Two Lib Dems standing down: Ming on competitiveness, Iraq and backing Clegg, Teather on “political self harm”

The Observer is interviewing some MPs who have stood down from Parliament. Ming Campbell and Sarah Teather are featured today.

Ming says his proudest moment in his 28 years in Parliament was deciding not to support the war in Iraq:

The second Gulf war, that’s the most significant political thing I’ve been engaged with. We took the decision – not an easy decision – that we were going to thoroughly oppose it, and there were some sleepless nights for me and for [Liberal Democrat leader] Charles [Kennedy]. All it needed was a company of American marines to discover two tanks of anthrax – our position would have been wholly undermined. So it was a big risk, but we thought it was right and we thought [the war] wasn’t legal.

Ming comes from a different place politically than Nick Clegg, and he hasn’t had a government job. What does he make of our leader?

I’m a great admirer of Clegg, he was my pick and he’s astonishingly resilient when you consider some of the stuff that’s written about him. Forming the coalition was a very brave thing to do – it’s no secret I had some reservations – but if you’re in the ex-leaders club your duty is to follow your leader. If you’ve been through the fire and brimstone yourself, then you really have a duty to ensure that your successor is not subject to that.

Sarah had some pretty astute observations about modern politics which should make us all think about why it’s so deeply unsatisfying. She had been asked if we should worry about the number of women standing down:

We should, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Each will have their own reasons and they will be as varied as they are for the men who are deciding to step down. But I do get the impression that an awful lot of colleagues are quite miserable at the moment, and I don’t know whether they’d all admit to it – in fact, probably none of them would at this stage of the election. But there are an awful lot of colleagues – I’m not talking about Lib Dems, it’s people of all parties – who seem frustrated by the direction of travel, who are a bit suffocated by the process of party politics.

If the not very hidden shallows of politics can bring those involved in it down, what on earth is it like for the people who have to watch it? Sarah calls it democratic self-harm:

If you speak out on anything, anything at all, any difference of opinion, it becomes a huge scandal. So nobody says anything interesting, and we are locked in this cycle of democratic self-harm, where we’re going to destroy each other eventually. I don’t think politics is in the greatest of spaces at the moment. And elections never bring out the best in politics. There’s an awful lot of heat and not a lot of light.

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  • Samuel Griffiths 26th Apr '15 - 3:11pm

    I went off Sarah Teather after the coalition and her support for the right, but in this she has actually made some incredibly important observations. Politics has very much become a team sport, echoing a lot of the factors we see in America. It’s becoming more tribal, effecting more social interactions and certainly restricting the creativity and voices of individuals. Just listen to any Party leader get grilled on something they don’t want to talk about and you might as well be talking to his or her PR guy. I really do hope that democracy in this country can evolve into something Sarah would be pleased to see and in this respects I hope both right and left of all parties can ally in order to reform.

  • Paul Pettinger 26th Apr '15 - 3:15pm

    It is openly said that Ming C is inline for a peerage from Clegg. If he isn’t wishing to be ennobled he should say, otherwise he is wide open to the accusation of being conflicted. I would of hoped a former leader was more interested in their party avoiding fire and brimstone than their successor.

  • “All it needed was a company of American marines to discover two tanks of anthrax – our position would have been wholly undermined.”

    Ming is rewriting history a little there. His position at the time was that he thought it a reasonable assumption that Saddam had WMDs, but was nevertheless opposed to war because he thought the non-military options had not been exhausted (as well as believing the war to be illegal). The discovery of two tanks of anthrax would have had little bearing on that argument at the time.

  • Sarah’s comments are very interesting. I remember when she won her seat how pleased I was that labour had lost a by- election in their heartlands. Iain Duncan Smith said something at the time that really struck me, he said that the party that won Brent East was not the party that won west Aberdeenshire. IDS was correct but nevertheless Sarah turned out to be a fantastic MP.

  • David Allen 26th Apr '15 - 4:25pm

    Spot on Stuart, so the question is, what was it that actually gave Ming and Charles the sleepless nights? As you say, a belated discovery of some WMD by Blix would only have vindicated those who wanted Blix to be given more time. So I suspect that Ming remembers being scared, but can’t quite remember why he was scared.

    I would guess the answer is that Ming and Charles were reluctant rebels. The enormity of coming out in opposition to our fighting a war was fearful. Indeed, once war began, Charles was given a torrid time by media and opponents demanding to know whether he would support the British troops in battle – a classic Catch-22 question, as his enemies were well aware. Charles gave the least bad answer, that he did support the troops, and his enemies cheerfully rubbished him for his supposed inconsistency. It looked bad for Charles, until the course of the war itself took a turn for the worse, and events began to vindicate Charles’s stance.

    The far left tend to sneer at Charles and Ming for being such self-evidently reluctant rebels. On the whole, I don’t. It was a much tougher call for the leadership of a major party than it was for the million individuals (of whom I was one) who came out and marched. And it was the right call.

  • Stuart – I think the point there is that the popularity of the position would have been massively undermined, and the party could have badly suffered.

  • “…Ming says his proudest moment in his 28 years in Parliament was deciding not to support the war in Iraq:”

    In 2002/2003 some of us were in close contact with Donnachadh McCarthy and others who managed to convince the party and he leadership o take he line that it did on Iraq.
    It was a struggle, to say the least.

    I really am delighted that Ming now says that opposition to he illegal invasion and subsequent war-crimes was his finest hour.

    He will forgive me and others if our recollection of the events leading up to the march in London of getting on for two million people was that this was a grassroots rebellion against the Westminster establishment. Front bench MPs of alll parties

  • That last comment should have ended –
    Front bench MPs of all parties were notable by their absence from the march.

    Just as with the proposed bombing of Syria in 2013, ordinary people rose up and told their MPs – “NO”

    Fortunately in 2013 this worked. The sad thing is that despite the millions of UK citizens in opposition to the invasion of Iraq ten years earlier, the Front Benches and the Westminster establishment got away with it and the disastrous results are still being suffered at the hands of this modern day Caliphate of Daesh cut-throats.

  • Malcolm Todd 26th Apr '15 - 11:51pm

    John Tilley
    “Front bench MPs of all parties were notable by their absence from the march.”

    I think your memory is betraying you there. Or was the BBC entirely wrong to report that “At the rally, Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy told the crowd he was not persuaded by the case for war. “? (Okay, that’s rally rather than march, but that’s a pretty pernickety distinction if that’s what you meant!)
    My recollection is that Kennedy was pretty vocal and persistent in opposing the war, despite the risks that David Allen rightly identifies. Whether he would have had the courage to do so without the groundswell of popular opposition is a moot question.

  • Eddie Sammon 27th Apr '15 - 12:12am

    Right now I’m making plans for setting my small financial services business back up and I feel that voting Lib Dem would be an act of self-harm. We have the Money Advice Service and the new Pension Wise service offering free “advice” and proposals by Lib Dems for more taxes and more regulations.

    I’m already changing the structure of my company to avoid any potential dividend tax. The party needs to do more to get businesses on board and stop the constant bashing of financial services.

  • Eddie Sammon 27th Apr '15 - 12:41am

    Oh and by the way, if anyone is complaining about my simple tax avoidance measures, which consist of changing from a limited company and going back to self-employment then I am afraid nothing can be done about it.

    Any attempts to introduce a “general tax avoidance rule” would probably be illegal and a legal version would simply be so full of holes it would be no more than a grand standing bill. A QC has already said “reasonable tax planning” would not be caught by this new anti avoidance bill, so really it just looks like a way to win votes from one section of society by introducing bills that are a waste of time.

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