Profile Editor, Will Entwistle, speaks to Alastair Campbell, former Downing Street Director of Communications.
Alastair Campbell is known best for his central role within New Labour during its dominance of British politics. His diaries, notably The Blair Years, reveal the challenges he confronted, both professionally and mentally. Campbell since acknowledged that his mental health was an inescapable feature of these years and now writes and campaigns extensively for mental health awareness.
His new book, Living Better, was published at an apt moment, during a pandemic which has caused anguish for millions. The book was not written with audiences in mind, neither was it intended exclusively for those with depression. “I don’t have a target audience”, Campbell says. He did, however, write to satisfy three core aims, namely: “I hope there’s stuff for those who get depression…I hope those who don’t get depression can understand it better”, finally adding, “I want to see depression in a broader campaign space.”
Living Better anecdotally explains how to live better with depression, pertaining to oneself or another. “I can see how a student struggling with lockdown can hopefully get something out of it”, Campbell adds. What obstacles, then, are preventing us from living better? What can we do to start living better?
Campbell is often considered an outspoken critic of Boris Johnson and his cabinet. Recent reports detailing successive governmental failures have elicited mass despondency, from testing shortages to the impact of pre-existing austerity on Johnson’s pandemic response. Campbell recognises that university students will struggle, both financially and mentally, from the government’s stance on their term-time return. He concedes, “you can go over the history of tuition fees if you want to”, then adds, “but the fact is that it is very, very important to the economy, and that of the university sector, that you guys are there.”
He asks me where I am “locked-up”, as if to illustrate his point. Universities have adapted to the pandemic by expanding their online offering, with Durham delivering lectures solely online while permitting limited face-to-face teaching, like seminars. Comparably, residents at St. Mary’s and Collingwood were instructed to remain within university grounds following outbreaks in both colleges. The typical university experience—if such a thing existed—has been, quite literally, confined.
“Be honest about that!”, urges Campbell, when asked how the government should communicate with anguished students about their return. “Don’t promise that it’s safe to go back, and then when you get back, you’re stuck in your room doing your course on a laptop and you can’t see your mates. Do not pretend.” So, could government pretence indicate a wider problem?
In the latter part of Living Better, Campbell described Johnson as ‘reckless’—now a hackneyed term thanks to COVID-related narratives. What does he mean by ‘reckless’? When asked this, Campbell immediately refers to Johnson’s interviews with regional journalists. “I know the thinking, ‘let’s get the locals in, that’s the way we’ll lead the news in all the regions’”, he says. Campbell’s analysis is, of course, founded on his well-documented career in print journalism as well his work at the heart of government. BBC Look North, for instance, asked Johnson to substantiate his claim that there will be “a massive investment into Leeds General Infirmary.” He could not oblige. Crucially, Johnson could not answer, rather than would not, implying unreadiness rather than spite; though he offered to provide the statistics after the interview. Johnson persisted when first pressed for a statistic, “there will be a stream of funding”. Then, Johnson read aloud from a sheet without finding the relevant statistics, afterwards asking, “Who’s got the numbers for Leeds?”.
Campbell mentions Hannah Miller, of ITV Granada, relaying questions from viewers to Johnson amid confusion over the intensified measures introduced in areas with higher infection rates. Miller asked, “Jane from Wirral wants to know if she can meet her daughter for a dog-walk in the park”, to which Johnson replied that she “certainly can” provided they remain socially distant. Johnson was wrong. Details of stricter measures were published on the government’s Wirral website advising against outings like Jane’s. “He just doesn’t do the work”, Campbell summarises.
“This is about populism”, he suggests. He insists that Johnson’s ill-prepared interviews reflect the hollowness of populism. He offers a transatlantic comparison to illustrate populism’s impingement on government responses to Covid-19. “Trump is partly ill because he deliberately, wilfully refused to take this seriously because the virus of populism tells you that ‘they don’t want to hear that it’s dangerous’”, adding, “‘they want to hear that you can sort it for them, and that it’s easy!’”
Donald Trump’s contraction of Covid-19 and subsequent hospitalisation beckoned discussion on access inequality throughout the American healthcare system. Trump urged Americans to “not let it [Covid-19] dominate your lives”, adding that they should “get out there”. These fragments of Trump’s statement align with Campbell’s assessment as both imply that fear, whether it be of infection or recession, is needless—something easily overcome. Johnson reflected similar laxity under Miller’s scrutiny, saying, “science will ride to our rescue, eventually.” In the meantime, why worry?
False assurance, for Campbell, characterises the Conservatives’ recent approach to mental health. In Living Better, he writes, ‘If the politicians won’t deliver as they should, whether we like it or not we are going to have to take a lot more responsibility ourselves for our own mental health.’ If government will not help, then we must help ourselves.
Cross-border comparisons seem more important now than they did before COVID-19’s proliferation. Campbell mentions Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic, which appears bereft of false assurances—reliant on action rather than exceptionalist narratives—and was recently recognised as the world’s finest response by leading businesses. When foreign governments are successful ours, by contrast, appears remiss. Though Campbell admits that the UK is more vulnerable to widespread infection than New Zealand based on population metrics alone, like size and density.
He wastes little time in raising Matt Hancock’s inaction with mental health support during the pandemic’s infancy. “Matt Hancock—I don’t know if he has since the first three months of this pandemic—didn’t have a single meeting with any mental health organisations”, he claims. “He’s the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, not just for COVID”, he stresses.
“I don’t think they get it”, Campbell laments. I was unsure whom he meant by “they”: the Tories or Johnson’s cabinet? In Living Better, he refers to David Cameron’s ‘historic pledges’, one of which promised that those with psychosis could see a psychiatrist within two weeks. Campbell experienced psychosis, suggesting that the ‘physical health equivalent is being in a bad car crash’ and being assured that an ambulance will arrive within two weeks; there is, as he puts it, ‘No parity between mental and physical health there.’
He then mentions Theresa May’s ‘priority’ of resolving ‘burning injustices’, claiming that under resourced mental health services was one of them. Though Campbell translates ‘priority’ as ‘more important than other things.’ Ultimately, May’s attention wavered, in part, because of Brexit negotiations—a self-inflicted distraction prioritised above mental wellbeing, Campbell suggests.
“To be fair to Cameron and May”, says Campbell, “I don’t think they did enough, but they signalled a change of direction. They talked the talk. I might say they walked the walk, but sometimes in politics that is what leads to the change.” Despite this, Campbell says that “Johnson doesn’t even bother…if it’s not in his personal orbit.” Johnson did, however, suggest that we emulate Winston Churchill by working until our depression has dissipated. In other words, we must work-off depression as if it were an extra pound.
TRIAL AND ERROR
In Living Better, Campbell recalls Dr David Sturgeon, his psychiatrist, summarising psychiatry as a series of ‘trial and error’. I asked Campbell if Sturgeon’s summary could be a helpful way to see life, especially in times of duress? “Yes, of course”, he answers.
Campbell begins his response by referring to Arianna Huffington’s definition of innovation: ‘It is the understanding that you are always a work in progress.’ Campbell mentions Huffington’s definition to demonstrate humanity’s impatience in 2020. Beforehand, he suggested, “we’re still in a place—and social media doesn’t help with this—where we think we should be able to get what we want now.” We are distracted from both the present and retrospective reflection by this impatience. Then, he offers a personal analogy: “I had good times and bad times as a journalist. The bad ending up with me having a breakdown. But I’m glad…I spent time as a journalist.” He follows this with a political equivalent, concluding, “I look back at that time and realise I was often unhappy. But I’m happy I did it.”
Though happiness is often immediate, it is also retrospective. Campbell distinguishes these forms of happiness within a university context: “You will hopefully, despite the current situation, have a good time at university, and hopefully have good times as university. You will leave with a degree which will lead you places. But you would have had great nights out or produced good work…The good will stay with you showing that, on reflection, you had a good time.”
RECONSIDERING MENTAL ILLNESS
Campbell encourages us to learn about mental illness to help manage it. He argues, in Living Better, that politics is ‘in many ways something of a laboratory for mental ill health.’ He substantiates this with his political experience, underlining that politics attracts anguished personalities because it ‘feeds’ an ‘addiction’ to be ‘central and feel relevant’. Campbell suggests ‘from experience’ that the addiction to relevance underlying politics is why ‘politics probably has a higher proportion of mentally unstable and psychologically challenged people than other walks to life’. Despite the ‘higher proportion’, he notices so few are willing to admit to having struggled. Campbell, however, readily admits his own “relevance issue”. Fiona, Campbell’s partner of four decades, “makes jokes about it. She’ll say, ‘How relevant are you feeling today?’”, he remarks.
Few politicians have admitted their struggles with mental illness. This, writes Campbell, ‘is compelling evidence of the continuing stigma attached to mental illness’. Politicians are enmeshed in public scrutiny often leading to domestic dislocation, “particularly at the highest level.” Campbell insists that “nowhere near enough thought is given to the impact that [public scrutiny and subsequent domestic fallout] has on politicians, those that work for them, and the people they serve.”
Removing the stigma attached to mental illness appears to be a crucial step towards improving mental health nationwide. But how is this done? Campbell suggests that we must reconceptualise mental illness. This involves the removal of popular, albeit fictional, depictions affixed to mental illness, like ‘the way we talk about schizophrenia as ‘having a split personality—Jekyll and Hyde.’’ ‘The mentally ill’, writes Campbell, ‘are far more likely to be victims of violence than its perpetrators.’
Campbell suggests that we risk misunderstanding mental illness by overlooking its ‘compensating benefit[s]’. In a previous book, Winners, he refers to Nassir Ghaemi, a leading academic psychiatrist, on the resilience of depressives and the creativity of those with mania. Ghaemi, for instance, argues that Martin Luther King’s manic depression contributed to his success as a leader. Campbell writes, ‘King…was notable for his energy and high self-esteem…and forward–thinking’—both essential for campaigning and strategy. But Ghaemi hints that King’s depression endowed him with a particular ‘understanding of human emotional pain’ which ‘allowed him to be an exceptional and empathetic team leader’, Campbell explains. Comparably, a profile article said of Campbell that he had had a successful career ‘despite a history of mental ill health.’ He suggests that ‘despite’ should be replaced by ‘in part because of’.
Image: Anna Kuptsova