The latest Madness of Crowds column from the New Statesman:
Saturday Live is an innocuous enough Radio 4 magazine programme that goes out – duh! – live on Saturday mornings. I listen to it in a desultory fashion. At times, it seems heart-warming, yet it can also be not only unbearably winsome but a perfect exemplar of a certain we’re-cosy-but-sort-of-liberal-and-compassionate strain in the self-identification of the British bourgeoisie.
It was originally presented by the late John Peel under the still more winsome title Home Truths. Fi Glover then took the mic for some years and now the Reverend Richard Coles, ex-pop star and current Anglican vicar, is at the helm. I’ve been a guest on the show but rather like Samson at the hair salon, I could feel the will-to-contrariness draining out of me as I chit-chatted away with the cuddly Glover. It’s not a mistake I’ll make again – that way the ossification of acceptability lies. So, imagine my surprise when I snapped on the radio to hear Alastair Campbell in conversation with Coles. I say surprise, but I mean a mixture of admiration . . . and disgust.
I’m not so out of touch that I haven’t been aware of Campbell’s slow, steady and – as befits an erstwhile political strategist – clever campaign of personal rehabilitation, but to my way of thinking the Saturday Live gig was a masterstroke. I didn’t listen for long because, to me, Campbell will – until he makes a sincere and public apology – always be the man responsible for dishonestly making the case for a vile, unnecessary and exterminatory foreign war. He will also remain with the bloody taint of David Kelly’s death in the region of his hands, until the full truth surrounding the “outing” of the weapons expert’s name is known.
As for his work with the first two Blair governments, contrary to his self-estimation of the “good” he did, what many of us who had a glancing acquaintance with Campbell at this time remember him for is a propensity for spittle-flecking abuse. I wouldn’t dream of shaking hands with an unrepentant Campbell – indeed, I’d go further, and, paraphrasing the character of Boris in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, I wouldn’t waste my own spittle on Campbell, believing it to be too precious a fluid for the likes of him.
Clearly that’s not how others in the media feel: they give Campbell plenty of space to peddle his so-called novels, to expatiate on his love of footy and to beat his manly – yet sensitive – chest on the subject of his battle with depression/alcoholism. In yet another cri de coeur following the death of his friend the pollster Philip Gould, Campbell set out the things he hoped he would be remembered for in life (conspicuous by their absence were the ones for which he actually will) and high on the list was his sterling work to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
I suspect that whether consciously or not, Campbell seeks to encourage the notion that he is “mad” – or, at any rate, significantly disturbed. Why? Because this means that without him ever needing to make the argument, any accusation that he is culpable for some of the murky doings he was involved with becomes weakened; if he was “mad” then, QED, he cannot be “bad”. It’s a brilliantly simple idea.
Contrast this with the thinking of his former political master, “Call Me Tony” Blair. Being a believer and knowing himself to be culpable, Blair has entered the Catholic Church, presumably with a view to cancelling out Protestant predestination and in the hope that absolution will be forthcoming. Even I, who bow to no one in my revulsion from Blair, cannot help but feel sympathy: his easyJetting to Rome is a prima facie admission of responsibility, whereas Alastair “We Don’t Do God” Campbell has given the whole morality thing a swerve. And what’s the upshot? Blair cannot even do a UK book tour for fear of his safety, while his former minion is free to troll from television to radio studio pushing his product.
That mental illness – in all its multifariousness – can be said to vitiate the exercise of free will that we believe intrinsic to moral responsibility is not at issue here. But what seems bizarre – and evidence, surely, of a kind of woolly groupthink bordering on lunacy – is that individuals can self-diagnose such a diminution. I suggest that Campbell produce a letter from his shrink if he wants to be let off this hook, rather than going to “Confessor” Coles to get cosily shriven.