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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: If you don’t lose the plot over this mess, there’s something wrong with you

Susannah Reid puts her fingers in her ears during a tempered debate between Piers Morgan and Alastair Campbell on ITV's This Morning. Picture: ITV - Credit: Archant

Being loud and brash can go too far, but it is necessary when you’re pushing against established beliefs, writes ALASTAIR CAMPBELL.

Let’s start with a bit of self-awareness. I am fully conscious, as I recorded here last week following a gentle chiding from the velvet mouth of Mariella Frostrup, that I can be aggressive in debate, and sometimes perhaps overly dismissive of a contrary point of view. It explains why Tony Blair occasionally called me ‘Keano’, whenever he felt I was in danger of going over the top, in the manner of Roy Keane’s memorable assault on Alf-Inge Haaland (non football fans, look it up, though if you don’t know by now…).

I have enough capacity for self-reflection, too, to be aware, for example, that in a recent verbal brawl with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, most viewers were probably in agreement with his co-presenter Susanna Reid, head in her hands urging us both to calm down, and complaining that our Alpha Male slanging was not exactly helping the Brexit debate. She was right. On the other hand, the doubts I had following another recent television exchange, when I suggested to Nigel Farage that he ‘own your shit, Nigel’, instead of blaming everyone else for Brexit going wrong, evaporated by the time I was home. It was a fair point, and it took a bit of over-the-top rhetoric to make it.

So over-the-top is not always bad. Indeed, in any campaign, particularly one that is being fought as an insurgency, when it can feel like you’re pushing giant boulders up a steep mountainside – the People’s Vote campaign started as one such – I’m not sure you can do without it.

Think back just a few months. Government, opposition, most of the media, were dismissive. ‘You’re wasting your time’, those rare voices up for the fight for a referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations were told, again and again. Public awareness of the campaign, not least because the media took its lead from the two main parties, was low.

Now fast forward to today. Few are unaware of the campaign, here and, in political circles at least, across Europe. Almost three quarters of a million marched in support of it two weeks ago, and a few days later the Independent’s ‘Final Say’ petition reached its millionth signature. Rare, today, are the interviews or parliamentary exchanges with Theresa May or Brexit ministers, when they are not asked about the People’s Vote campaign, their irritation appearing to mount each time.

We still have a long way to go. May continues, ludicrously given just how many people and how few politicians are involved, to dismiss it all as a ‘Politicians’ Vote’, an establishment plot (since when did the cabinet, Whitehall and parliament cease to be the establishment?) to thwart the will of the people. No, prime minister – it is precisely because so many people feel let down and unrepresented by politicians that the People’s Vote campaign has grown so quickly.

On one side of the despatch box is May, like her predecessor, all too often putting party interest ahead of the national interest. (And oh my God, what cruel bloodsport did The New European’s Tim Walker unleash when he revealed that David Cameron could not decide on a title for the memoirs he has been busy writing in his shed while the country continues to tear itself apart over his historic, ill-fated decision to ‘resolve the issue once and for all’ with a referendum he never thought he would lose.) On the other side is Jeremy Corbyn, for whom Brexit appears to be a gigantic elephant in the corner of a room otherwise filled with well-meaning plans to end austerity, without reference to the fact the elephant will trample all over them should Jeremy become prime minister of post-Brexit Britain. And, present company excepted, most of the media have relentlessly banged out the message that Brexit is happening come what may, and anyone who suggests otherwise, or fails to get excited about blue passports or Brexit-celebrating 50p pieces, is a traitor, a saboteur, and worse.

So over the top we must continue to go at times, to get heard, and to be understood, in the face of indifferent politicians and their echoing broadcasters and papers. Andrew Adonis has been accused of going over the top to expose the potential conflict of interest of Ofcom chair Lord Burns, and ex-deputy chair Lady Noakes, both assiduous pro-Brexit voters in the Lords, whilst supposedly independent regulators of the BBC on questions of impartiality (sic). The ‘sic’ was unavoidable in light of Brexit fanboy John Humphrys’ latest grotesquery, his prefixing of People’s Vote with ‘ludicrously named’. Has the Today programme dinosaur ever applied such a sneering, dismissive label to the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Migration Watch, the European Research Group, the Institute of Economic Affairs, or Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice? Yes, you heard that right, IDS, the Godfather of Universal Credit, one of the Today programme’s regular megaphones for hard Brexit, has the gall to preside over a Centre for Social Justice, and the BBC provides it with free hit platforms galore without so much as a curl of the Humphrys lip.

Over-the-top-ness means keeping going with the same messages when you, the messenger, are sick to death of hearing yourself say them. So when a critic tired of me banging on about the People’s Vote asked me on Twitter ‘when you fart, does it come out as ‘People’s Vote?”, this was a wonderful moment, an encouragement that the message was getting through, an unintended exhortation to keep going. ‘Ppppppplsssss Vvvvvvotttttttte,’ I replied… when farting becomes campaigning, this is joy.

But now, back to self-awareness, and the ability to understand – thanks Mariella – that one’s critics may sometimes have a point. This time the critic is Iain Martin, pro-Brexit commentator, who said I had gone ‘bananas’, for making a Brexit link to the four-nation hand-holding summit on Syria, with Turkey’s Erdogan, Russia’s Putin, Germany’s Merkel, and France’s Macron.

‘UK irrelevant,’ I tweeted. ‘We have chosen our own decline. Brexit.’

Martin replied: ‘This is anti-Brexit bananas on several levels. US not at the podium either. And the implication is that Germany is a leading security, intel and defence power, which it isn’t. Not everything is about Brexit.’

He has a point. But so do I. True, Germany is not as significant a military power as the UK. Also true, Donald Trump was not there. But the US president will have figured in their discussions, and he will have been in their heads. Does anyone seriously imagine that ‘what will Theresa think?’ was a major part of their meeting? That it even happened in that forum says something about how quickly the shared diplomatic anger over a Russian hit team’s murder attempts in Salisbury evaporated.

Brexit has reduced our relevance in part because of what it says about us turning our backs on internationalism, and on our allies. But it has further reduced it because other leaders know how virtually the entirety of UK government bandwidth is taken up with Brexit. And, whether we like it or not, most governments around the world – Trump and Putin included – do believe that in choosing Brexit, we are choosing our own decline.

This ‘what will so-and-so think?’ point is not to be underestimated. It is an important part of diplomacy. I was in Paris this week speaking at a seminar on negotiation (Ireland, Balkans, TB-GB kind of thing), and found myself telling the story of François de Callières, a French diplomat in the court of King Louis XIV, who wrote a practical guide to diplomacy, De la manière de négocier avec les souverains, translated as ‘The Art of Diplomacy’, and much of it still resonant today. His belief that negotiators should negotiate continually, and his emphasis on harmonising interests, are in part what led to the ambassadorial system being adopted worldwide. Patience, the ability to listen, and to show respect to those on the other side of the negotiation table, are likewise as relevant now as three centuries ago.

But he made one other observation worth recalling in the context of Theresa May’s current travails, and Iain’s Martin’s fears for my political sanity. Great negotiators, said de Callières, ‘saturate your mind’. The same goes for campaigners. May is not inside the minds of her fellow world leaders in the way she needs to be to set the agenda in negotiations (Brexit), and to be making the most of UK strength in the world (Global Britain – remember that one?).

We campaigners for a People’s Vote likewise need to learn from de Callières, and get inside May’s mind and inside the minds of other MPs tempted to support whatever deal she brings back to parliament, when they know it will damage the country in general, and, Labour MPs, poorer areas in particular. ‘Saturate their minds’. The grimace that crosses May’s face whenever the People’s Vote is raised suggests we are making progress. The anger I confronted in a Labour MP who had been called out for threatening to back a deal she knows will not address the issues that led many of her constituents to vote leave, but make them worse, similarly shows MPs understand they are facing a genuine and difficult choice, with no pain-free option.

So we have to keep going. And it may mean going a bit OTT from time to time. With so few politicians prepared to tell the truth about what Brexit actually means, it is for the people to keep speaking that truth unto power. Saturate their minds – that means writing, emailing, calling, using any encounter to make sure they understand – if they help this Brexit happen, and if (more likely when) it all goes wrong, the villains will not be forgotten.

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