Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Age Shall Not Weary Him

'What is the point of Menzies Campbell?', is a question with which I've been wrestling for quite a while now. In many ways, it's a question I never thought I'd ever be asking myself, since I'd long had a kind of sneaking regard for him. Sure, whenever matters SNP reared their head, I'd always found his knee-jerk patrician sniffiness to be absolutely insufferable. Otherwise, though, he earned my respect for both looking and sounding like a thoroughly competent MP who knew exactly what he was talking about.

I see in retrospect that mine was quite a rose-tinted view. That sure-footedness, demonstrated in matters of home and international affairs, has never quite been there when it comes to the equally important arenas of economic, health and education policy. In fact, it seems that the very qualities that made him appear so well cut out to be a Home or Foreign Secretary - his dispassionate aloofness and cultivated appearance of somehow being above the vulgar posturing of lesser mortals - are the very same qualities which are now rendering his stewardship of the Lib Dems such a becalmed and uninspiring affair.

Oddly, he seems to have diminished in stature since assuming the Lib Dem leadership. His perceived lack of support for Charles Kennedy tainted him from the start, as did his many fluffed appearances at Prime Minister's Questions. But never mind the recent fuss about whether he'd dump PR to get into government with Labour. To me, it is his apparent inability to connect with voters or to articulate any kind of coherent policy agenda, which should be causing the most discontent in Lib Dem ranks just now.

They are dropping, slowly but surely, in the polls. Where people liked Charles Kennedy even if they didn't necessarily respect him, Campbell seems to suffer from the reverse. Concerns about his age are raised, to which he now responds with an unbecoming prickliness. Watching him try to address this irrelevant jibe is becoming an increasingly painful sight. Like Gordon Brown trying to convince Middle England that he would make a good Prime Minister, the more Campbell tries to stress his youthfulness, the less it convinces.

Let's be clear, his age is largely irrelevant if we regard it as being an attitude of mind rather than a physical characteristic. In fact, I get the feeling that Campbell was probably middle-aged by his early twenties. And as one of the many politicos spawned by the Glasgow University Union Debating Society in the 1950s, it would have been surprising if he'd turned out any other way.

For all his protestations of having grown up in a Glasgow tenement, Campbell is a politician from the upper-middle classes, imbibed with a paternalistic and slightly patronising sense of noblesse oblige. But what once reassured about Campbell now just grates. And it is this, I think, which is what is hampering him and his party, rather than any questions about age. Like Gordon Brown, a section of voters has decided that they don’t particularly like him. And while voters cite Brown’s ‘Scottishness’ as being his prime draw-back (something which doesn’t seem to affect John Reid), it is Campbell’s age which is being held against him.

Highlighting the most obvious perceived flaw of someone we dislike is an instinct we develop in the playground. It might not be fair and it might be as base as it gets, but as Neil Kinnock, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith all found out, if the voters won’t take to you then electorally-speaking, both you and your party are toast.

The Lib Dems, while often confounding the pundits, have for the past while seemed like a party in search of a role. The charisma of a Paddy Ashdown or a Charles Kennedy has always in the past allowed them to escape the scrutiny they deserved for being all things to all people. With a revitalised Tory Party in England under David Cameron, also no slouch at appearing to be all things to all people, the days of the Lib Dems being able to hoover up the votes of the disenchanted now look to be numbered.

No comments: