Mental Health, Brexit and Corbyn are the order of the day as Georgina Hayes and Tom McDonald sit down with Blair’s ex-spin doctor.
“Did he go here, Capaldi?” asks Alastair Campbell, spying an old issue of The Glasgow Guardian on the wall that depicts Peter Capaldi in his most famous role - the fearsome Malcolm Tucker. We’re in our messy office in the McIntyre Building, surrounded by past issues scattered across every inch of wall space, and today The Glasgow Guardian is interviewing the man best known for being Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor, and upon whom Armando Iannucci’s foul-mouthed comic creation is famously based.
Introducing Campbell with this comparison has admittedly become something of a cliché at this point; Owen Jones did so most recently in his uneasy and now internet-famous interview last month, but it’s been going on since In The Loop was released nearly a decade ago, and The Glasgow Guardian interviewed the cast of that film for the issue which Campbell now remarks upon. Capaldi (who actually attended the Glasgow School of Art) has met Campbell himself at the Channel Four Politics Awards. Recalling the encounter on the Andrew Marr show, Capaldi remembered Campbell’s opening gambit: “What’s with the hair?” – leading onto a sustained display of effortless charm and “lots of quips and remarks about everyone.”
“What’s with the suit?” was the first thing out of Campbell’s mouth as we greeted him, fresh from a meeting with the University Chaplain, in the courtyard of the main building. In more ways than just the suspiciously similar greeting, Capaldi’s account holds good: Campbell exudes charm and a consistently barbed wit; the Glasgow Guardian are not above admitting that the man had little to fear from a grilling by two overly eager student journos, one of whom was uneasy about certain sartorial decisions for the rest of the day. It is Alastair Campbell after all.
Our interview proceeded over an unexpectedly easy-going hour, crowded into our hovel-like office with the man himself and a film crew of three, filming for a documentary Campbell is making on mental health. Indeed, on this topic, which took up over half of our interview, he is famously well-placed to speak. Campbell is a man who has suffered a lifelong battle with mental health problems and is refreshingly candid when discussing them; in the mid-80s, while working as a journalist for the Mirror, Campbell had a very public breakdown. We begin here.
“I got locked up; I was in hospital, I was in a really bad way. I was well known in newspapers and had a very public breakdown, so people knew about it and there was a lot of gossip going around. So I just… I was very open about it when I went back. When I went back to my job, I had a great former boss that took me back.” Who was this compassionate and open minded boss? Campbell’s tone shifts from matter-of-fact to one of evident respect: “Richard Stott, Editor of the Mirror.”
This unusual acceptance of very public mental health issues wasn’t just confined to Stott, though. In the early nineties, Tony Blair was famously relentless in seeking Campbell’s employment, all the while being aware of Campbell’s not-so-distant breakdown. When we asked how Blair responded to this, Campbell sits upright from his usual, comfortable slouch.
“Good question - I’m gonna write that down,” he responds, asking to borrow a pen to create notes for a speech on mental health he is due to give later in the day. “He knew that I was a bit wacky. What he didn’t know was quite how bad it had been, so I told him at the end of it I was hearing voices and getting hallucinations [...] But then at the end of it he just said, ‘I’m fine, it’s fine’.” Despite Blair’s persistence, Campbell was still hesitant to take on the role of spokesperson and campaign director that Blair was offering. When we asked why he thought Blair was so accepting for a time when mental health was still mostly an unmentionable taboo, he paused. “You know, I wonder. I certainly thought that for me, it was a very powerful thing for him to say [Blair’s “It’s fine”], because one of the reasons I was hesitant about doing the job with him was because if you’ve cracked up once you’ve always got a little worry that you’ll do it again, and I knew the pressure I’d be under, being on the frontline of a big political campaign would be great.” Still, Blair persisted and Campbell would go on to serve as one of the most high-profile figures within the New Labour government, at the very centre of its historic rise, domestic triumphs, well-reported foreign debacles and whimpering end.
An understanding boss isn’t a luxury that many are afforded, though, and a persistent, nagging fear amongst students with mental ill health is that their struggle will limit their career - this is something that Campbell, seemingly an exception to the dreaded rule, is campaigning fiercely to overturn.
“I do a lot of talks to employers, and I say to them: if you’ve got two identical CVs and they both have 2:1s from a decent university, they both did a ‘gap yah’,” the inflection of his tone becomes mocking here, adding air quotes to gap yah, “and they both have the right referees….but then there’s a gap. If one of them has a gap of six months, then you wonder if that was because of mental ill health. But actually, I say to them: what do people look for in employees? Honestly, they look for resilience. If I look at myself, I don’t think I’d have been able to do any of the things that I’d done had it not been for my own struggles.”
It’s hard not to feel reassured by Campbell’s analysis: from ruthless political strategist that reduced the likes of Adam Boulton to a rattled, shouting mess on live television, to current Editor-at-large of the New European and Chief Interviewer for GQ, his experience is certainly extensive.
Upon being asked if he believes there’s a correlation between high performance and mental health issues, Campbell pauses to yet again add our question to his notes for his upcoming speech. “That’s an interesting point - you’re helping me write my speech here,” he quips.
This seemed like the opportune time to bring up Campbell’s late friend Charles Kennedy, for whom there was a memorial debate at the Glasgow University Union on Brexit later that evening. Quoting a blog post Campbell had written earlier in the year about comments made by Shirley Williams at another Charles Kennedy tribute, we asked what she’d said and why he took issue with it.
“She said if it hadn’t been for his drinking, Charles would have been a truly great politician. But I made the point that if it weren’t for his frailties and vulnerabilities, he wouldn’t have been the special, very empathetic politician that he was.” When we then bring up the influx of condescending think pieces on Charles Kennedy being a “tragic waste of talent” [The Guardian], Campbell offers a knowing nod and simply affirms: “Not many politicians when they die get the sort of response he got.”
Regarding his own balancing of serious problems and high political office (like Kennedy, Campbell, too, had a drink problem) and the persisting assumption that high functioning people aren’t struggling, he considers his response carefully: “What happens is that high functioning people - part of their high functioning-ness -” Here, we take it upon ourselves to correct the grammar of a man so famous for doing so himself (see the Jones interview) and correct him with “high functionality”, Campbell meets our cheek with a sly smirk and carries on: “High functionality. Thank you so much. But I think part of it is that you think you can do anything, and that includes functioning when you can’t function.”
Admitting that “functioning when one can’t function” is a problem he finds himself facing, Campbell details his coping mechanisms for being a self-described workaholic: “Exercise is one - I couldn’t sleep last night so I was up at 6am out for a run. Writing. Music - both listening and playing.” The bagpipes, like Campbell’s late brother Donald (who spent twenty-seven years as piper to the Principal of Glasgow University), are Campbell’s instrument of choice. When we tell him we know of his secret plans to play tonight at the debate, he responds with amused incredulity: “I only told one person so I can nail your source. For fuck’s sake, this is an outrage.” This almost begs for a quip about Tucker, but we refrain.
The descent into chat about bagpipes and who-told-who seems like a convenient lead-in, to the political issues of the day. Despite his nominal reason for being in Glasgow being mental health, Campbell is only too eager to fall back into some of his favourite talking points - Corbyn and Brexit. With the mention of Corbyn, we wade into the topic which has perhaps seen Campbell, and the type of politics he represents, come in for the most opprobrium in recent years. In their latest interview, Owen Jones pressed the point that the familiar New Labour shibboleth - being that a harder left-wing politics was unelectable - has been all but destroyed by Corbyn and Momentum’s radical reorientation of the Labour Party.
We ask about Corbyn’s obsession with austerity - has it come at the price of a lack of a coherent mental health strategy on Labour’s part? “He [Corbyn] is right to be obsessed about austerity – my point is that if we come out of the European Union with this ridiculous hard Brexit, then austerity is like a walk in the park compared to what will follow.” And with that, on to Brexit. Campbell’s views on this are nothing if not blunt and forcefully put, giving no quarter to any qualms about disregarding a referendum that he utterly derides: “If they don’t stop this ruinous hard Brexit the economy’s going to tank. […] I meet leavers who say ‘Listen, you’ve lost the referendum, you should get behind the government now’ and I’m like no!” For David Cameron, the grand instigator, he has nothing but contempt: “He is the PM that has done more to ruin this country than any PM in history by holding that stupid fucking referendum”. The hardest of remainers, then, Campbell resolves the EU into something like an imperfect triumph: “I moan and groan about the EU, having been there myself. There is a bit of elitism attached to it. Some of their workings are utterly balls-aching. But, on the big picture, it’s been brilliant.”
Corbyn, as many people of Campbell’s stripe will be keen to point out, is famously a little less warm to the EU - so where does this leave the youthful remain vote, which Corbyn has been happy to hoover up despite an essential disjunction over the EU? “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win the election,” - and Campbell would know plenty about that - “but my worry is that he doesn’t believe in the EU like I do, and even if he does, McDonnell certainly does not. I hope that what would happen is that [if they were in instead of the Tories] they would face up to what May is having to.” And what of a strategy for the infamously limp Prime Minister? “What she could have done was say: ‘right, I’ve been here for a while; I’ve looked at it every which way, and it cannot be done. It cannot be done without damaging our future. So I’m not gonna do it.’ There’d have been howls of protest, she’d have probably been challenged, but it might’ve been the making of her.”
By this point, the conversation seamlessly and effortlessly drifts onto his own legacy in government - the New Labour legacy that the left won’t touch and Corbynism seems to define itself against. Does he think this is justified? Campbell has an animated response: “It’s not justified. It’s not justified because we did loads of stuff young people ought to…” Here we cut in: but you did introduce tuition fees. Campbell’s relaxed demeanour falters somewhat, perhaps not expecting a policy decision from two decades ago coming back to haunt him instead of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who have taken most of the heat for this in recent years.
“Yeah, we did, and I can explain that.” He stumbles here, visibly uncomfortable: “First thing to say is that there’s never been a perfect government in any country in the world ever, okay?”
Although he makes clear that old systems of funding could not have borne the weight of modern university attendance, we seize upon this relatively feeble response and ask if he thinks that, in hindsight, the cost of tuition fees could have been paid for differently. This provokes a surprising admission: “They could.” Would he have advised differently in hindsight? “I don’t know. I certainly think there were unintended consequences. Maybe it was naive.”
Perhaps the ultimate pragmatist, “naive” is not a word anyone would associate with Campbell, but the concession given to student concerns here is welcome. But ultimately, the party he was instrumental in bringing to power has been transformed, and Campbell is skeptical of Labour today defining itself so starkly against the house he built with Tony. “Jeremy Corbyn’s going on like he won it. He didn’t! If you define yourself against something that’s actually closer to your politics than the Conservatives, don’t be surprised if you don’t actually get over the line.”
“Getting over the line” is of course something that Campbell still has over Corbyn at this stage. But whichever way it goes - and he can see it going “any which way” - Campbell is happy to be on the outside shouting in. Just like the wailing tones of Ode to Joy that blast from his bagpipes later that evening, his voice can’t really be ignored - however much his party now covers its ears.