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

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.