“Voting’s not like going to the dentist” – an interview with Sir Menzies Campbell


Written by Luna Webster

Sir Menzies Campbell is one of the UK’s longest serving MPs, having represented North East Fife at Westminster for almost 30 years. At this year’s general election he is stepping down from the seat and retiring from politics at 73. Although he is not a candidate I sat down with the ex Lib Dem leader to discuss his time in politics and what his party has to offer young people post-May.

Hi there Sir Menzies! It’s a pleasure to meet you. To get us started let’s find out about the origins of your own politics. What initially got you engaged in politics and what led you to join the Liberal Democrats?

My parents were both very politically interested but neither of them were activists. But a lot of their friends were politically interested and activists. And my parents often had some open house on a Saturday night and the people who came, their friends, would talk about politics. So inevitably I would listen. And when I went to university, I went to university with a group of people, for example John Smith who became the leader of the Labour party, Donald Dewar who was the first Scottish First Minister, another man named Alexander Irvine who was the Lord Chancellor of Tony Blair’s government. So my friends were very political , and I really enjoyed debating. Two things impressed me. One was reading an essay by John Stewart Mill, called “Liberty”, and the other was listening to a man named Joe Grimond who was then the leader of the Liberal party. And that turned me into a Liberal. My parents were both Labour, so I like to say my first act of rebellion was to be a liberal – which you don’t normally expect of liberals! And when I was at university, I was very keen on sport, particularly running. So I managed to combine all of this, don’t know how I managed to do it. When I left Glasgow University I was a postgraduate at Stanford in California and I really focused on the running and not the politics –though I was the President of the union. I drifted away from it really. And my wife helped Shelter to raise a lot of money out in the States, so she was politically interested albeit not in a political party. There was a man called David Steele who was then the leader of the Liberal party and he was also the chairman of Shelter. And she ran an event to raise money for Shelter, and it was very successful, so of course she met the chairman, who I knew from before. And he said to her “you must persuade Menzies to stand for parliament”. So she was obviously very good at that. And that’s how I started, in Greenock, in Port Glasgow in 1974, I stood for election.

Wow – it sounds like you’ve seen a lot during your time at Westminster. In terms of youth representation do you think there has been progress? Is there a lack of a youth voice in parliament?

Well the average age is going down. When I was first elected there were a lot of people who had been in the war on both sides of the House of Commons. A lot of them were sort of Knights of the Shires, you know, they were the sort of people who felt it was a moral obligation. And on the opposition side there was a lot of trade unionists. And they had been down the pit, or working in coal and steel, so they tended to be older, they tended to be less interested in being ministers and more interested in being good MPs. These days people want to be ministers. And I think that’s what has lead partly to this style of career politics. Where you go to university and do politics, then do a job for an MP for not much money, then maybe go and work for one of these public affairs companies, then get put in for a safe seat, do well and start putting your name in for ministerial places. And that has meant that the average age has gone down a great deal but it depends how you define young. There aren’t many people under 25, but there are a lot of people under 40.

The Liberal Democrats have had a tough time over the past five years and have gone down in a lot of young people’s estimations following the tuition fees rise in 2010. How do you think they can get the youth vote back following that?

Well I voted against my party for the first time ever. There was a lot of soul searching on my part. I’m chancellor of St Andrews University. And I stood on the steps of the union and I signed the petition. I found it hard to do and my colleagues were, let’s say, not best pleased. And what people forget, they forget two things, first of all Tony Blair said he’d never introduce tuition fees and he did so. And the other thing is that the regime they’re paying back now is so relaxed compared to what it was before. If you reach the age of 50 and you can’t pay it back, it all gets scrubbed. So although the headline amount has gone up there’s no doubt that the discomfort has been very much alleviated. But, it was not easy and it’s something we’ve got to try and deal with.

If the Liberal Democrats get back into government in May what do you think they can do for young people in terms of employment, education and their futures in general?

Well we’re responsible for policy that has helped create now nearly 2,000,000 apprenticeships. We created the pupil premium in England where pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have a substantial sum of money following them wherever they go, whichever school they go to. We’ve used our place in the coalition to promote green policies, green credentials. We’re strong on human rights, civil rights, we’re strong on fairness, I mean we had to go into the coalition, it was necessary to restore stability in the economy which we’ve largely done. But in the next parliament, I don’t think it’s necessary to continue cuts to the extent that the Conservatives have been proposing. So there you are: fairness, the environment, human rights, help in secondary education; I think that’s a reasonable collection of things to say to young people.

This week in the news there’s been a lot of discussion surrounding David Cameron’s plans to make young people work for their benefits. How do you feel about this policy – do you support it?

No, personally. I dislike compulsion of that kind. I think in a way compulsion of that kind is a sort of acknowledgement that persuasion has failed. And young people, of you know, 16, 17, 18+, they leave school and they’re often uncertain of what they want to do. This is an increasingly competitive world we live in. My eldest grandson has a degree in law, the first thing he said after his degree was “I don’t want to be a lawyer”. It’s taken him two years to find a job – he’s found a very good job now. But it’s taken him a while to get there. He was very clear on what he wanted to do but it was very difficult to get into. He knew he’d always wanted to do this but it took him two years to actually do it. But in that time he was very motivated, he knew what he wanted. So I don’t know if that would fall under the David Cameron dictum, I’m not sure.

There’s also been a lot of news about the Scottish parliament letting 16 and 17 year olds vote at future elections. Do you agree with under 18s having had the vote at the independence referendum and in the future being able to vote in the Scottish parliament?

I’m in favour – it’s been a Lib Dem policy for a long time. I think it introduced them to the whole notion of voting. I think that, you know, once the barrier’s broken. There’s no logic in saying you can do it in the referendum but you can’t do it in the general election.

Do you think this policy will help improve voter turnout among young people? Recent polling has shown only 24% of young people intend to vote at this year’s election.

If you get the opportunity to vote you should take it. There are people who say, oh they’re all the same I won’t vote for any of them, and then they complain about what the policies are. It seems to me that we get this privilege…I mean 100 years ago a woman threw herself in front of a horse to make the point that women deserve the right to vote.

I take it you’re not a fan of Russell Brand’s outlook on politics then. Do you feel it’s dangerous for him to be encouraging young people to not vote?

This may not be popular with your readers but I think it’s just self indulgence. If he wasn’t Russell Brand who’d listen to him? I didn’t see the ferocious fight between him and Farage, but the more people who run down the political system, the less people who are going to be inclined to vote. In my opinion we should be encouraging young people to vote. I hope that by having voted in the referendum they will go on voting! I mean it’s not like going to the dentist.

Thanks so much Sir Menzies! All the best for the remainder of your time at Westminster!


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