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Thursday, May 20, 1999 Published at 21:30 GMT 22:30 UK

UK Politics

'Liberal with a capital L'

BBC News Online's Nyta Mann talks to the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman and potential leadership contender seen as the most committed to continuing Paddy Ashdown's policy of close relations with the Labour Party: Menzies Campbell

There is one crucial question to put to Menzies Campbell - the man tipped as the potential Liberal Democrat leadership contender most likely to continue Paddy Ashdown's love affair with Labour - before asking him anything else: why "Ming"?

"My Christian name is 'Ming-is', spelt M-e-n-z-i-e-s," he enunciates. "'Ming-is' is the Scottish pronunciation."

Campbell is accustomed to the confusion that results from people getting it wrong - but confesses that things could have been far worse.

[ image: Menzies Campbell was elected the MP for North East Fife in 1987]
Menzies Campbell was elected the MP for North East Fife in 1987
For generations the male line of his family alternated between the names Walter and George. Campell's father was George, so his son was due to be Walter.

"My mother was a woman of great common sense who said you can't send a boy into the world with the initials W.C.," he explains. "She said 'You'll have to find something else'." So Menzies ("Ming" to his friends) it is.

Aside, of course, from the name there is one other question many are still waiting for him to answer. Is Campbell going to enter the race to become Lib Dem leader?

He is judged by Westminster watchers of the Kosovo crisis to have been having a good war, appearing often on television these days in his capacity as Lib Dem foreign affairs and defence spokesman.

Lib Dem grandee Lord (Roy) Jenkins of Hillhead has also announced he will back Campbell should he stand in the contest. His chances have been further talked up following unconfirmed speculation that Nick Harvey MP - the man previously considered Paddy's chosen heir - has pulled out of the race before it has formally begun.

Still undecided

Campbell has been widely reported as being due to come to a decision this week. But by the middle of it, when News Online interviewed him, he remains undecided.

"I have not made up my mind," he says. "There are a set of rules in place which I'm doing my best to observe. I've taken some soundings, I've made no secret of that. But unlike others I've not had people rushing around promoting my candidature."

[ image: Outgoing Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown is enjoying the longest political goodbye in memory]
Outgoing Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown is enjoying the longest political goodbye in memory
He wishes, in fact, that Ashdown - to whom Campbell is close - had not opted for the long goodbye that has followed the outgoing Lib Dem leader's declaration in January that in June he would stand down from the party's helm. An undeclared battle for succession has been quietly raging ever since.

"I think the arrangement whereby Paddy Ashdown remains leader until after the European elections having announced his intention earlier this year to stand down has been a slightly awkward one - and it's not one which I would personally have favoured," says Campbell.

"I think it would probably have been easier if he'd waited until after the European elections and made his intentions known."

Liberal with a capital 'L'

But the vacancy at the top having been advertised, what would a Campbell party leadership - should he stand and win - be like?

"Well, people know me," he says. "I've been in Parliament since 1987. What am I in favour of? What have I argued for? I've argued for freedom of the individual. I think if liberal democracy is about anything it's about individual freedom.

"I have been supportive, for example, of homosexual law reform, divorce law reform, the social freedom agenda. I think people are intelligent enough to make their own decisions, and I think the state should have virtually no role in people's personal relations except to protect the vulnerable, the weak and the young . . . I regard myself as a being a Liberal with a capital L."

The key issue of the leadership race is Lib-Labbery. Of the expected runners Campbell is likely to be the contender running on the basis that close co-operation with Tony Blair is a good thing for his party.

[ image: Lord Jenkins of Hillhead says he will support a Menzies Campbell bid for the leadership]
Lord Jenkins of Hillhead says he will support a Menzies Campbell bid for the leadership
This will be used against him by rivals on the Lib Dem anti-co-operationist wing. They will undoubtedly accuse him of being far too willing to cosy up to the Labour leader. So what would Campbell identify as the key area of disagreement between himself and the prime minister?

Invitations to the party

"I'm in the Liberal Democrats," he says. "If I had accepted the invitations my old friend John Smith offered on many occasions late at night, over a bottle of whisky or my red wine, I could have been a member of the Labour Party."

"But I'm not, because Labour does not pay sufficient attention in my view to the primacy of the freedom on the individual."

Aside from that, however, he has no qualms about acknowledging that Blair has "got a great deal right".

"People who are critical of Blair should remember what it was like two years or more ago," says Campbell.

"We are terribly, terribly quick to forget just how awful it was, how bad Thatcherism was, the damage it did to the social fabric of this country.

[ image: Scottish First Minister Donald Dewar (bottom right) with some of his Holyrood executive - including Jim Wallace (back right)]
Scottish First Minister Donald Dewar (bottom right) with some of his Holyrood executive - including Jim Wallace (back right)
"Now, Blair's not a Liberal Democrat and I'm not a member of the Labour Party, but it would be foolish, crazy not to accept and to understand the enormous change that has taken place over the last two years."

Electoral reform 'a done deal'

He points to the mutually beneficial coalition deal negotiated between the Scots Lib Dems and Labour in the Scottish Parliament as a prime example of the benefits of his party's current "constructive opposition" stance towards the government.

"In Scotland what the Liberal Democrats secured, among other things in that deal which has been the subject of such silly criticism, is proportional representation for local government," he says.

This will come as news to some, especially within Labour, who believe the Holyrood Lib-Lab deal to merely include the promise of a thorough examination of the issue. Campbell, in contrast, firmly describes proportional representation (PR) for council elections north of the border as "a done deal". "They've secured it for all practical purposes," he insists.

He absolutely expects PR for local polls to be in place by the time the next Scottish Parliament elections - and on good authority, he goes on to clearly imply.

[ image: Is Tony Blair a pluralist? Liberal Democrats don't know for sure]
Is Tony Blair a pluralist? Liberal Democrats don't know for sure
"I happen to know that at very senior level in the Labour Party in Scotland they see proportional representation as being a way of preventing the kind of single party fiefdoms that many local authorities have become - and in making these authorities more open, accountable and transparent, and reducing the opportunities for the sort of sleaze which has disfigured local government in Scotland for so long."

Ultimately, for Liberal Democrats it is the answer to a particular question about Tony Blair that divides the party's members into the co-operationist or non-co-operationist camps. The question is whether Blair is a genuine pluralist or not; the answer is not yet known.

For Campbell, the answer will come when ever, if ever, Blair eventually reveals whether he will put his own authority behind the cause of reforming the voting system for elections to the House of Commons.

"This is the test," says Campbell. "I don't approve of words like 'control freak'," he continues - but goes into a pantomime comic flinch when I remind him his party leader frequently and ostentatiously describes Blair in precisely those terms.

"It's not the sort of language I personally like," he smoothly resumes. "But the question is, is Tony Blair a pluralist? The answer to that question will be unequivocally in the affirmative if he adopts a system of PR for Westminster.

"Over to you, Mr Blair."

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