Alastair Campbell: In The Thick Of It

Tony Blair's former right hand man on war, celebrity politics and how being a banker means never having to say you're sorry.
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Alastair Campbell is very keen to list the achievements of 13 years of Labour Party rule (peace in Northern Ireland; a vastly improved NHS; a more tolerant Britain; er… and numerous others you’ll no doubt be hearing about in the next few weeks).

Campbell is understandably less keen to discuss Labour’s shortcomings and failures (selling off huge gold reserves near the bottom of the market; screwing up people’s pensions and taking us into a war, justified by a false premise, which, on widely accepted estimates, led to the deaths of approximately 600,000 Iraqis.)

Alastair Campbell is, of course, not responsible for all of this, but as Tony Blair’s ‘director of communications and strategy’ for six years he was rightly seen as having enormous influence and power in Number Ten – a remarkable position for a man to hold who has never stood for elected office.

Alastair Campbell was the eminence gris, the whispering (and sometimes shouting) man who stood behind the throne holding the ear of Blair and defending the premier from all (and as such has been rumoured – OK, widely accepted – to have been the inspiration for the Malcolm Tucker character in The Thick of It.) His achievements are many. Along with Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown and Blair himself he was one of the principal ideologues of New Labour. And this forever may stand as their greatest achievement: that they took Labour from the bad old days of block-voting trade unionists deciding Labour party policy in smoke-filled rooms over beer and sandwiches into being the modern social democratic party it is now.

Despite still regularly being on the blower to Number Ten – he advises the Labour Party on election strategy – it is actually seven years since Campbell left his desk at the centre of power, resigning during the inquest into the death of government scientist Dr David Kelly. Since then Campbell has occasionally suffered from, and overcome, the recurring bouts of depression that have dogged most of his life, and worked extensively for Leukaemia Research and mental health charities.

This year he released his first foray into what some have called chick lit – an airport page turner called Maya – about a grey man who grows up in the shadow of his celebrity school mate (and unrequited love) Maya. Some people have seen a parallel there with another famous person with a four letter name… and that’s where we started…

"As Tony Blair’s ‘director of communications and strategy’ he was rightly seen as having enormous influence and power - remarkable for a man to hold who has never stood for elected office."

One of Maya’s main themes is about someone living in close proximity to celebrity and fame, which obviously for anyone reading it, is going to be seen to refer to you and your relationship with Tony Blair…

When I was writing it, it never, ever crossed my mind that people will think that this is about Tony and me. Honestly. I had this idea to write a book about fame, about a famous person. You invent these characters and the backdrop but I promise you it never crossed my mind.

But the ‘celebritisation’ of politics is something you were closely involved with. You could argue that Tony was a celebrity, Cameron is a celebrity, but Gordon isn’t...

On the point of celebritisation and politics: there is more media than ever. News 24/7, more channels. The other big change is that the divisions between tabloids, broadsheets and broadcasters are gone. Yesterday Cheryl Cole was big with the broadcasters and big with the papers today. Fifteen years ago that would not have been on the news. There has been a general drift in the market that is to do with technological change, more media, more competition, the digital world… There has obviously been some crossover into politics of this as well.

I do wonder if you go back to Churchill – when he used to get his depression and lie in bed till midday – you wouldn’t be able to imagine something like that about the present prime minister – all the drinking and his temper [Churchill, not Brown. Ed]. It’s all about filling space…

There are some analogies here with our bankers and hedge fund managers who have found themselves thrust like moles blinking into the glare of the media circus, when they are completely unused to dealing with the press. If there was a fictional job of Director of Communications and Strategy for the banking industry, what would you advise?

Part of what I do is to go around big banks giving corporate speeches and advice. Until recently, the image of bankers was of a reliable, boring person sitting behind the desk, the Captain Mainwaring image. You would only hear from your bank when something went wrong. Now all that is gone. What happened was that after the global crisis most of the heat went to the politicians, but a lot of it very quickly went to the banks and they were slightly trapped in the headlights. You saw very few people emerge to the position of leadership and get their heads over the parapet…

You think that’s the problem? That Angela Knight (CEO of the British Bankers’ Association) was virtually the only person doing the rounds of the TV and radio studios?

Yes. That’s fine but I think in these crisis situations you need big figures who go up and explain... good crisis management. Take Terminal 5, day one, disaster area. To his credit, Willy Walsh went up and kept talking about it, kept explaining, behind the scenes he was trying to keep everything sorted but he understood that part of his job was the explanation. He went out and did that. You go to Terminal 5 today and people say “Wow”: they don’t even remember the disaster. It would have been great if they went “Wow” on the first day instead of “Fuck, where has my bag gone?”. The fact that people don’t remember it now is because it was quickly sorted, and effectively communicated.

I feel with the banks – and I said this at a dinner recently – that when one of the top guys from one of the top banks was at the select committee hearings, I could see the way he was conducting himself. He was prepared for it but in his head he was thinking, “How do I get away with a 0-0 draw, how do I get through today alive, without blood on me?”. Whereas what he should have done was step back and think, “How do I use this chance to explain?”. It’s so easy to say that these bonuses are beyond most people’s comprehension, therefore we just keep our heads down. If you go out and explain what the banks do, and accept that the world of banking has changed, accept globalisation, accept that the speed of capital has completely changed how these guys work… but people don’t know that.

Sometimes when I am going through the FT I keep spotting adverts by the banks that portray that old image, like the Natwest ads on telly, but they need to explain what they do. They need to say to the public, “Look, we accept that we are part of the problem, we accept that some of our excesses got us into this mess, but one, we are not going to cop it all and, two, understand that we are important for the recovery.”

"There is more media than ever. News 24/7, more channels. The divisions between tabloids, broadsheets and broadcasters are gone. Yesterday Cheryl Cole was big with the broadcasters and big with the papers today. Fifteen years ago that would not have been on the news."

The public needs a mea culpa? Again and again people unconnected to the industry say the same thing, “We just want bankers to say sorry”.

Yes but it has got to be real. When you go and see some of the banks and ask them how they are, they say, “Bloody nightmare, we are really getting a hard time”. Then you go see someone in football and they say the same thing.

The point is, people cop it. And sometimes people confuse press opinion and public opinion. They are not the same thing. If I were involved with the banks at the moment, I would be stepping back a little bit and saying there is no point arguing. There is no argument that we are in a worse position with the public than we were. There is a case you can make that it doesn’t matter, the banks will just carry on but I think it is wrong because the other big change that has happened, and a lot of it is because of the internet, is that any organisation is now connected to the public. The internet has transformed and widened the concept of what a stakeholder is. Anybody can have a say. And that helps form opinions.

If the banks think it matters and it does matter reputationally, it matters in terms of image, it matters if further down the track comes a similar global economic meltdown situation – and you can’t guarantee that won’t happen in the future – then there has to be huge political support if they were to ask for the same financial support again.

One bank guy I saw recently admitted that they weren’t worried because Goldman Sachs seems to be the one to kick; it’s taking the flak. That’s fine, but it doesn’t actually help you.

It must have seemed sometimes that you were the Goldman Sachs of the British political scene. You became the lightening conductor for the Labour Party, especially over the war in Iraq… how uncomfortable was that?

If you are in a top-flight political position you have always got lightning conductors. And at times it was me, sometimes it was Peter [Mandelson], Lord Irvine, Charlie Falconer, Prescott… you take it. When I am out and about, going about my business, think of the coverage I get in the Daily Mail… if people really believed that stuff I wouldn’t be able to walk around on the street. But nothing happens. I was just a lightning conductor for the whole communications game.

In politics I was always an adjunct to Tony. Even now, anything I do, writing a book, charity stuff, speeches, consulting, I have got enough self-awareness to know that a lot of it, yes, they are asking what I think about stuff and I am paid handsomely for it, but I am there in part because of what I did before.

So, we have to ask about the war in Iraq. How did you feel about your collective decision to take us to war when no weapons of mass destruction were found…

It was never black and white. It was never a 100 per cent judgment. You are balancing a lot of competing arguments. What happened since the war is that for their own political reasons the Tories are trying to say, “Yes, we may have supported you then, but wish we hadn’t”. And a lot of newspapers supported it as well, like the Murdoch press who were basically saying, “Get on with it; this guy has been a menace for too long.” There is a lot of historical rewriting going on.

"When I am out and about, going about my business, think of the coverage I get in the Daily Mail… if people really believed that stuff I wouldn’t be able to walk around on the street."

But you didn’t anticipate 600,000 people being killed or injured?

Tony was really strong about this when he went to the inquiry. I haven’t got the figures in my head – I did have them a few weeks ago – but when you analyse the numbers of casualties had there not been the insurgency and Al-Qaeda latching onto it like they did, you could say that we should have foreseen that but actually it was really hard to foresee it at the time.

As Tony said, we were preparing for really serious scenarios that didn’t occur. There was a preparatory briefing meeting at the MOD and the big question was whether we had sufficient chemical weapon suits. This is heavy, I thought. Our soldiers are really going to do this thing and our expectation was that at some point Saddam was going to whack off chemical weapons. That’s why it drives you crazy when people go on about “Well, you need better equipment” [adopts comedy whiny voice].

Is there an analogy with bankers? The public perception hasn’t been that anyone from the Labour government has said, “Yeah, we fucked up”.

Tony said, and he got whacked for saying it, when he did his interview with Fern Britton: “Even if I had known what we now know, it would have been the right thing to do.” Of course, politically he might not have been able to do it. When you talk about mea culpa all they want you to do is say, “Well, yeah, it’s all gone a bit wrong.”

I was doing the job of operating for a PM who had to be able to stand at the dispatch box and defend everything he did and what we did as well. And yes, it is a rough, tough old game, you really have to dig in and engage in an argument. It’s routinely stated that we did Mo Mowlam in, for instance, and that’s just bollocks!

Some in the City think that Gordon was a very bad chancellor, but others think, as PM, he has minimised the crisis. In your opinion, what kind of chancellor would George Osborne be?

AC: I was at a do the other night with one of the big banks – I won’t say which – and they were absolutely scathing about Cameron and Osborne. They had been to some event that Cameron and Osborne were at and they had no idea of what [Cameron and Osborne] were on about. Generally, they didn’t know what they were talking about. One of the reasons is that the economy is picking up a little and people are willing to give at least some grudging admission that some of that had to do with Gordon making some tough decisions. But more importantly the bankers I was talking to were thinking that these guys are going to be the government and we know nothing about them and those who are trying to get to know them have not been terribly impressed.

I think Alistair [Darling] has done well, he has got cred. When you have been through the crisis the world economy has been through, there are going to be things that governments will have to do that won’t be popular. Nobody wanted to put the top rate up to 50p…

Lets talk about the 50p tax rate… are the complaints just media bleating, or are they real concerns?

There is an understanding that you need – because of the globalised economy – competitive tax rates but you can’t go through economic shocks without there being some difficult measures taken. When you talk about the bleating in the media, it’s true and is similar to the way they talk about state education, for instance. The reason why state education gets such bad press is because all the editors send their kids to private schools and then they have to justify their own choices. Likewise, they present the debate on taxation being about ordinary people, when in fact, it’s about them.

Someone said at one of the banking events I did recently, does the 50p tax hike represent the death of New Labour? No, but difficult times require some very difficult things to be done and you won’t ever be popular for it…

"It is a rough, tough old game, you really have to dig in and engage in an argument. It’s routinely stated that we did Mo Mowlam in, for instance, and that’s just bollocks!"

Finally, I wanted to talk a little bit about emotional stuff as well. A group of doctors is challenging the inquest verdict of suicide for Dr David Kelly… [it has been alleged the weapons expert was murdered, to prevent further leaks about the ‘sexing up’ of the Iraq WMD dossier].

I don’t want to talk about that.

As someone who lived so close to central power, is it conceivable that there was a conspiracy there?

No. You can read everything I have said on the subject before.

Fair enough. You have also been very honest about your mental health. As someone who has got a very tough image you seem to have benefited from being open about issues like that. How did you get away with it? [Campbell suffered a nervous breakdown in 1986]

Yes, I think so but partly I had no choice really. Lots of journalists knew about my breakdown and my drink problem but it wasn’t remotely interesting, only on a gossip level. Once I went into politics and started working for Tony Blair it became newsworthy.

I decided to be open about it and not be ashamed. I completely understand why other people aren’t open. When you go to an interview, filling out the form, you are going to be a bit wary saying that you have minor psychotic tendencies or that you are schizophrenic. But I think we would all be better off if we could. I did a report last year for the Time to Change campaign, looking at great historical figures that by today’s definition would be considered mentally ill: Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Marie-Curie, Florence Nightingale…

What coping mechanisms did you use when you found yourself sitting on the sofa after being at the centre of power and working 24 hours a day?

I had a literal decompression, which was obviously from exhaustion. And then on and off bouts of depression. My coping mechanisms? Exercise, definitely, work, definitely, family. It took me a while but what I eventually did was to get to a position where I started to enjoy the sense of freedom that I had as opposed to feeling guilty about it. Another thing I have done is to accept that when you get depression you get depression and sometimes you can do things about it and sometimes not. It’s like getting a cold. Once you get that into your head it’s better. I have been through it enough times to know it is going to go away.

Depression is often associated with sensitivity. Do the Iraq casualty figures ever push you into a corner?

I have never felt that my bouts of depression necessarily relate to my external environment. There was a time when it was almost menstrual: there was a pattern to it; it would come and go. Where I got to, partly by getting help and drugs, I got to the point where the gaps between depressions are much longer.

‘Maya’ by Alastair Campbell is out now. (Hutchinson, £19).

From – the lifestyle magazine for the City of London

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