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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 September 2006, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
Liberal gathering
On Sunday 17 September 2006, Andrew Marr interviewed Sir Menzies Campbell MP, on the eve of the Lib Dem Conference in Brighton

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Sir Menzies Campbell MP
Sir Menzies Campbell MP, Lib Dem Leader

MING CAMPBELL: What's significant about all of this in my view is that we are moving into a time in British politics where I think public opinion's much more volatile than it's been for a long time.

And I also think, and here I agree to some extent with the prime minister, that the old left, right division is something which is gradually being eroded and I think the division in the next general election's going to be, be among those who are liberal by values and by policies against those who are authoritarian.

And we are liberal by values and policies and that's why I look forward to that test of public opinion with a great deal of optimism and confidence.

ANDREW MARR: But isn't one of the problems with that, that when you look at the Conservative leader David Cameron, he comes across as in many ways liberal to when it comes to green taxes, when it comes to issues around civil liberties, when it comes to not being a neo-Con and too close to George Bush, when it comes to constitutional matters too. He has moved his party a heck of a long way.

MING CAMPBELL: But you know he reminds me of that old Tory MP who was once asked in the House of Commons "What time is it?" And he looked at his watch and he said "What time would you like it to be old boy?"

I mean this is not liberal conservatism..., this is inoffensive conservatism.

Tell us anything you don't like about us and we'll abandon it. And let me take the illustration of Foreign Policy to which I think you referred a moment or two ago. The time for liberalism is when you're leading public opinion, not following it. It's all very well long after the decision to take military action against Iraq, to begin to express anxieties and reservations about being too close to the Americans.

The time to express these reservations was on the eighteenth of March of two thousand and three when we voted on the House of Commons on that issue ... we come more recently to the Middle East. It took David Cameron three weeks to say that the actions of the Israeli government were disproportionate. True liberalism is leading public opinion, not licking your finger and holding it up and see which way the wind's blowing and then deciding that's the way in which you're going to steer your ship.

ANDREW MARR: All right, well let's, let's stick with foreign policy then because you raised it. We now have a really serious hot fighted war going on in Afghanistan at the moment. Do you think there is any prospect with five thousand troops as it were on the one side and the Taliban, clearly resurgent across that area, of being able to contain this? Or do you think that we are being sucked into a much bigger conflict?

MING CAMPBELL: I think it's about even Stephen at the moment. That's the impression I get, that the NATO forces under the direction of David Richards, a most effective and efficient British General, are pretty well holding their own. But if we're just holding our own that's not good enough and that's why this is a real test for NATO.

That's why it's not enough for people to sit in Brussels at the NATO headquarters and to say yes, we're going to do this, take this responsibility, something that NATO has not done before, a massive out of area responsibility and then not be prepared to provide the men or the equipment in order to see that the job is done.

ANDREW MARR: Okay. Future coalition government of some kind, Sir Menzies Campbell is Foreign Secretary, perhaps Defence Secretary. Do you throw in more troops into Afghanistan now? Do you keep upping the ante until this war is fought or do you start to bring them home?

MING CAMPBELL: What I say is that NATO has got to produce the numbers. The United Kingdom cannot sustain all of the responsibility itself. Not least of course because of our continuing obligations in Iraq.

ANDREW MARR: But as we've just, as we've just agreed NATO are not putting more troops in so it comes back to Britain.

MING CAMPBELL: For the moment. For the moment. Britain can't, Britain doesn't have any more troops to put in. That's the truth. And as has been demonstrated we've had problems about equipment, we've had problems about Land Rovers designed for one purpose in Northern Ireland, being used for a purpose for which they're not adequate in much hotter theatres of war.

And therefore we are pretty, I, my guess, and I don't believe that generals who are normally apolitical would have gone so public as they have without them genuinely believing that we were at the stretch point, that we couldn't go any further without the elastic breaking.

ANDREW MARR: Your party was very up front in its hostility to the Iraq war ..

MING CAMPBELL: Yeah.

ANDREW MARR: .. when that began. A lot of people therefore look to the Liberal Democrats as the peace party if you like in that context. So can you tell me when, how long it would take for the Liberal Democrats to bring troops back home from Iraq and wind our involvement in that country down.

MING CAMPBELL: My criticism of the government is that it neither has a policy for staying nor for going. And earlier this year we produced a document the purpose of which was to say look if this is going to work at all then you have to engage a much more regionally based effort in Iraq.

You've got to engage those countries for whom the dismemberment of Iraq would be a political and a military and perhaps even an economic disaster. I've made it clear throughout the time that I've had responsibility for these matters that there was a sense of which the Prime Minister imposed a moral obligation on all of us by his actions in relation to Iraq. But that cannot be open ended. Because we've got a moral obligation to our own forces as well.

ANDREW MARR: All right. Let's turn to domestic policy and in particular tax because it looks as if your commitment to remove the, the proposed top fifty per cent tax rate, fifty p in the pound tax rate is going to be a major source of conflict at this party conference.

MING CAMPBELL: Well it's going to, there's going to be a debate about it. And the difference between our conference and other conferences is this. I've got one vote the same as the newest delegate. We have a debate, we have a vote.

ANDREW MARR: Well we'll see what happens when it's put to the vote on Tuesday. But one criticism that could be made of the tax policy is that you are taking away something which might have been slightly controversial but was clear and well understood, a proposed new top rate of tax. And you are substituting a whole range of other taxes which I'd like to turn to now.

MING CAMPBELL: Well we've got package and I hope we come to the detail which is much more redistributive than the fifty pence could ever have been which raises much more in order to allow us to deal with the problem that two million people, the lowest earning taxpayers in this country, we want to take two million of these out of paying tax all together. We think that middle income and lower income families have been unfairly taxed. By putting the fifty p to one side and by adopting a much more redistributive programme using taxes on the environment to raise ..

ANDREW MARR: Well let's ..

MING CAMPBELL: .. to raise revenue and asking those who've done very well in the United Kingdom, the sort of people who get bonuses of a million pounds at the end of the year ...

ANDREW MARR: They're aren't an awful lot of those but let's ..

MING CAMPBELL: There are quite ..

ANDREW MARR: .. turn to the detail if we could.

MING CAMPBELL: .. there are quite a few. But the point is that those who've done best of all are to be asked by us to pay rather more than they've done so far.

ANDREW MARR: And you're also going to go for tax release on, tax relief on pension contributions ..

MING CAMPBELL: Yeah.

ANDREW MARR: .. of the better off as well which ..

MING CAMPBELL: Yes.

ANDREW MARR: .. when you say that your policy has moved from tax and spend to tax and save some people might say well hold on a second you're taxing pensions.

MING CAMPBELL: The people who earn most are the people who get the greatest benefit out of pension tax relief. And if at the same time we are raising the threshold from around thirty four thousand to fifty thousand. For those who pay forty pence in the pound then we are giving people a substantially and a substantial and additional amount back.

ANDREW MARR: But ...

MING CAMPBELL: So they can decide how they spend their own money.

ANDREW MARR: Plus green taxes, something that's really going to bite on people with bigger cars and something it's going to bite on national and indeed international enthusiasm or addiction for international flight.

MING CAMPBELL: Everyone accepts that there is a problem about that and it will have to be dealt with. And the way in which we say it should be dealt with- it's not asking individual passengers to pay a tax which is what happens at the moment but taxing the movements of aircrafts, so ..

ANDREW MARR: But the prices of tickets would go up wouldn't they, you would assume?

MING CAMPBELL: Well only, only if the operators of airlines decide to pass that on.

ANDREW MARR: Every single time I ask somebody about new taxes on air travel and new taxes on the use of cars, the generality sounds fantastic and noble and clear and you actually say are people going to pay more for their airfares. Are people going to pay more to drive around in their car ...

MING CAMPBELL: Well they certainly pay more for their car ..

ANDREW MARR: ...

MING CAMPBELL: No, no if you ask me about cars I give you a straight answer to that. I mean we're, we, we, we've got proposals for raising vehicle excise duty up, up to two thousand pounds per annum for those cars which are the most polluting. Because the principle is, the more you pollute the more you should have to pay. We want to change people's habits.

ANDREW MARR: So we put all these taxes together, the range of proposed new taxes, it seems to be looking at them that you would be more redistributive than Gordon Brown or indeed the Labour Party.

MING CAMPBELL: Well we would be re... redistributive in order to deal with the problems which we see around about us. And in order to deal with the crisis, and I mean this, the crisis of the environment.

ANDREW MARR: What happens if on Tuesday you are defeated on the top rate, the fifty p rate?

MING CAMPBELL: I shall be disappointed because I've made it clear, as part of my leadership style, that on an issue of this kind which you have identified in earlier questions as being an important issue, it's absolutely essential that the leader of the party says where he stands on it.

ANDREW MARR: It's going to be a great deal worse than disappointed isn't it if you lose this because you have pinned your leadership.. this is one of the major things that you have put in front of the ..

MING CAMPBELL: ...

ANDREW MARR: ... major thing you have put in front of your party. If you lose it where does that leave your leadership?

MING CAMPBELL: Nonsense. Nonsense. The trouble about journalists like you, it's you've seen Gary Cooper in High Noon too often. You want to have crises. You want to have a High Noon at every party conference. And no doubt you'll be saying something similar in a week's time.

ANDREW MARR: It has to be said that ..

MING CAMPBELL: This is not High Noon.

ANDREW MARR: .. the Liberal, Liberal Democrats deliver High Noons at party conferences with much greater regularity than Gary Cooper ever managed to.

MING CAMPBELL: Well with style too I hope. Look this is not High Noon.

ANDREW MARR: You don't think your leadership is questioned if you ..

MING CAMPBELL: Of course not.

ANDREW MARR: .. lose?

MING CAMPBELL: Of course not.

ANDREW MARR: Right. When do you think Charles Kennedy's going to be back on the front bench?

MING CAMPBELL: When he's ready.

ANDREW MARR: And when's that going to be?

MING CAMPBELL: He will know. And we will know.

ANDREW MARR: Do you know yet?

MING CAMPBELL: No doubt. Nor does, nor does ..

ANDREW MARR: So there's no sign that he's ready yet?

MING CAMPBELL: Not, well he's not said that he's ready yet. I think he's quite, enjoying is perhaps not the word, but I think he's taking advantage of the space that he's got.

ANDREW MARR: Has he, has he stopped drinking?

MING CAMPBELL: That's a question you should address to him.

ANDREW MARR: But it'll be a matter for you too as party leader as to when he comes back onto the - does he have to stop drinking ..

MING CAMPBELL: Of course.

ANDREW MARR: .. before he comes onto the front bench?

MING CAMPBELL: He, he, he has to be ready. And we'll have a discussion at that time when he believes that that moment has come. But in principle, let me make it clear. I've known Charles Kennedy since he was twenty. He's a man of enormous talent and enormous ability.

He's a man for whom I have a great deal of affection, as indeed does the whole party and we will see that on Tuesday when he makes a speech here. It would be madness for any leader not to have Charles Kennedy on the front bench because he has a rare quality in British politics in the twenty first, early part of the twenty first century - he connects with the British people.

ANDREW MARR: In the words of a new book about him he had a tragic flaw. Now nobody is perfect. But the problem for your party was that frankly the public were lied to. Do you want to apologise for your part in the hiding of the Charles Kennedy drink problem for so long?

MING CAMPBELL: Charles Kennedy had a problem. It was a problem a number of us knew about. It was an occasion in which one had to balance a lot of competing obligations, loyalties, friendship, an anxiety for him.

ANDREW MARR: Honesty.

MING CAMPBELL: A concern for the party. These all had to be balanced. And but the benefit of hindsight, it's always easy to say how one might have judged things in one way or another.

But what I do think is the point had come at the beginning of this year when it was Charles Kennedy's interest, in his interest and in the interest of the party that he should step down. He did that with a considerable amount of grace and courage and dignity.

ANDREW MARR: Let's turn to you. Very obligingly Simon Hughes said that you were on probation until this party conference. You had a, a bit of a rough start in the House of Commons. What's your report to Chief Probation Officer Hughes?

MING CAMPBELL: I don't think one's allowed to write self assessment on these occasions. It's for others to determine what they think my performance has been. I accept that Prime Minister's Questions can be a pretty torrid arena.

Indeed I discovered that myself. But I believe that I became infinitely more comfortable doing that. It's the issues. It's the policy considerations which are significant. And if that's a test then I believe that's a test I have passed.

ANDREW MARR: You know Gordon Brown well. You're going to do a stitch up and deal with him if necessary after next election?

MING CAMPBELL: No of course not. Listen if I wanted to be a member of the Labour Party I'd have joined it when John Smith used to upbraid me for not doing what my parents had done.

Any more if I wanted to be a Conservative I'd have accepted the invitation of a Conservative Chief Whip. For joining they would get me a safe seat. Gosh that would have been a promise not worth very much wouldn't it? Look, I'm a Liberal by, by heart and I'm a Liberal Democrat by political affiliation.

ANDREW MARR: Do you admire Gordon Brown?

MING CAMPBELL: Course I do. He's a man of enormous moral stature. He's a man of enormous intellect. But that's not to say I'm not critical of him. I, I, I ..

ANDREW MARR: Would you serve, would you serve in a government led by him.

MING CAMPBELL: I think he is much too centralist. I think he's much too authoritarian. I think he does not understand that in a development, in a country like ours, as developed as it is, then much more should be allowed to people by making the decisions that affect their daily lives. And as to serving in any government, you know better than to ask me a question so hypothetical ..

ANDREW MARR: It was worth a try.

MING CAMPBELL: Of course.

ANDREW MARR: And you would talk because it may well be that we've got an indeterminate result at the next election to whichever was the largest party because ..

MING CAMPBELL: I'm making no commitments of any kind. I'm not going to anticipate results or anticipate the decision of the British people. Can I just say on Labour, lest you think the fact that Gordon Brown and I, when we meet, talk about Fife, football and families, that that betokens some sort of sympathy with Labour. In the great northern cities of Liverpool and Newcastle which were once labour Fiefdoms it's the Liberal Democrats who've taken the battle to the Labour Party. It's the Liberal Democrats who've taken control.

ANDREW MARR: You once reportedly described the job of being Liberal Democrat Leader as being a kind of rotten ghastly job. How does it feel now?

MING CAMPBELL: Oh it's a wonderful job.

ANDREW MARR: He said hurriedly.

MING CAMPBELL: I would, I would say that wouldn't I? Look I want to lead the party towards government. I want the party to understand that we have within us the capacity to influence events in the United Kingdom in a way that has never previously been the case.

This con..., this conference provides an opportunity to demonstrate that even to the most sceptical of political commentators.

ANDREW MARR: And for how long do you hope to have the privilege of leading this party?

MING CAMPBELL: I shall lead the party through this parliament, through the next General Election and beyond.

INTERVIEW ENDS


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy


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