clinging to rock stars in an attempt to live up to the spin of Cool Britannia.

“There is no time for pop, in a way, in this life. I like classical music. I am not an expert in any sense whatsoever, but my wife and I have been going to the Edinburgh festival for 37 years.”

Campbell reveals a musical pechant that could conceivably win him some votes in the gay community.

“I am very keen on musicals – I saw Porgy Bess not all that long ago, and before that I saw Guys and Dolls.

“I have got Les Miserables in the car and I play that and play that and play that. Let me put it this way, I could live without music, but it is something from which I take great pleasure.”

The Lib Dems are the most prominent supporters of the European project in British politics.

But events in the new EU states, notably Poland and Latvia, have caused outrage among gay people in the UK.

The leaders of Poland freely state their disgust for gay people, while in Latvia, last year’s Pride parade was attacked by gangs of protestors.

Given that the Lib Dems are the party who are most supportive of the European dream, what does Campbell think can be done to combat the naked homophobia on display?

“Poland is particularly offensive, isn’t it? We have what we call the Copenhagen criteria which as you know means (new EU member states) meeting these human rights standards.

“The trouble is when you let people in, the EU has no way of dealing with it.

“You remember we sort-of suspended Austria from some of the councils of Europe over right-wing fascism, but we have absolutely no mechanism for dealing with people who want to detract from human rights.

“I would say that we should seek out intolerance wherever we find it and expose it. In our words and our deeds we should.

“Both in what you do and what you say, you have to live up to these principles. If you really think they are important then you have to live by them.”

Finally, we turn to the young David Cameron, the 40-year-old huskie-riding, hoodie-hugging, NHS-loving, Arctic Monkeys fan who currently leads the Conservative party.

Cameron is often desribed as a liberal on social issues like civil partnerships – what is Campbell’s take on the use of his favourite word to describe an opponent?

“If I told you I was a conservative Liberal, you would find that a pretty curious animal. So to be a liberal Conservative is to be equally curious.

“It is not the judgement of other political parties that counts about these things, it is what the public think and if I may say so it is about what gay people think

“What do gay people think of it?

“They are in an infinitely better position to make an assessment and reach a conclusion than someone who has never been adversely affected by the sort of prejudice that we are talking about.”

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