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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Mitsotakis’s lessons for Sunak

Unlike our PM, the Greek leader listens to questions and actually answers them

Image: The New European/Getty

You wait for a good interview for your podcast, then four come along all at once. First up, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert (and if you think you loathe Benjamin Netanyahu, you’ve got nothing on his former colleague); then veteran US legislator Nancy Pelosi, who took me to task over Iraq; followed by former UK chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, who took Liz Truss to task over lots of things: then off to Athens to see the Greek PM, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Of the four, Mitsotakis was the one I knew least about, and reading up on him in advance, I wasn’t convinced I would like him as much as my Rest Is Politics partner Rory Stewart would. 

A pretty entitled background, his father having been prime minister before him; educated in Paris, London and the US; a banker and financier, with the word “technocrat” in virtually every profile; and his New Democracy essentially the Tories’ sister party.

Yet when I asked him where he would sit on a UK political sliding scale, with Corbynite Labour on one end and Braverman/Farage Tory-ism on the other, he said without hesitation: “right in the centre”. 

He did not hold back on Brexit – very much in tune with the New European on that one – and while he was diplomatic about his relationship with Rishi Sunak, talking about how important the UK remained to Greece, he was but the latest leader I have met who seems far more interested in Keir Starmer than in the current PM.

I’m not sure I would have been quite so diplomatic about Sunak had I been him… you may remember, on a visit to London last November, Mitsotakis gave a BBC interview in which he was asked about the Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon Sculptures as the Greeks call them, and trotted out the standard line that Greece wants them back so they can be “reunified” with the artwork from which Lord Elgin took them in the early 1800s. 

The reaction from No 10? They cancelled a planned bilateral meeting, which would have been their first, the following day. Talk about sledgehammer diplomacy!

It was around that time it became clear that just as Boris Johnson and Liz Truss had character flaws that made them unfit to be prime minister, so does Sunak… petulant, entitled, all too flappable when things don’t go his way, unable to understand why people don’t see him as he sees himself. None of these are good qualities in a leader.

When our LEADING interview with his Greek counterpart comes out, someone should force Sunak to watch. Mitsotakis listens to questions, then answers them, rather than rushing through endlessly repeated “lines to take” written by Tory Central Office; he is thoughtful and reflective; he knows history, and tries to apply lessons from it; he admits to occasional mistakes.

When he talks of the pressures on politicians, it is not to “poor me” whinge about his own life, but to express the fear that the best young people will never consider politics as a career, leaving the door open to populists.

His stance on populism – even more than the fact that he knew where Burnley were in the Premier League and wished us well in the relegation struggle – was the main reason I warmed to him. He has put populism at the heart of his governance – warning of its dangers, exposing it, challenging it, defeating it, rather than, as Sunak alas has sought to do, indulging it and bathing in its murky, and ultimately self- and country-destroying waters. Anti-populism, he suggests, has to become a real political force.

I am sure if I had had more than the hour-long interview and a very enjoyable al fresco dinner, I could have found a few faults, and for sure, though he is well to the left of Sunak, he is to the right of me on a few big issues. But my God it was refreshing to do a long, detailed interview with a “Tory” politician who not once said “I have been very clear”… “that is not the question you should be asking”… “that is not what I hear from people when I am out and about …” and who, rather than constantly boasting about what he had done, sought to explain what he was trying to do now and in the future, and why. 

Olmert and Pelosi are already out, Kwarteng and Mitsotakis to follow. Enjoy. But please, Sunak team, in the interests of politics and democracy… get him to listen, and learn.

The most depressing moment of the trip was the arrival. Just ahead of passport control is a giant map of Europe. All EU members have their national flag placed upon their country. And there, all on its little old own-io, with the French tricolour to the right, the Irish tricolour to the left, is flagless Global (sic) Britain.

People from the flagged countries peeled off to have their passports computer-read, and whizz through. The rest of us walked off gloomily to wait in line and get another bloody stamp in our French- and Polish-made new blue passports. 

Insanity. The whole thing is insanity, and I will never stop saying so.

“Q: What is the definition of a gentleman? A: A man who can play the bagpipes… but doesn’t.” Ha, bloody ha… if I had a fiver for every time I had heard this borderline racist (essentially anti-Scottish) “joke”, I would be earning almost as much as when I was a busker, nearly half a century ago, when I raked it in for three simple reasons:

1) Novelty value (in Europe that is, which is where I plied my trade); 

2) Bagpipes are louder than other instruments so other buskers can’t compete; 

3) Guitarists and singers have to do several numbers before going round with the hat… with the pipes, one tune and I’m done, and on to the next spot.

All this came flooding back in Athens, where I heard a pipe sound I had never heard before, and followed the music to a lovely man called Angelos, who looked not unlike the conventional image of Jesus Christ, and who had made his own Greek pipes; a goatskin bag, with a chanter (the bit where your fingers go) made from a cow horn, tied into the bag by string, the music coming through reeds made of bamboo. It was a haunting sound, the cow horn amplifying it beautifully.

Of course, I had a go, and did OK, considering many differences with the Highland bagpipe: no drones; six notes not nine; the holes very close together, so big fingers not a plus; and most of all the bag under the right arm not the left arm, which sent my muscle memory all over the place, wrong arm squeezing at the wrong time.

Still, Angelos thought it was a good effort, and so did the woman who threw a coin into his box while I was playing.

I posted videos of our efforts on social media, along with close-ups of the various parts of his instrument. One of my followers asked his favourite artificial intelligence tool to identify the cow-horn chanter and explain what it was. 

The answer: “This appears to be a wooden bat or stick with metal studs or spikes embedded along its surface. It seems to be some kind of improvised weapon or self-defence tool.”

More anti-bagpipism, AI-style. AI may be smart, but it’s not as clever as it thinks, and will never be as beautiful as a musical sound made by human hand and heart.

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