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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 January 2007, 11:33 GMT
Lib Dem matters
On Sunday 21 January 2007, Andrew Marr interviewed Sir Menzies Campbell MP

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

Sir Menzies Campbell MP
Sir Menzies Campbell MP

ANDREW MARR: Now, it's almost a year since Menzies Campbell took the helm of the Liberal Democrats, promising to take some risks, but also to restore some stability to what was a rather battered ship, to a safe pair of hands.

But they're down a bit in the polls and critics say that as the Labour Party's fortunes plummet the Liberal Democrats should have been doing a bit better.

Now there are some new campaigns, one on cutting crime and the party's fresh thinking as well on sleaze. Sir Ming Campbell joins me. Welcome

MING CAMPBELL: Thank you very much.

ANDREW MARR: And Happy New Year to you.

MING CAMPBELL: And a Happy New Year to you.

ANDREW MARR: Let me turn first to the story that's been running this morning about the Home Office, because we hear these proposals about dividing it in two and it's clearly something that's likely to happen.

But it's something that the Liberal Democrats have been talking about, I think again in a slightly different way, over the past year or two. So what do you make of it? Do you welcome what's being said?

MING CAMPBELL: Welcome to Liberal Democrat policy. It's long been our view that there ought to be a Ministry of Justice, if I may say so, the Lord Chancellor put it rather well a little earlier on the programme.

Remember too that the government was willing to reform the office of the Lord Chancellor, it ought to be willing to reform the Home Office. We need the Ministry of Justice, there's no doubt whatsoever that by doing that we would allow the remainder of the Home Office under whatever name it has, to concentrate on these issues of security. It has long been the case that the Home Office is not fit for purpose.

Thank heavens there's an open recognition, although let me just make this point, why do we have to read about it in the Sunday newspapers? Why aren't these proposals put before the House of Commons first?

ANDREW MARR: Right, there is a constitutional point and let me follow up with another constitutional question, because you've said that this government is in its dog days and it's mired in sleaze, and particularly on the issue of the House of Lords and party funding there needs to be a radical change. So what would you be doing now if you were sitting in Tony Blair's chair?

MING CAMPBELL: Well I would most certainly be pressing ahead with the case of House of Lords reform. I would be saying that we need a minimum of 80 per cent directly elected to the House of Lords. That there may be an argument for a residual number of appointees. That the responsibility for these appointees should not rest with party leaders like myself. I think reform of the House of Lords is absolutely fundamental...

ANDREW MARR: And you can do that without putting the House of Lords into confrontation with the House of Commons?

MING CAMPBELL: Well there's been a discussion this week in our House about what are called the conventions. And in that regard there's been a report recently which suggests that the powers of the House of Lords as compared with the powers of the House of Commons should remain as they are at the moment.

That's a proper starting point. But the essential thing is to break, once and for all this perceived link between subscribing to a political party and getting some kind of preference as, for example, being appointed to the House of Lords.

Shirley Williams made a very good point the other night, she said look, there are a lot of people in the House of Lords who've given up large salaries and enormous financial opportunities to come and do the work of the House of Lords. What do they feel like when they hear that people are being appointed just because they've given money?

ANDREW MARR: Your party's had, to say the least, a bit of a problem with one of its major donors. Have you ever considered giving some of the money back?

MING CAMPBELL: We were given that money in good faith, as we understood it. We accepted it in good faith, and it was spent on the purposes for which it was given.

ANDREW MARR: And it's gone!

MING CAMPBELL: Well, the matter's before the Electoral Commission. We've made clear our position. Indeed the Electoral Commission...

ANDREW MARR: Would you pay it back if you were asked to?

MING CAMPBELL: The Electoral Commission has said publicly that we've acted in good faith, that I think is our position.

ANDREW MARR: Let's turn to another issue. It's perfectly possible that after the May elections in Scotland, the SNP are the largest party, that's what the polls imply at the moment and they could be wrong, but they could well be right.

And they may very well come to your party and say we want to go into coalition government with you but we do want to put a referendum in front of the Scottish people about independence. What will the Liberal Democrats say?

MING CAMPBELL: Well Jim Wallace and Nicol Stephen, now the Liberal Democrat leader in the Scottish Parliament, made it perfectly clear, that they're not interested in a referendum on independence. It's a distraction from issues...

ANDREW MARR: What's wrong with giving people the chance to vote?

MING CAMPBELL: ...because we had a referendum about whether or not we should have a parliament in Scotland in 1997. People expressed their views then.

Absolutely, of fundamental importance, to deal with issues like health and education and the environment. That's what people are concerned about. They're concerned about their schools and their hospitals, not about yet more constitutional activity.

ANDREW MARR: So, if the SNP come knocking on the door with that proposal your party will say flatly "no" and will be in opposition rather than do that.

MING CAMPBELL: We will say flatly no. Because that's what we've said in the past and that's what we're saying in the course of this quite well extended election campaign which I has effectively already begun in Scotland. Can I just make one point though.

These exchanges between the Labour Party, endless quoting of statistics and the kind of rhetoric of nationalism. These are not going to resolve the problems of health or education or the environment. And the Scottish people are smart enough to understand that.

ANDREW MARR: Right, well let's move on to a further issue which is the position of your party generally. Because you've had some successes, over tax for instance, you got your way at the party conference.

MING CAMPBELL: And electorally too, remember Dunfermline, and West Fife, very close in Bromley and Chiselhurst.

ANDREW MARR: Well, indeed. But if you look at the opinion polls generally and taking lots of polls together, so not just one, your party is down from where it was under Charles Kennedy's leadership, and given the state of the Labour Party a lot of people say it should be doing a great deal better.

MING CAMPBELL: Well we're in the range of 18-20 per cent. And at this stage in the electoral cycle that's as good as we've ever been. That's not to say I don't want to do better. But of course the way in which we will do better is by professionalism in what we do, and by clarity in our policies.

That's why this launch tomorrow of a policy on crime is of such importance to us. I want people to understand that we are clear in what we think is necessary for the United Kingdom. And we're clear in the ways in which that can be brought about. You're quite right, this is a government in its dog days.

This is a government which, I mean, apart from what John Reid's been saying today, there's just this sense really that this government has run its course. And that's why I think if Gordon Brown is crowned, or elected, by whichever mechanism, then I think the people of the United Kingdom are entitled to a say, we should have an election.

ANDREW MARR: An election but not a referendum?

MING CAMPBELL: Well, because an election's the opportunity to allow people to express their views about a programme. A referendum asks people a specific question and in the Scottish context that is a distraction.

ANDREW MARR: When that election comes there may very well be an indecisive result in party political terms. A lot of people look at you and you think, well there in Ming Campbell is Gordon Brown's banker. Because if he doesn't win an overall majority he'll do some Scottish deal with Ming Campbell and it'll be Lib-Lab coalition and a cosy stitch-up.

MING CAMPBELL: Well a lot of people who say that have never talked to me about it. Look, what I say to my colleagues is this, we want maximum votes, maximum seats, and it's only by that that we will get maximum influence. And let's just be careful about what we say about Gordon.

I mean Gordon Brown's the man, for example, who signed the cheques over Iraq. Gordon Brown's the man who has been part of this authoritarian tendency in the Labour Party. I mean the split now in politics in this country is not so much left and right, but Liberal and authoritarian. And we're the true Liberals.

ANDREW MARR: You say they're authoritarian, they are mired in sleaze and they got it completely wrong over Iraq. There's no way therefore that you can prop them up in government after the next election, is there?

MING CAMPBELL: Well it's clever of you to ask the same question

ANDREW MARR: Well it's their question...

MING CAMPBELL: Well you're getting the same answer. Because you've essentially asked the same question, same answer. Maximum votes, maximum seats, maximum influence.

ANDREW MARR: But there are seats [talking over each other]

MING CAMPBELL: Well who knows when the election's going to be, one shouldn't speculate about these things. What I think is not a matter of speculation as this, that the values of liberalism and liberal democracy have never been more necessary in this country than they are now.

ANDREW MARR: Mmm.

MING CAMPBELL: That's why we are proceeding in the way that we are, revising our policy, making ourselves more professional, ready for the election.

ANDREW MARR: Well.

MING CAMPBELL: We're writing our manifesto, if there's an election in October the manifesto process has begun. I've appointed the person who's going to chair the campaign, Chris Reynard. We're ready.

ANDREW MARR: What about the issue that you're raising at the moment, which is crime, because parties of different stripes have struggled with crime over the years, never come up with the right answer. What would you do that's different? You wouldn't support ASBOs, for instance, though they're relatively popular...

MING CAMPBELL: Actually, now, I mean, one of the great myths of our time is that we don't support ASBOs. We voted in favour of ASBOs. But what we say is that these are not the only answer.

You need practical measures, like for example, in Liberal Democrat-controlled Liverpool where they discovered that by putting gates on the alleys behind terraced houses you could cut burglary. In Islington where they've discovered that while the ASBO has some use, much better to get to people at an earlier stage and have, as it were, anti-social behaviour contracts with them.

ANDREW MARR: What about prisons?

MING CAMPBELL: Well the prisons are too full. They're filled with people who shouldn't be there and, as a consequence of that, we find ourselves with automatic release - people getting out who should be kept in prison.

The prison policy has failed because we find absolutely no way of dealing properly with people who are there suffering from mental health, or in some cases drug addiction. We find no way of giving adequate education or training so that when people are released from prison they have an opportunity of making a proper contribution in the community.

Splitting the Home Office in two is not going to resolve these essential policy areas and that's why, albeit Mr. Reid or Dr. Reid may have the headlines this morning - what he proposes will not deal with the problem.

ANDREW MARR: Let's turn to the condition of the party in another way. I think it's fair to say that your front benches and your team have made the headlines in numerous ways that you would not necessarily have wished.

We've had Lembit Opik all over Hello magazine with one of the Cheeky Girls, and so on. Is there a slight danger that Liberal Democrats are providing part of the national entertainment rather than part of the political conversation of the country?

MING CAMPBELL: We're providing a large part of the political conversation, we're providing the political conversation about Iraq, about the decision to end the investigation into BAE systems in Saudi Arabia. Look, Leibit's Lembit. My take ...

ANDREW MARR: Can you promise me he'll not be in the Big Brother household next time round?

MING CAMPBELL: I don't promise anything.

ANDREW MARR: Oh dear.

MING CAMPBELL: Not even for distinguished commentators like you. Look, the test is, is he doing his job on the front bench. The same test for Lembit as everyone else. If I didn't think he was fulfilling his responsibilities then I'd do something about it.

ANDREW MARR: Now you mentioned Iraq just now. There's going to be a relatively rare debate on Iraq in the House of Commons. Are you disappointed by the fact that the Prime Minister's not going to open it?

MING CAMPBELL: Yes I am. Because as we've heard on the news, more casualties. I mean this is an issue which is going to define the Prime Minister's term at No. 10 Downing Street. And we haven't had a proper debate on this topic, a full-scale debate, since 2004. And I think there's an obligation on leaders, on an issue of this magnitude, to come to the House of Commons and explain what they think, and what their parties think. I think the public are entitled to that.

And I'm disappointed that Mr. Blair has not responded to my invitation that he should open this debate. I have nothing but respect for the Foreign Secretary but this is an issue which is essentially Mr. Blair's issue. And he should appear before the House of Commons and explain where we are, where we're going, and what his proposals are for an exit strategy.

ANDREW MARR: Because you would bring the troops out relatively soon?

MING CAMPBELL: I made it clear that the expressions of opinion by, before Christmas now, by General Sir Richard Dannet seem to me to be absolutely on the ball. First of all we kicked the door in. Our presence there exacerbates the security situation, and we should leave sooner rather than later.

And look, even President Bush is now saying that there's no open-ended commitment, that in due course the people of Iraq have got to take responsibility for themselves.

I think we've got to come to the point of asking ourselves "can we do any more good"? And I think the answer to that is that we can no longer do any more good and what we need now is a phased withdrawal.

ANDREW MARR: Now Tony Blair has been at the sharp end of a great deal of criticism for this. Do you think Gordon Brown is equally tainted?

MING CAMPBELL: All those who are in the Cabinet, who supported this. Look at this Labour leadership campaign for the deputy leadership.

They're queuing up to say well actually we should have, we should work more through the United Nations. I had reservations about the neo-con policy.

I didn't really think that George Bush's analysis was the right one. Well the answer to all of these people is "where were you when these issues were being discussed in the Cabinet".

There were two notable people who demonstrated their opposition. One was Robin Cook and a little later Clare Short. Why weren't others doing that?

Why are those who now have the benefit of hindsight much more active in hauling the Prime Minister back from something which even the Prime Minister inadvertently agrees has now been a disaster?

ANDREW MARR: Interesting question. Sir Menzies Campbell, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

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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