Scottish referendum: Is Menzies Campbell the man who could save the union?

The former Liberal Democrat leader's federalist vision offers a legitimate alternative to independence
July 4, 2014

“Menzies Campbell is one of the nicest men in politics,” said a Prospect colleague, as I set off to meet the former Liberal Democrat leader and retired athlete to hear his answer to the Scottish independence question. But, when I finally make it through the airport-style security, there is no trace of the man who some say could save the union. It seems Sir Menzies has stood me up.

A passionate advocate of federalism, Campbell has spent the past two years espousing a positive solution to the Scottish question. His most recent report on devolution, Campbell 2 (which could be the name of a spaceship), was published in March and contains a grounding alternative vision for the UK’s future. Think of it as living “apart together”. Despite announcing last November that he will retire from political life at the next general election (which could result in a damaging loss for the Lib Dems in his North East Fife seat), Campbell’s energy shows no signs of abating. Which makes his no-show even more surprising.

I’m back in Westminster the next morning, after several apologetic emails. With his lengthy frame clad in navy chinos, blue shirt and tie, Campbell looks more like a dapper, retired athlete than an ageing politico. All that's missing is the Panama hat. This is possibly due to the fact that “Minger” was once a leading British sprinter who broke the British 100m record in 1967, earning him the nickname “the fastest white man in Britain.” I try to ignore the Chariots of Fire theme tune that's buzzing around my head and focus on Campbell's vision for the future of his homeland.

“The voter turnout for this referendum on 18th September is likely to be higher than for next year’s General Election," says Campbell as I settle into an armchair and take in the view of Westminster spires through his window. "The question of Scotland’s place in the kingdom has been on the agenda since long before Alex Salmond’s SNP won a majority in the Scottish parliament in 2011. It even predates the 1979 referendum on devolution, as the SNP won, and then promptly lost, 11 seats in 1974. It’s time we settled it because it’s clouding people’s perception of Scotland,” he says.

Born in Glasgow in 1941, Campbell is the epitome of the proud Scotsman. Yes, the accent has softened, but this is a man who was born in Scotland, who went to school and university in Scotland, married a Scot (the glamorous Lady Elspeth who many credit with persuading him to run for party leader in 2006), qualified in and practiced law in Scotland, represents a Scottish constituency and is the chancellor of Scotland’s oldest university, St Andrews. These days, Campbell divides his time between his family home in Edinburgh, his North East Fife constituency and his London flat, which he feels gives him a unique perspective on the independence debate.

“I believe the right thing for Scots to do is vote No, and I believe that will be the outcome. My view is that it will be resolved in the peripheral housing estates of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, and Aberdeen. In spite of the best efforts of Westminster, and indeed the Scottish parliament, there’s a distinct lack of opportunity for many in those areas. These are natural Labour constituencies. It took a while, but it seems that the Labour party has woken up to this and is now full throttle behind Better Together, or No Thanks as it’s now known. I think that has helped spark a perceptible, but not enormous, increase in the support for the No vote which is reflected in the polls.”

With support for the Yes vote apparently in decline, (the latest YouGov poll puts it at 35 per cent, and the No vote at 54 per cent), now seems an opportune moment for Campbell, as the chair of the Home Rule Commission, to advocate for a federal alternative.

“The Liberal Democrats were the first to embrace federalism as a viable solution. Others are now following suit, for example Gordon Brown’s latest pronouncements indicate that he has turned into a federalist. We welcome all converts. In the first report on Home Rule that I delivered in October 2012, I laid out the case for a federal relationship between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. All three parties have now signed up to the idea that Scotland will get more powers, signed up to it in blood it seems. And I believe it will spread around the country. In England, for example support for UKIP is based upon some sense of national identity, which may eventually manifest itself in a desire for a devolved government. It's no longer just about the West Lothian question, it's also the West Belfast and the West Wales question.”

Campbell is confident that the Scottish independence debate has altered attitudes towards devolution, although he admits that previous failed proposals such as John Prescott’s North East assembly have not exactly helped the cause. His conviction that this is the only logical constitutional path for the country is unwavering, and his arguments, at times, persuasive. It seems fitting that at the end of a long and successful career spanning 28 years (“I was only going to do a couple of parliaments and then go back to the bar but somehow it got in my blood”), Campbell is finally getting to focus on what is clearly a pet project. At one point he jumps up and dashes off to get me copies of the Campbell 1 and 2 reports, despite my protestation that I had already read them online. His pride in this work is clear to see.

“It’s my view that the present constitutional arrangements in the United Kingdom are not sustainable, and that the process of change will start with Scotland developing a federal relationship with the rest of the UK. You could argue that “devo max” [which would see the Scottish Parliament running everything apart from defence and foreign affairs] comes very close to that. I think the argument against putting devo-max on the ballot paper as an option in this referendum was that if support for independence went down, while support for devo-max went up, then the SNP could still claim a victory of sorts. Mr Salmond is an agile enough politician to capitalise on that opportunity and that would mean the independence question was still live.”

The most headline-grabbing element of the Campbell 2 proposal was a call for a cross-party summit 30 days after the vote, to “secure a consensus for further extension of powers to the Scottish Parliament consistent with continued membership of the United Kingdom.” He also calls for these plans to be included in each party’s election manifesto—the promise of which could potentially dampen the nationalist threat. While Campbell and his party are certainly committed to this, can the same be said of their more powerful allies in Better Together? “No one has actually said yes to me,” he says cheerfully “Maybe they don't want to appear arrogant. But, I would be absolutely astonished if after a no vote, the three main UK parties do not come to an agreement.”

Any solution that is forged on this highly emotive issue, can’t be purely political—the fault line it has exposed among families, friends and colleagues runs deep. A recent poll revealed that nearly half (42 per cent) of all Scottish families are divided on whether the country should become independent. ”It’s inevitably been divisive. No one should run away from that and those divisions will still exist afterwards, “ acknowledges Campbell. “The main parties have a responsibility to try and ensure that whatever the result is that they make it work. Online abuse is a large part of the problem. Although Better Together supporters write blogs and dish out abuse, the strength of the vitriol from the Cybernats [online supporters of Scottish nationalism] is of an entirely different nature. There is an SNP MSP who attacked the leadership of the Scottish Liberal Democrat and Labour parties saying those that opposed independence are ‘anti-Scottish'.

Campbell’s disdain for the SNP and its leader’s bullying tactics is clear throughout our conversation. He claims that the discipline within Salmond’s party is so “ferocious” that MSPs dare not vote against the party line even when it goes against the interests of their constituents. The example he gives is of the SNP MSP for Campbell's own Westminster constituency who initially came out against the proposal to close the local sheriff court but then voted to do so.

Campbell’s indignation at this political opportunism dominates the next 15 minutes of our conversation, and leads him on to imply that the SNP are trying to exert influence over Scotland’s business leaders. “There’s a lot of bullying and intimidation that goes on. Now, it’s starting to surface that some prominent businessmen have been subject to subtle warnings along the lines of there will be a lot of contracts [up for grabs] after independence—the clear implication being if you're someone who speaks out against the Yes campaign, then you will not be favoured. A friend of mine told me in confidence that the Scottish First Minister called him and spent 50 minutes on the telephone.”

Does he think that nationalism is still a growing force in Scotland, or would a No vote wipe it out? The Scottish government has lowered the voting age in the referendum to 16, but says Campbell this is a ploy which could backfire against the SNP. “Schools in Aberdeenshire [which is historically an SNP heartland] staged a recent ballot and the result among 15 to 17 year olds was 75 per cent voting No and 25 per cent voting Yes. My slightly romantic view is that these children of the digital age are citizens of the world and don’t define themselves by nationality in the way that older people have been inclined to do.”

As our conversation is briefly disrupted by the ringing of the division bell, which calls MPs to vote, my eyes fall on a framed photograph of Campbell with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge [who met at the university of which he is now Chancellor] proudly displayed over his desk. On another shelf is another snap of Campbell shaking hands with the King of Jordan. With rumours swirling of a republican plot to ditch the Queen in the wake of a Yes vote, this photographic evidence would suggest that Campbell is something of a royalist. Is that the case? “On the monarchy, I'm a pragmatist,” he says wryly. “I think the current system of a constitutional monarchy is better than anything else. The left-wing factions within the SNP would want rid of the Queen if the vote is Yes. There is quite a strong element of republicanism in the SNP, one or two of its prominent members have previously declared themselves as anti-monarchists.”

Campbell’s surprising vigour is beginning to wane ever so slightly as we reach the end of our allocated time. He may have decided to step down from political life voluntarily but what does he think the future holds for the two key party leaders on either side, Mssrs Cameron and Salmond, if the vote goes against them?

“Cameron won’t resign if there is a Yes vote. He will say that the people have spoken, and then he could run a General Election campaign focused on England, which would satisfy quite a few of his backbenchers. As for Salmond, neither he nor the SNP will give up the cause if the No camp triumphs. If they lose there will inevitably be a period of reflection within the SNP, from which Salmond will still emerge as leader. Although, he is likely to encounter resistance from the fundamentalists in the SNP who will argue they lost because they weren't nationalist enough. The SNP might not end up with independence but they will seek to maintain the trappings of it—for them the argument will not be over.”

So, does Campbell’s federalist vision hold the key to a peaceful future for the United Kingdom, or is just a fantasy? As he predicted, noises are finally being made in favour of increased devolution, as the Strathclyde report delivered in June by the Conservatives indicates. Described by David Cameron as a "thoroughly Conservative vision" for greater devolution, the report includes a promise to pass all income tax powers to the Scottish parliament, as well as giving it additional powers over VAT and welfare. Labour’s vision, unveiled in March, is less dramatic but still promises greater tax powers for the Scottish parliament and a pledge to abolish the “bedroom tax” in Scotland. But it all feels too little, too late and as party political animosities harden in the run up to the 2015 General Election, which looks set to be one of the most closely contested of recent times, Campbell’s dream of a tri-party consensus before the referendum looks increasingly unlikely.

A week later I found myself sitting opposite Sir Menzies on a train coming back from Chalke Valley History festival after watching him appear in a Prospect debate. He was quietly eating crisps and watching the Wimbledon on his iPad. Towards the end of our journey, a young polo shirt-sporting City type approached him and asked him for advice on his business affairs. Charming as ever, Campbell spent a good 30 minutes dispensing advice and contacts to this eager young man, despite having no obligation to do so at all. He might not fulfil his potential to be remembered as the man who saved the union, but he will always deserve the title of the “nicest man in politics.”