David Steel: the man to lead our party is Menzies Campbell

Lord Steel of AikwoodI believe Menzies Campbell is the best person to take the Party forward.

I have known Campbell since his student days. When fellow Glasgow University students John Smith, Donald Dewar and Derry Irvine were honing their skills with the prospect of sound careers in the Labour Party, Ming – like me in the safer pastures of Edinburgh – joined the Liberals, who had only half a dozen MPs.

His Liberalism has been bold and consistent. In 1970 as the be-medalled “fastest man in Britain”, he used his sporting popularity to help rescue me in the difficult task of opposing the then-racist Springboks’ visit to my constituency in the rugby-mad Scottish Borders. We have been close friends ever since.

His bad luck was not to enter the Commons earlier than he did in 1987. Had he done so, he would probably have been leader instead of Charles Kennedy and possibly even Paddy Ashdown, for he has outstanding natural ability. As it was, after fighting four elections between 1974 and 1983, he wrote to me to say that he could no longer sideline his legal career. I persuaded him to give it one more go.

Some politicians scoff at those who have outside careers, but Ming gave up a successful and highly lucrative practice at the bar to serve his party and his country. His reputation as an advocate would by now have led him to a senior and comfortable position as a judge. Instead, he has ploughed the furrows among the Liberal Democrats, not all of whom are aware of the sacrifice he has made.

His role as the party spokesman in foreign affairs has given him added credibility, especially on the critical issue of Iraq, where his articulate media appearances have struck a chord with the electorate.

He has not been severely tested on the domestic policy front. I would argue that this is a positive advantage, since much printer’s ink has been wasted on the alleged divisions between social and economic Lib-Dems, between Left and Right, between traditionalists and modernisers. He is fortunately not identified with any “camp” and is therefore in a strong position to unite the party after the recent debacle.

Since Charles Kennedy’s leadership bequeaths an unmistakable three-party political system, which I believe is here to stay, it is someone of the gravitas of Ming who is needed to keep a cool head in the next three-party contest.

The “balance of power” cannot be an objective, but if the Tories move up somewhat and the Labour Party down, a hung parliament is not an unlikely scenario. The onus must be placed on the other two parties to face that possibility as much as us. Meanwhile, we must build our platform on an equal basis with theirs, and in any negotiation with either side, seek to gain as much of it as possible. The man to maximise that strategy – and lead our party – is Menzies Campbell.

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