By Eleanor Hallesy
Living Better: How I Learned to Survive Depression
Alastair Campbell, Hachette, 2020
What would you imagine a conversation with Alastair Campbell to be like? Combative? Obfuscatory? Guarded? A toeing, perhaps, of whatever line he has decided to draw in the sand. Campbell has retained a remarkable place in the minds of many as the face of a political era that now feels a long way off, despite its ramifications persisting in so many aspects of how we view 21st-century government. In his new book, Living Better: How I Learned to Survive Depression, Campbell confounds his reputation with a frank account of his personal history of mental health crisis. He covers in depth the circumstances that have, over the course of an eventful life, aggravated what appears to be an underlying predisposition to psychological pain. Prepared for the impenetrable, I am surprised by his immediate launch into talkative exuberance and self-analytical candour.
‘Part of my psychological makeup is that I always make myself a bit anxious and edgy before I go into something like this. [...] I was in bad shape for a big part of lockdown and now I’m in good shape, and I’m starting to think “oh God what if I have a crash or I go a bit crazy,” or whatever. I’m very, very good at getting myself in the space I need to be, but I need to work at getting there.’
This book, he tells me, is different to all the others. ‘The political diaries were very personal, but they weren’t personal analytically.’ It starts with a striking admission that he has, in the recent past, considered suicide. To understand how he got here, he traces the mental health struggles of close relatives, foremost among them his brother Donald, who died in 2016 after suffering from schizophrenia throughout his adult life. Campbell’s unwarranted guilt for being the lucky one is explored in the latter half of the book, which focuses on the treatments that he has tried in an attempt to bring his chronic depression under control.
He tells me these kinds of admissions don’t make him feel vulnerable, but his gloss on it seems to amount to the same thing: ‘I feel better for doing it, but it just makes you feel raw’. Although the vast majority of the response to his increasingly engaged mental health advocacy is positive, he insists that the significant degree of abuse he gets on social media doesn’t bother him. Whenever he tweets, he tells me, one troll responds: ‘You don’t get depression. You’re making it up, it’s a marketing ploy’.
He surprises me again by bringing up the most notorious spell of his time as Tony Blair’s Director of Communications, when he was accused of ‘sexing up’ an intelligence dossier on the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq. This culminated in the suicide of weapons inspector, David Kelly, who had been revealed as the source of the claim. ‘Every time I talk about depression, there will be people who just post a picture of David Kelly. That’s them with their agenda.’ Surely that’s got to hurt?
‘No, it doesn’t. I mean partly because I guess you get used to it, though you’ve got to be wary of that. I’ve been very, very open that that period was, beyond the death of my own parents and brothers and close friends, the worst period of my life, bar none. [...] I know that the things that people accused me of then and accuse me of now, I know that I didn’t do them. I know that I didn’t lie.’ He continues, ‘The other thing that they say is that I killed him. [...] That there was a cover up and I organised his murder and all that sort of stuff well once you’re into that, if you really start to allow that to drag you down then... But it never really got to me. […] It just doesn’t matter what they say about you.’
Campbell, as he often points out, has consistently been cleared of wrongdoing related to the presentation of intelligence on WMDs in Iraq. The Chilcot Inquiry, eventually published in 2016, concluded that the claims BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan had made in 2003 that he had ‘sexed up’ the September intelligence dossier were untrue. The Inquiry concluded: ‘There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No 10 [read: Campbell] improperly influenced the text’. The Hutton Inquiry judged that there was clear evidence that Kelly committed suicide and that the government did not act improperly in releasing his name to the press.
Though some would respond to his protestations with an icy recapitulation of his (reputed) actions as Tony Blair’s right-hand man, watching back interviews from his time in government after reading this book makes for uncomfortable viewing. In one, under Andrew Marr’s questioning, he appears on the point of tears, his voice suddenly high-pitched and breaking. He speaks in the book about the unpredictability of his crashes and how on the day Labour won in 1997, his mood pitched. In footage from the early hours of that morning, when the victory is clear, you can see that he is suffering: withdrawn and dull-eyed, he looks like he is in pain.
For a man who has regularly been called out for his blokey deportment, one sign of a burgeoning willingness to question himself is the podcast on feminism Campbell hosts with his daughter, Grace. Has she succeeded in teaching him anything? ‘Oh, definitely.’ With a certain glee, he brings up the time before the podcast—when she called in to an LBC radio show on feminism where Campbell was a guest to ask what right he had to discuss the issue when he continues to call women ‘birds’ and never does the washing up. ‘She’s made me far more aware that […] having won the battle for basic equality in the eyes of the law, often more subtle cultural and historical differences are still as powerful as ever.’ While he may not have made any wholesale changes to the way he lives his life, he says, ‘it remains a lot harder for a young woman who has the same or more talent than a young man to make their way in the world. I can see that a lot more clearly than I did’.
Having made a shared decision not to marry his long-term partner Fiona—for feminist reasons on her part, and out of an atheistic opposition to its fundamental religious significance on his—he is clear that if he were a woman, he would make the same choice. ‘From the feminist perspective I would object to the whole ritual: the ceremony, your father giving you away to another man to look after you for the rest of your life. No.’
Many on the Corbynite left accuse him of initiating a toxic media culture that is now endemic in politics. The frequent rebuttal is that Tony Blair presided over the advent of 24-hour news media, so it was inevitable that there was a need to counter that with strong messaging. He remains adamant in his rejection of the image his detractors have of him. ‘Contrary to the caricature that I rampaged around, bullying people and so forth, I certainly didn’t march anybody at gunpoint from the Cabinet room to tell them they’d lost their job, as Mr Cummings has done.’ When I ask him whether he feels that toxic masculinity is a helpful concept, he is happy to answer, but quick to emphasise that, in contrast to the character of Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It, for whom he was the inspiration, he never kicked down.
The press and the Tories, he tells me, just wanted to project Tony Blair as weak. ‘One of the ways they did that was to say that he had these thugs, me and Peter Mandelson, around him and we were the real power. It was always bollocks but that was one of the lies they ran.’ So there wasn’t lots of shouting? ‘Me and the caricature Malcolm Tucker vis-à-vis parts of the media, vis-à-vis some of the politicians, I think fair enough. […] But if you talk to the Civil Servants who worked with us, I think they had a ball’. Really? ‘Yeah!’
Again, it is Campbell who brings up Iraq: ‘I didn’t play the blame game with them. [...] The so-called dodgy dossier, actually that was a document that had nothing to do with [what] we presented to Parliament, it was put together for a Sunday briefing and that was the one that it turned out the guy had copied and pasted it from some bloody thesis or something. Now I’ve never, ever, ever said who that person is. I couldn’t, because I just thought no, I’m going to get the shit for this anyway, so why should I drop him in it as well?’
Though he doesn’t admit being either guilty of, or victim to, toxic masculinity, he laments how male the Westminster lobby was in his day. ‘It did become a very genuinely combative relationship, in part because I knew that if I wasn’t combative with them, they would roll all over me. [...] Do I think that there is such a thing as toxic masculinity? Yes, there is. Is it unique to politics? No.’
While he has been testy in the past on comparisons to The Thick of It’s protagonist, notably exchanged heated words with film critic Mark Kermode on the subject, he seems to have mellowed. Is there a tiny part of him that is proud that Malcolm Tucker was based on him? ‘Oh yeahhh. Not a tiny part!’
Perhaps his willingness to talk about these things stems from how central his role in government was to his mental health problems. ‘[Tony Blair] was always aware but he didn’t delve because I think he felt I didn’t want him to delve and I didn’t actually—I didn’t want it to be a big thing while I was there.’ His only direct criticism of Blair in the book is on his former boss’s unenlightened analysis of Campbell’s mental health issues. ‘I did criticise him once [when] he wrote in his book there are two kinds of crazy people: there are crazy people who are just scary and there are crazy people who are going to be creative geniuses. That is so stigmatising.’
Indirectly, however, there is a clear tension between his indefatigable defence of the former Prime Minister and the pressures Blair piled on to Campbell, which exacerbated his depression. ‘In politics, I had to subsume my life into the needs and demands of others,’ reads the first page of his book. Discussing self-harm, he writes, ‘I might have left Downing Street, but the key people in politics, especially Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, would not allow me to move on. [...] And all the while the issue of Iraq was continuing to haunt the government, ensuring my name stayed pretty central to a debate over which I now had much less influence or control.’ It all leads to a troubling episode in which, in an emotional crisis during a walk on Hampstead Heath, he starts punching himself repeatedly in the face.
Though he sees a continuum between his roles in media and politics and as a campaigner, Campbell has found a cause that allows a different approach from any other job he has had: total, often disarming, frankness about what is in his head. ‘Has [mental health advocacy] meant that I’ve probably spent more time digging into myself? Yeah, almost certainly.’ He sees his job as role-modelling honesty about his condition, and I sense that part of him relishes the chance to open up. In a manic phase recently, he tells me, he got into a Twitter spat with Defence Minister Johnny Mercer, ‘I’d gone over the top and the thing is I knew I’d gone over the top and that was the point at which I said for Christ’s sake you’ve got to calm down. It’s not good.’
This is not the Campbell some have come to expect. But he is clear in his sense of mission: ‘I’m looking at a picture of my brother on the wall now, you know, Donald. His schizophrenia is what got me interested in mental health and that’s why I now do what I do. I think if you take these things that are perceived as bad and try to get some good out of them then they have a value, they have a worth.’
He might not admit it, but I get the strong impression that this is a man who has done some serious soul-searching about the decisions he has taken in the course of a controversial life in politics. His appetite for public self-scrutiny is clear in a 2017 interview with Tony Blair for GQ, his first time interviewing him since 1994. Campbell is pleasingly challenging. He tries to get Blair to accept they were too close to the right-wing tabloids. On Iraq, he asks: ‘Do you never lie awake at thinking “God I wish to fuck we’d never done that”?’ Admitting he has a recurring dream about soldiers being blown up, Campbell repeatedly asks Blair whether he, too, has nightmares about the decision to go to war. He tells me now, ‘I knew all the answers to the questions I was asking. I know because he’ll tell me sometimes “God I had this weird fucking dream last night you won’t believe it.” [...] I was just liberated, asking the questions I wanted to, and he didn’t 100% feel he could give the answers that he knew I knew.’
As he describes his adventures in psychiatric self-analysis it sounds, almost comically at times, as if Tony and Gordon take on the role of warring parents, Campbell the conflicted son of Freudian cliché, dodging the emotional shrapnel of their hostilities. In the past his psychiatrist has even suggested—presumably in jest—that they should join in on one of his sessions. ‘When I was seeing him regularly, we talked as much about Tony and Gordon as anything else really. My driving problem was this constant conflict between what I might perceive to be my own interests, my own health, my own family, my own wellbeing and happiness, and this impulsion, which he calls my demon. To look at what was happening between Tony and Gordon [...] and you feel you have to fix it.’
Describing himself as a ‘communicator’, Campbell admits that he goes into a certain ‘mode’ in response to the same old questions on his time at No 10. Of course, there are points in our conversation where I sense that there’s a prepared line being trotted out. I suggest, as he hints at in the book, that perhaps the self-censorship that comes with being the government’s Director of Communications brought a certain sense of alienation that might have contributed to his struggles at the time. Many in politics have to toe the party line; Alastair Campbell was the personification of that line. Did that take a toll? ‘That’s quite difficult to unbundle. I didn’t feel that was a great pressure because 90% of the time I totally agreed with what we were doing. [...] I was always happy to be, as you call it, the personification of the party line, because that was my job.’
He won’t get into what his message would be to his Corbynite detractors, though he does dispute my characterisation that they see him as the devil incarnate. ‘I mean some of them do but a lot of them don’t. But during the General Election I was helping people, Corbyn wouldn’t want my help and that’s fine, that’s his judgment, but I was trying to help people.’ One of the only questions he refuses to answer is whether he would offer—or has offered—any advice to Keir Starmer. Make of that what you will: either way, as perhaps Campbell would agree, it would be unwise for Starmer to be seen taking advice from him.
Post-Corbyn, will we ever see the rehabilitation of Alastair Campbell in the minds of the party’s left? The overall impression he gives is one of a man whose devotion to Labour Party politics dominates almost everything else: his self-presentation, his sense of purpose, his family life, historically, even, his peace of mind.
Rarely has public affection for a Prime Minister seen such a precipitous rise and fall as it has for Tony Blair—such high highs and such low lows: a trajectory with which Campbell has become synonymous. It may be that his place in the history books will have as much to do with the future—where his party goes next and what happens as a result—as it has to do with its (and his) turbulent, as much spinned against as spinning, past.
Art by Ollie Cowley