Menzies Campbell at home in Edinburgh. He faces the camera smiling. He is wearing a blue suit, shirt and tie. His arms bent and apart.

Sir Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell served as Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesperson between 1992 and 2006. He was a leading voice in opposing the 2003 Iraq War. Cable’s Lindsay Hastings caught up with him in his Edinburgh home.

Q: How does the current security environment compare to that during the Cold War when, some would argue, dynamics and risks were more predictable? Are we living in more dangerous times now?

In the Cold War, it’s not realised perhaps that NATO’s nuclear doctrine revolved around so-called ‘flexible response’.  The reason we had flexible response was that the Warsaw Pact countries were overwhelmingly larger, in conventional terms, than we were, and the Russians boasted that their tanks could cut through what was called the Fulda Gap in Germany and be at the Channel ports in thirty six hours. NATO couldn’t match that. We’d certainly have needed reinforcements from across the Atlantic; that would have taken days.  So flexible response essentially involved NATO’s first use of nuclear weapons. There were nuclear artillery shells and the decision to fire them was a long way down the command chain, and then there were tactical nuclear weapons, which you could use short-range. The argument was that if you first introduced a nuclear component into the battle, everyone would say, “For God’s sake we’re heading for mass destruction here”. And so the sides would stop fighting, come round the negotiating table and sort things out.

What we have now is the minimum nuclear deterrence and minimum deterrence is being defined as the ability to inflict a level of damage on an adversary which the adversary is unwilling to sustain. This change is what I think is the enormous difference in the strategic context. Although, one would argue, and certainly people in Scotland would argue – and I am entirely sympathetic to this argument – there’s a nuclear non-proliferation treaty under which five declared powers have undertaken to pursue multilateral nuclear disarmament. There’s a five-year review of that conference and the last couple of times the Big Five, if I can call them that, have been taken to task rather severely – and in my view quite rightly – by the fact that multilateral nuclear disarmament really has not made any progress.

“I respect the view that nuclear weapons are immoral and therefore should never be used. But if people take the view that we should unilaterally disarm and others will follow, then I think they’re wrong. There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest this is true, indeed the evidence is in the opposite direction.”

Now I’m not a unilateralist, rather a strong multilateralist. I respect the view that nuclear weapons are immoral and therefore should never be used. But if people take the view that we should unilaterally disarm and others will follow, then I think they’re wrong. There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest this is true, indeed the evidence is in the opposite direction. But that doesn’t excuse the so-called Big Five from making serious efforts at multilateral disarmament. In the UK now, we have a programme for the replacement of the four-boat nuclear deterrent. Russian nuclear capacity is being improved, Chinese is being improved, the French show no sign of wanting to part from theirs. So I think we’re at something of a stalemate. Now, that in itself is dangerous. You always have the risk of misjudgement, miscalculation, provocation – real or imagined – sometimes deliberately induced.  With all that going on, it seems to me that the cause of multilateral disarmament is something which really ought to be pursued with far greater vigour than it is.

Q: How do you view the UK’s current role in the world? Has it changed in recent decades?

Douglas Hurd, one of the wisest Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs we’ve had since the War said, I think about 15 years ago, that we have to recognise we are now a middle-ranking economic power and our influence depends upon that. Now, I’m not going to use the expression ‘punching above our weight’ but there’s the G7, we are permanent members of the United Nations, the second largest contributor to NATO, a leading power in the European Union – soon to be removed – and part of the engine of the Commonwealth. We have opportunities. But contained within those opportunities are obligations as well.

For example, at the United Nations in New York, people will tell you from pretty well every country that the UK is actually an essential feature of the way the United Nations is run. The United Nations does not work particularly well all the time. In fact, some might be even more critical than that. But people have said many times that the Brits really make a difference because of their skills and their ability to compromise and find ways through things. It’s the same in NATO. We are, if you like, a counter weight to American dominance. Still. So we are still influential and the stronger these relations and organisations are, the better it is for us. There’s a big return on being involved in these organisations.  If we were to walk away from them, or take a more diminished role, it wouldn’t just diminish ourselves.  It would mean that the impact, the effect and the contribution that those organisations make to our standing would be severely diminished.

Sir Menzies Campbell faces Cable Magazine interviewer, Lindsey Hastings across a table.
Lindsay Hastings speaking with Sir Menzies Campbell at his home in Edinburgh © David Pratt. All Rights Reserved.

Brexit  unquestionably weakens our position. The European question has all been rather personal for me. I was born in May 1941. My mother spent a fortnight before I was born – every night – in an air raid shelter at Glasgow Academy at Kelvinbridge. That was the nearest air raid shelter while Nazi bombers were trying to destroy shipbuilding on the Clyde. The first thing I remember about that is asking – I must have been 3 or 4 – what the noise was and being told that it was guns. Of course, I didn’t understand anti-aircraft fire. I grew up in Glasgow, particularly close to Clydebank where there was a big shipbuilding workforce.  Now I could take you and show you, I think, where there are still holes in the ground there, from the bombing.

So, I grew up with that, and in those days there was a magazine called the Picture Post which had fantastic photography and it showed the devastation of the war. You just wouldn’t believe it. It was just extraordinary. The damage. The poverty. People pushing their children and belongings in prams, walking 500 miles to escape the Russians, all that kind of thing. I won’t say it scarred my view but it certainly was the basis of my view that the European Union, which requires its members to accept human rights, democratic government, right of assembly, right of free speech, is extremely important in preventing another war. There were two world wars in which the United Kingdom was heavily engaged, only 21 years apart, and so I’ve always been thoroughly on the side of international organisations like the European Union.

“We were always good at international relations and I think that’s where we can best and most effectively make a contribution. That’s why I’m so deeply disappointed by the idea that we are going to leave the European Union.”

I’m afraid to say it’s an age thing because when you talk to young people about this, they think you’re from another planet.  But these things have enormously influenced my view and still do. I think no one looks at the European Union as having a political strength. People say, ‘Oh, I thought we were just joining a customs union, I didn’t think it would be political’. Well, NATO is a defensive alliance but it’s also political. And the European Union is an economic alliance and it’s political as well. I mean, if it wasn’t so, why would Putin have spent so much time trying to undermine one and destabilise the other? Where the inconsistency comes on the part of those who argue for Brexit, is that they say ‘We will deal strongly with a strong European Union’ but the European Union which we’re going to be dealing with is inevitably diminished by the fact we’re no longer a part of it.

So: increasing international trade; expanding on the Doha Agreement; working through the United Nations for development but more specifically for political development; working through international organisations in the cause of multilateral nuclear disarmament. We cannot do these things on our own. The sun has set on the British Empire. Robert McNamara said the trouble with Britain is she has lost an empire and not yet found a role and he was absolutely right. We were always good at international relations and I think that’s where we can best and most effectively make a contribution. That’s why I’m so deeply disappointed by the idea that we are going to leave the European Union.

Q: In the social media age, are the big diplomatic figures under more pressure to perform, to show personality?

I don’t think so.  That need has always been there. I’m perfectly certain some people think it matters more. And the distinction, I think, is an important one. I don’t do social media, I never have. I don’t know anyone who’d be interested in what I have to say at 11 o’clock at night. I may be regarded as a philistine for not being involved in it. I don’t object to other people doing it but since we’re in the business of fake news, or considering what is fake news, it seems to me there’s a risk of inaccuracy and drama which could adversely affect the whole balance of security.

I can’t sack him but I would certainly sack Boris Johnson. There’s hardly a European country he hasn’t insulted in the time he has been Foreign Secretary. I go every year to a security conference in Munich, every February. It’s the security equivalent of Davos. People like Vladimir Putin have come to address it, Hillary Clinton. John McCain is a regular, Bill Perry, Sergey Lavrov. I mean they all come; this is a big deal. I came later on on the opening day of the last conference – and people were still angry with Boris Johnson. He’d made what was essentially a reference about the Second World War, in Munich of all places. I mean that’s just characteristic. He insulted Hollande when he said ‘don’t try to visit us with punishment beatings’. You know, people in France suffered punishment beatings; there are people still alive that suffered punishment beatings. He’s an immensely clever man, Boris Johnson, but I’m afraid to say he does not have the judgement and skills to fulfil the responsibilities of the Foreign Office at this time.

“I can’t sack him but I would certainly sack Boris Johnson. There’s hardly a European country he hasn’t insulted in the time he has been Foreign Secretary.”

I think in general, if you are the regime – and it doesn’t matter if it’s the United States, the United Kingdom, wherever – if you’re so-called elite, people will try to give you a bloody nose. Especially at this time. I mean, in Europe it looked as if Merkel was going to be damaged but she has clawed her way back. She did far better than anyone expected. Macron is slightly different; he is a product of ‘a plague upon all your houses’ but it just so happens that centrism has emerged and I think there is a kind of collective discontent with traditional forms of government and traditional politics. Now, I’m not sure how that comes about. People say that of course it’s all about globalisation and the fracture of the hopes and aspirations of people from less affluent backgrounds. Part of that problem is that we have not created circumstances in which people can be retrained. We thought heavy industry would go on forever. We put all our trust in heavy industry in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom and it’s all gone flat. And so you have these pockets of people who have been left behind. I think that’s had an enormously damaging effect on morale and the integrity of communities.

Information technology has fundamentally changed politics because once upon a time, people didn’t know how government worked. People now know about weaknesses and those weaknesses are exposed.  The other thing is a crisis of expectation. The general standards in this country have risen. Britain was on its knees after the Second World War. So, general levels of affluence have gone up, but people have been left behind. I don’t think that’s an argument for reducing overall standards but it’s most certainly an argument for doing something. One of the ways which you can do that is through social security and that’s why these cuts, and in particular the cuts directed at Theresa May’s JAMs (‘just about managing families’) are just so awful. There is a hell of a lot of people in that category who regard going to work as being the right thing. We could make their lives better. An injection of not just capital but modern methods of teaching and instruction so we can help create people who have a range of abilities.

Cable Magazine Interviewer, Lindsey Hastings, (back to camera), interviews Sir Menzies Campbell in his Edinburgh home. Sir Menzies Campbell holds his hands together to emphasise a point he is making.
© David Pratt. All Rights Reserved.

Q: What have you made of Donald Trump’s influence in recent times, notably in terms of relations with Russia?

What actually is his relationship with Russia? I’m not sure if he knows himself. Putin’s done deals with more heavyweight figures than Donald Trump in his time, probably does them every day to survive in Russia. The biggest problem with Trump is this erratic inconsistency where he says one thing one day and something entirely different the next. He’s also offensive. He has outraged women, he’s outraged gays, he’s outraged environmentalists, he’s outraged the Secret Service. All that in less than a year. For any American President to do that is pretty damn remarkable.

I’m a great believer in the Special Relationship between us and the United States. Now that relationship is not unique. America has special relationships with other countries too: with South Korea; with Japan; and, some years ago, a very special relationship with Germany – George Bush Senior was very close with Chancellor Schmidt. But the UK and US have a particular relationship based on two things; one, the nuclear deterrent where we rely upon access to the store of Trident missiles; and second, the intelligence exchange. I was on the intelligence committee in parliament for seven years. We went nearly every year to the United States, and we went to the FBI, the NSA, we went to Langley to the CIA. People forget there are seventeen different intelligence agencies in the United States. Everywhere we went – and it wasn’t just show – American officials would say to us how strong the intelligence relationship is between our two countries. But now we have all these uncertainties created by Trump. I mean, the idea that British intelligence agencies would for a period stop supplying information to the United States [in the aftermath of the Manchester terrorist attack] would have been unthinkable 12 months ago. I don’t think there’s a permanent rupture; in fact I’m sure that it’s business as usual now again in terms of cooperation. But people didn’t like that and indeed the security services in the United States didn’t like it because it was impinging upon what they would describe as their special relationship with the security services.

“If the strength of the Special Relationship depends upon the quality of personal relations, how the hell can you have a strong relationship, consistent with our values, with Donald Trump?”

The real question for Theresa May is: how does she maintain a productive relationship with someone as difficult and unpredictable as Donald Trump? The so-called Special Relationship usually worked best when there was close rapport between the Prime Minister and the President; Churchill and Roosevelt; Thatcher and Reagan; Blair and Bush. On the other hand, Lyndon Johnson and Harold Wilson could hardly bear to be in the same room. Johnson pleaded with Wilson to give him just a company of the Black Watch with a pipe band to send to the Vietnam War, so that the Americans could say it was an international effort. My point is: if the strength of the Special Relationship depends upon the quality of personal relations, how the hell can you have a strong relationship, consistent with our values, with Donald Trump? And if Theresa May has difficulty in her relationship with him, how much more difficult would it be if Jeremy Corbyn were PM because he’s be coming to the table with a wholly different set of values.

Speaking of intelligence relationships, let me say something briefly about Saudi Arabia in Yemen, There’s been a lot of criticism of what they’re doing there and rightly so. The British government response to it all has been pretty muted. But about four years ago, David Cameron acknowledged publicly that intelligence supplied by Saudi Arabia to the UK prevented a major terrorist incident. Now I know a little more about what he was referring to but the Official Secrets Act prevents me from telling you about it. But it illustrates the conflict you can have sometimes where you have important partners in intelligence whose behaviour in some areas you are uncomfortable with, or indeed condemn. I question the support of the British Government of the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen. They are operating under a United Nations resolution but even so, you have still have obligations under humanitarian law to avoid civilian casualties if possible. It seems to me that they have gone beyond the legitimacy conferred upon them by the UN resolution because the kind of action they are taking is effectively indiscriminate bombing.

Q: Where do you see Scotland’s constitutional future?

As a federalist, I believe in the federal solution which essentially means that everything domestic comes to Edinburgh, with the exception of foreign affairs, defence, large-scale economics and, I would also say, social security. An independent Scotland, however well motivated and resourced it might be, could never command the clout of the United Kingdom. I want to remain in the European Union and I want to remain in the United Kingdom. We are better together in both places. I think the SNP made a grave error of judgement in raising the possibility of a second referendum so quickly. I can see why that happened because lots of the people who joined the party after the 2014 referendum joined because they wanted another referendum. Nicola Sturgeon has had to walk something of a tightrope on that issue and I’m afraid she fell off that tightrope. I haven’t been in a situation where I felt that being Scottish meant more than being British. I think we Scots make a contribution by the quality of what we produce and I think that contribution is magnified by being able to do it through the mechanism of the United Kingdom.

Q: Through your work in international affairs, who have you really admired and why? 

I’ve come to admire John Kerry. I think his efforts in the Middle East have been quite extraordinary, compared to many before him. Lawyers think that every problem is solvable. I’m not sure the Middle East is solvable to be quite frank.  Every time we seem to get near a point where can some recognise the interests of everyone, something intervenes to prevent it. I’m also an admirer of Douglas Hurd.  And I think we should take our hats off to Angela Merkel because of her achievements.

I also admire Canada and Norway. They have worked better than others to maintain the international order. Norway worked its socks off with the Oslo Agreement and the Canadians were responsible for turning the ‘Right to Intervene’ into a proper doctrine, Responsibility to Protect. And Ireland, the proud boast of Ireland, though it may not be true now, was that they had contributed troops to every United Nations peace force that had ever been deployed. I admire that; you put your young men and, increasingly, young women at risk without necessarily any immediate dividend coming back to you. That’s a recognition of a moral obligation. That has to be admired.

“I also admire Canada and Norway. They have worked better than others to maintain the international order.”

When a state visit goes on in the UK, the state visitor sees the UK government but in the interests of parity, the other UK parties get 20 minutes meeting time too. It’s all very interesting. You go off to Buckingham Palace and you’re shown into the room where the great man or woman is waiting. When I was Lib Dem leader, I went to meet Vladimir Putin and I’ve never felt more uncomfortable with a person in my life. Perhaps the most interesting was meeting George W. Bush. Charles Kennedy was with me. Now, he and I had spearheaded the Lib Dem opposition to Iraq War and we met not only Bush but Condi Rice, his National Security Advisor, was with him too, as was Colin Powell, Secretary of State, and the US Ambassador to the UK. After some initial pleasantries, Charles said, “Mr. President, I’m afraid I have to tell you as a party, we voted against the Iraq War”. Bush replied, “Well, I know that”.  But then we settled down to a thoroughly intelligent and enjoyable chat which proved to me the idea that George W. Bush was a bumbling fool was not justified.

Q: We’ll end on a lighter note, Ming. Is it true that you once beat O.J. Simpson in a race?

Yes, indeed! There’s an American indoor season as well as an outdoor season. I beat him once over 60 yards in a place called Sacramento at an indoor track. I raced against him again right at the very start of the outdoor season. I beat him again. I ran 10.2 seconds but it was wind-assisted so it didn’t count as a record. I didn’t realise how brave I was at the time! Politics however, always has a way of reducing one back to size. There’s a nice chap who lives across the bridge from us. I met him the other day and he said, “I’ve just read your autobiography. Fantastic! What a read. I could hardly put it down”. I said “Gosh, I thought it was out of print. Where did you get it”? “Oh”, he said, “I got it off Amazon for a penny”.