The tiniest fractions of time can make the greatest impact: first impressions are made within seven seconds; Sir Menzies Campbell, once described as the “fastest white man on the planet”, ran his best 100m in ten. The length of our telephone interview – around 20 minutes – by contrast could have felt a millennium.
But my flustered and rushed introduction, having received the call mid-essay crisis in the library, did not perturb his charming greeting at the other end, and an enjoyable and relaxed conversation ensued.
Before embarking on heftier matters, I first ask for his views on the 600th anniversary celebrations. Naturally, he is very complimentary.
“An extraordinary amount of hard work has gone into [the celebrations]. The whole staff has been effectively engaged this operation, and a number of individuals have worked extremely hard to make them the success they’ve been… Not to put too fine a point on it, I’ve been extremely proud of the University in the way it has conducted these things. Both thanks and congratulations are owed to all those involved.”
He praises the numerous grand occasions that have been organised, from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge coming to launch the celebrations, to the dinner they hosted at Middle Temple Hall, to the various services at St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey – he jokes that “we’re not sure where we’re going to go next year – I’ve been suggesting the Olympic Stadium.”
After suggesting venues for some of the celebrations, I ask what other duties his role as chancellor, which he has held since 2006, entails:
“The chancellor’s role is really rather undefined. I always say that I have neither the executive authority nor the executive responsibility, but I do have a kind of general obligation. When necessary I have worked extremely closely and with great cooperation the principal and also the senior governor.” He adds self-effacingly that “I was once asked to define it, and said that chancellors should be seen often and heard infrequently. It’s a question of to be available, but only when asked.”
Sir Menzies’ role as leader of the Liberal Democrat party from 2006-7, and indeed the majority of his political career, in comparison seemed much more turbulent, intense and exhilarating. As the leader of a party, how did it feel to be ‘in the hot seat’?
[pullquote][The tuition fee rise] was the first time in 23 years I had voted against my party… It didn’t make me popular [but] it was my responsibility to oppose it[/pullquote]
“It gets more and more demanding. It’s very difficult to do now unless you actually physically live in London: I lived partly in Edinburgh, partly in Fife, while I was leader of the Lib Dems, which can be very difficult. The weekends were no longer quiet times: there are about five different political programmes on a Sunday in Britain, and it was a very odd occasion for the leader of a political party to not be on one of them.”
He points out that the last Liberal Democrat leader, Herbert Asquith, also represented his own home constituency of East Fife, so it was “very exciting” to be elected into a similar position. Nick Clegg commented recently that he is a “towering presence in British politics,” to which he modestly laughs that “what’s interesting is that people are always very nice to you when you’re on the way out; you must take these things with a pinch of salt.”
His leadership of the party formed just one of many other defining moments of his career, however. He first thinks of his election to become MP for the Fife area: “It took me three attempts over 11 years. I reckon I drove 50,000 miles for those 11 years!”
Other highlights include holding on to that hard-won seat – “the first defence is always the most difficult” – and then his time in Westminster as a “prominent part of the public face of the Liberal Democrat opposition to the Iraq War; ours was the only party that was opposed”, before being elected deputy leader and subsequently, of course, leader.
He is by no means egotistical or single-minded about these successive rises through the ranks of political power, however. Instead he appears chiefly concerned with the ordinary people he represents: “I think my greatest achievement is to get inside the skin of north-east Fife.”
One particularly relevant demonstration of his sympathy with voters was the raising of tuition fees, which he voted against: “It was the first time in 23 years that I had voted against my party. It was highly controversial, and it didn’t make me popular in some parts of the Liberal Democrats, but I felt that having given the pledge on the steps of the Students’ Union surrounded by a lot of students who were helping me in that election, and since I was chancellor then, it was my responsibility to oppose [the rise].”
Described as the “mediator of party disputes” in the Telegraph’s list of the 50 most influential Liberal Democrats of all time, he has much experience dealing with skirmishes both within his own party, and between it and others. I ask for his opinion on the current coalition situation.
“The coalition has done what it set out to do, and its policies are now beginning to bear fruit. I’ve always said that it is a coalition of necessity, not choice, because of the dire straits that the country and the economy were in at the time [it was formed]. We’ve had the lowest interest rates, we’ve had very low mortgages that have helped people, the pound is stable and the stock market has improved. Now we have to convert those achievements into a real increase of the standard of living for the population of England.”
On the subject of Michael Gove’s system of ‘free’ schools (set up independent of the local authority by parents and teachers), he disagrees with the Conservatives’ new system, particularly on the moral grounds of its divisiveness of local communities:
“My own personal view is that the [unifying influence] of education should be possible within a state comprehensive system. Whilst some of the free schools have been successful, others have been spectacular failures. The jury really is out until we discover how they work in the long term.”
In accordance with his liberal stripes, he adds that “one thing that does concern me is the difficulty of any divisions within the community on the grounds of faith or anything else.”
We move to international politics, where Sir Menzies still plays a pivotal role as a member of the foreign affairs select committee. He famously opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What about Britain’s current involvement in the Middle East?
[pullquote]“Nothing gives me more pride than giving degrees”[/pullquote]
Regarding Afghanistan, he says he has always been in favour of “root[ing] out the elements of Al Qaeda that have used [it] as a base.”
With intervention in Syria, by contrast, he remains cautious and sceptical: “What could that amount to? Who would we be assisting now that there are many jihadists in the opposition groups? If it didn’t succeed, would that necessarily have involved an escalation?”
He acknowledges the “reluctance” following Iraq and Afghanistan to engage in “what is called foreign intervention”, as well as the need for the approval of the United Nations Security Council – “unilateral action [from the US and UK] certainly creates difficulties.”
Given his awareness of the complexities of international negotiations, I ask whether the upcoming Commonwealth Games might rouse feelings of Scottish nationalism, or even conversely promote the Union. His response is emphatic:
“I hope that it does neither, and that it remains entirely neutral. [The games] are important in their own right, and I myself would be particularly disappointed if [they] turned into an opportunity for political point-scoring on either side of that particular argument.”
As to his current plans after his resignation – which he tacitly remarks came about because it is “better to leave when they are staying ‘why are you leaving?’ than when they are saying ‘why are you still here?’” – he can still enjoy his rewarding position with the University. His final words, unsolicited by me, extolled his appreciation of the ceremonies he can conduct as chancellor:
“Nothing gives me more pleasure or pride than giving degrees to so many talented young students in Younger Hall, students who have evidently greatly enjoyed their time here, and taken a great deal from it, but equally have given a great deal to it.”
As a man who has devoted his life to the liberal cause, he perhaps embodies some of its best qualities: fairness, compassion and moderation. St Andrews, in a nutshell, is lucky to have this man.