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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Disappointing Greta Thunberg and a night out with the Kinnocks

In his weekly diary ALASTAIR CAMPBELL gives his account of his engagements around Europe, experiencing pangs of guilt that he's disappointing the climate activist.

A Halloween pumpkin depicting climate activist Greta Thunberg at the Hebden Bridge Pumpkin Festival. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

I flew Air France from Manchester to Paris – sorry Greta, I’d normally get the Eurostar but the timings didn’t work out and I will do the tree planting offset thing, promise.

At the door of the plane, a cabin steward explained politely to every single passenger as we boarded that we must wear a mask over nose and mouth for the whole flight. Where people had masks that were loose or not fully covering the nose, he gave them a new one.

Of the 165 passengers, only one man kicked up a minor fuss. “What if I don’t want to wear one?” The flight attendant gently informed him he had signed up to wearing a mask when he bought his ticket. The man took the mask, skulked to his seat, and put it on.

It really wasn’t that hard. It really wasn’t much of an imposition. And the actual implementation of actual rules in other countries actually might be one of the reasons why Britain, having once led the world on vaccinations, is now leading it in infections, hospitalisations and death. At Charles de Gaulle airport, I did not see a single maskless face.

There is a recklessness to the government’s mixed messaging on masks and other aspects of the pandemic that smacks of near criminal negligence. Two rules have guided Boris Johnson’s life and times: 1) I do what I want and get away with it; 2) Rules are for other people. As prime minister, he can’t be too shocked if the electorate decide that is the way to live their lives too.

In possibly related news it was heartening to hear that a congressional inquiry in Brazil will recommend Johnson’s fellow sado-populist President Jair Bolsonaro face charges of mass homicide for his handling of the pandemic.

The Manchester event was a conference of NHS administrators. These are the people regularly derided by politicians and media as pen pushers and bureaucrats yet without whom the NHS simply could not function.

There were several hundred in the room at Old Trafford cricket ground and several hundred more watching online. I was there to talk about mental health. Jeremy Hunt was also speaking, albeit in a pre-recorded interview rather than live. That was probably a wise decision.

The livestream comments were not kind to him. My favourite – “this man seems to be on a lifelong voyage of discovery to find out who was the health secretary for seven years as the Tories ran us into the ground.” There was also a discussion about how to deal with attempts by Hunt’s successor, Sajid “mercifully low death rates” Javid, to turn the NHS into an enemy and the people who work in it into scapegoats. Sadopopulism in action by the secretary of state for illnesses.

Talking of sado-populism, I made a speech on the subject in Hamburg on Tuesday, at an event on political and economic trends, and in preparation read an Austrian book, Populismus für Anfänger (Populism for Beginners), by economist Walter Ötsch and journalist Nina Horaczek.

Written before Johnson became PM, it focuses primarily on Donald Trump, and far-right politicians from Austria and Germany.

If the authors do an updated edition, I hope they include more on Johnson and today’s Tories than the page covering 10 of the main Brexit lies and broken promises.

Among the insights in this guide to modern populism – propaganda is more important than policy; simple untruths beat complex realities; you must demand loyalty of others but not give it yourself; stirring up division is vital; you should build slavish media backing and sect-like support; you should develop a unique way of speaking, rich in imagery and the exploitation of emotions and symbols; rewrite national history; say unsayables; use baseless claims and insults; ignore conventions; weaken Cabinet, Parliament and bodies that threaten “the will of the people” as you define it; never admit you’re wrong, never accept your opponents are right and always blame others if things go wrong.

They should update it and rename it The Johnson Doctrine.

In my speech in Hamburg, I quoted David Puttnam’s Shirley Williams Memorial Lecture, and his account of conversations he had with Nazi architect Albert Speer after his release from jail for war crimes.

It was during those conversations, said the film-maker who recently gave up his seat in the Lords in disgust at the state of our democracy “that I came to understand what we now call ‘the fascist playbook’ – the way democracy can be corrupted and overturned by a few malevolent but persuasive politicians, those who are prepared to exploit divisions in society with simple populist messages.’

Speer told him we were all vulnerable, and “moral vigilance” was required to recognise nascent evil. In his lecture, Puttnam expressed his disgust that Boris Johnson keeps intervening “to manipulate an ideological ally into the chairmanship of Ofcom.” That would be Paul Dacre, who is anything but nascent.

If you crave foot-tapping feel-good escapism, get a ticket for Anything Goes at the Barbican. I suppose “old-fashioned musical” is how you’d describe it.

Plain old is how I felt walking in after the interval, though.

We went with Neil and Glenys Kinnock, and as we returned to our seats the guy on the door said: “Labour grandees night out, is it?” Grandee? Je suis jeune!

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was far from certain when Good Morning Britain presenter Susannah Reid asked him who the vaccines minister is. It’s Maggie Throup. Yes, I know… me neither.

How can we be in the middle of a pandemic and nobody knows who the minister for vaccines is? Surely no Tory politician called Maggie T can maintain such a truly subterranean profile?

Sky Arts series Portrait Artist of the Year is on at the moment and my turn as a “sitter” goes out on November 3. You sit for several hours while three artists paint your portrait, then pick your favourite.

They were all very different and perhaps I chose the most traditional, though my sister liked the least traditional when I sent her photos. “Hockneyesque,” she said.

Sitters are given the one they chose as a souvenir, and I bought the other one for my sister, and the third for whoever wants it because I didn’t want the guy to feel left out. It’s a nice programme, nicely made.

Days later, I’m feeling bad about the flight to Paris. That is what is so brilliant about Greta Thunberg. She gets in your head, in a good way.

“Greta would not approve,” I kept saying to myself. On other occasions, you might find me mumbling to myself that “Greta would approve” as I walk past the car to get the Tube to the station and get on a train, or when I go round the house switching off things that don’t need to be on.

So when Greta is described as an inspiration, I am living proof. Now off to sort some tree planting.

Highlight of the week also involved trees: persuading Kevin Cahill, former CEO of Comic Relief, to hug one. He was interviewing me as part of an online Festival of Discovery run by the Eden Project. Although a fellow lover of nature, he was sceptical. But he did it, and after a while he closed his eyes and sighed. “Yes,” he said, “I am feeling something. I don’t know what it is. But it is something!” Go on. Give it a go. Greta would approve and, as we head to the COP climate conference, that is what counts!

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