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The True Meaning of Alastair Campbell

About thirty years ago my wife and I attended a wedding at the House of Commons. At the drinks between the ceremony and the reception proper the two of us were talking to a young journalist. We asked him exactly what his job was and he said he was the political editor of the Daily Mirror. Ann remarked that she often looked at the paper in her mother’s house and was surprised it employed – or needed to employ – someone called a political editor. It was intended to be and sounded like a bit of light-hearted banter, but the reaction was that the journalist snarled “F*** off” and strode away. For a time we told this story back in our provincial home and he was referred to as “that prat of a journalist” as we hadn’t taken his name on board and the story could be used as an illustration of how up themselves (some) Londoners are. It was only years later that we realised that we had been snarled at by Alastair Campbell, variously Tony Blair’s spokesman and campaign manager (1994-7), official spokesperson (1997-2000), Downing Street director of communications and strategy (2000-2003) etc etc.

I rarely get to use the verb “to snarl”, but here we had been snarled at by the chief snarler of our age, the inspiration for Malcolm Tucker in Armando Ianucci’s 2005-12 comedy The Thick Of It, a character who took short fuses and bad language to new levels. In retrospect I put the experience on the human tourist tick list of a lifetime alongside such things as hearing the Reverend Ian Paisley in full anti-Catholic rant (with communion wafer as prop) and seeing Sir Antony Sher as Richard III (twice). Actually our little Campbell cameo might easily never have happened because if the subject of football had come up we would have discovered that we were both Burnley fans and would have got along like old mates. But we would have missed a representative Campbell performance. Reading what Campbell has to say now in the New European and, still, the Mirror is to see again the bubbling vitriol that we saw, but usually directed against the Labour”left”, Tories, Brexiteers and, most venomously, against Boris Johnson’. He famously used the “c” word about Johnson and gloried in the refusal of a retraction. Which is a far stronger reaction than a citizen should ever have against a prime minister.

I think all of this is more interesting than it looks at first sight because I think that studying Mr. Campbell and studying the age we live in offer mutually supportive insights. Take the sociological aspect of Campbell: he is a member of the higher echelons of the chattergerial classes who form our current ruling class. Not only is he a member, but he is the most unequivocal member of this class, despising the monarchy, the House of Lords and ordinary people in roughly equal measure. At least the Tory members of the class have to pretend to some reverence for the monarchy and the constitution and Old Labour for ordinary people and their views, but not Campbell and his ilk. It doesn’t help that in his prime in the Blair years he was on top of the world, at the centre of power. This magnifies the sense of entitlement and the manic sense of outrage when things don’t go their/his way. What I find most irritating about him and his class is that their elitism is ideologically justified by a rhetoric of anti-elitism made possible by the myth that they have acquired their place on “merit”. But, of course, there’s nothing abnormal about this: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (higher echelons) employed exactly the same technique. These are democrats who don’t accept democratic decisions and liberals who don’t believe in free speech.

But if it is fairly easy to analyse the sociological meaning of Campbell, the psychological aspect is much more difficult, both analytically and morally. He suffers from “mental illness” (his own words) as do several of his relatives; in his case that includes depression, alcoholism and a “nervous breakdown”. So let me start with two admissions. The first is that being “mentally ill” doesn’t stop anyone from being right or brilliant. Churchill was depressive; Beethoven was impossible and threw plates at waiters. The second admission is that Campbell has probably done a lot of good by talking about mental illness openly. But what I think is unacceptable is the kind of polite dualism that tries to imagine his mental illness is irrelevant to his politics as if it were asthma or arthritis.

Political science draws on many other disciplines, but tends to eschew psychology. There is, however, an excellent account of what makes the politically motivated tick from over ninety years ago: I refer to Harold Lasswell’s The Psychopathology of Politics (1930). The thesis of the book proved to be something of an intellectual cul de sac and Lasswell himself explored other channels rather than rejecting what he said in this book. The study of politics has subsequently tended to regard psychological analysis as “unscientific” and perhaps even dangerous. In the book Lasswell sees the drive to power and to political commitment in quasi-Freudian terms as displacements of the frustration of “primary satisfactions”. Most of us, he argues, satisfy these drives in primary ways: our mothers love us and we are successfully encouraged in our self-esteem. But that leaves a category of the dissatisfied – “politicians”, but specifically including such seekers of public acclaim as journalists and clerics – to pursue their frustrations in public life. Lasswell’s neatest summary of this is his statement that all of us are born politicians, but most of us outgrow it.

The trouble with Freudian – and quasi-Freudian and post-Freudian – theories is that they are vague and difficult, if not impossible, to test properly. But that does not mean they are not insights and there are a couple of things which Campbell himself has said which suggest that they are powerful insights. The first is that the Palace of Westminster is a “laboratory of mental illness”. Having “come out” (if that is the right expression) he says he has been contacted by numerous MPs “of all parties” about their own problems. It’s probably important to put this in an historic context. Our political elites used to contain majority elements who had acquired power as a matter of course through who they were or what (else) they did. At one time we were run by a mixture of aristocrats, gentry, businessmen and trades unionists for whom political life was an extension of their identity or sense of duty. There were always the psychotics, the Robespierres if you like, but they were not the majority. Now our political class are almost all career politicians prompting the thought that we need some psychotics, but nowhere near as many as we’ve got. The change happened mainly in the earlier part of the post-war period. John Mackintosh (1929-78) who combined the post of professor of politics at Edinburgh with being MP for Berwick and East Lothian (1966-74) who was one of those occasional brilliant minds in the Labour Party who are inevitably subject to fear and loathing from the leadership, used to point to the difference between himself and his Conservative predecessor in the constituency. Sir William (“Big Bill”) Anstruther-Gray, MP 1951-66, was a gentleman and distinguished soldier who rarely expressed a political opinion and who was regarded, almost mystically, as someone close to the soul of the Tory party – a politician by position rather than drive.

The other thing Campbell says frequently which I think reveals the nature of the relationship between his mental state and his politics is that he “hates losing”. This is odd for a Burnley fan and in political terms it means that since the Blair period he has been in a kind of agony. I can see that the truly driven – in sport or politics – must hate losing, but actually for most of us to hate losing would be to hate life. I couldn’t have played every kind of sport for the best part of seven decades if I hated losing. . Those of us who grow out of it do not hate losing however much we prefer winning.

In short what is interesting about Alastair Campbell is that he is, in every dimension, the archetype of the current political elite, the psychotic meritocracy or chattergerial class. Alastair Campbell is what is wrong with the world. He justifies what has often been his appalling behaviour by reference to his “passion” for his beliefs and it is a common theme among his type. As if “passion” could justify anything! Which takes me back to the times when I was running admissions for one of the most popular courses in one of the most popular universities in the country. We had to reject the overwhelming majority of applicants all of whom seemed to have near-perfect credentials; we were no longer allowed to test or interview them. So my colleague suggested that we should simply reject all of those who said in their “personal statements” that they were “passionate” about the subject. This was for three reasons: 1. They’d been told to say this. 2. They were almost certainly lying and 3. As my scholarly colleague put it in his quiet Welsh voice, “Dispassionate is what is needed”.

Lincoln Allison April 2021

(The subject-matter and opinions in this essay are too commonplace for publication anywhere else.)