When I spoke to Alastair Campbell in November, he confessed that, “I hated Cambridge. I was too young, too chippy and I hated all the posh kids. I’ve always hated private schools and I still do.” As an undergraduate then, Alastair Campbell admits he was certainly never expecting to come back as a Visiting Professor, where he gave the lecture at which I met him. In fact, for a man who has been brutally honest in describing his struggles with depression, and has a public perception of being angry, dour, and combative, he can become extremely jovial and disarming.
“I don’t give a damn what people think or say about me,” he tells me. Following this, he addresses the claim that Peter Capaldi’s foul mouthed spin doctor from The Thick of It is based on him.
“I’m actually often asked whether Malcolm Tucker is based on me and I think, what? A sweary Scottish spin doctor trying to maintain strategic cohesion among ministers, and set the government agenda across the media? Fuck yeah!”
He has previously grudgingly accepting the label of “alpha male”, which colleagues in the media labelled him and at one point during our interview, this side comes out. A member of the audience suddenly interrupts us:
“It’s a bit of a pitch. I’m not buying your book but…”
“Well fuck off then!” Campbell replies, “You’ve just lost your pitch!” to the laughter of the onlookers, as the man sheepishly slinks away, before Campbell tells me, “Can’t he see I’m training the next generation of journalists here!”
The conversation turns to slightly more serious matters. Asked to elaborate further on his views on Oxbridge, he explains. “Clearly it is good for Britain that Oxbridge is a byword for educational excellence around the world. But I have long felt that, although in some ways it is the best of Britain, in other ways it is the worst — elitist and part of the reason Britain has never really been a proper meritocracy. Access is still a huge problem and it has barely changed since I was here. I think schools try harder than the Universities do.”
Other than meritocracy, he is also a passionate advocate for mental health causes, recently speaking at the Oxford Union in association with Mind Your Head. He tells me that, in order for the stigma against those with mental health to end, “more public figures need to be open about these things. The benefits of doing this are huge. Attitudes won’t change if we don’t talk about them. Budgets get cut, nobody complains; people suffer in silence. If you had cancer, you’d tell your boss. Why wouldn’t you tell him if you suffered depression or schizophrenia?”
Our discussion moves into journalism, which was once his trade as former political editor of The Daily Mirror. I ask him what advice he has for a young person thinking of pursuing journalism.
“DO IT, and do it well. There are several things to remember. You must never overestimate the intelligence of people above you. Best thing about being a journalist is that everyone you meet has got a story to tell. Just don’t expect to be making any money out of it.” Encouragingly for Cherwell hacks, he praises student journalism. “I think anyone thinking of getting involved in journalism should start at University. Not just at University — I think sometimes student journalism can make a real difference in national politics!”
On the slightly more high-profile debates on the role of journalism, namely the Snowden and Wikileaks revelations, which were one of the subjects of his lecture series, he has cautious praise for The Guardian. “I actually have a lot of respect for The Guardian and how they handled Snowden.” However, he makes the point of disagreeing with Assange’s political philosophy. “He just thinks all secrets should be open, an indiscriminate dumping; I just think that’s wrong.”
He is still also a passionate defender of the controversial period of New Labour of which he was a part. Iraq, he says, “will be remembered as one of New Labour’s successes. The debate about it now is totally one sided. ‘We went to war in Iraq ten years ago and everything that’s gone wrong in the Middle East now is because of that!’ It’s totally untrue.” Other things they will be remembered for, he tells us, are the “Bank of England’s independence, devolution, as long as Scotland doesn’t go independent, Kosovo, African intervention, and crucially increasing public spending in schools and hospitals. I still like Tony Blair a lot… I chatted to him this morning in fact!”
He ends on an upbeat note. “I’ve no regrets about anything. I’ve always claimed to never care what people say about me and I never will.”