I won’t forgive, because I can’t forget

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 mike 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.

Spitting image

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.

Doing God

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.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.