‘Peace, prosperity, and friendship’ – It is entirely possible that all three will be undermined by our departure from the EU, says ALASTAIR CAMPBELL.
When the day finally came, I would happily have spent it in bed, reading. ‘Read books not newspapers (present company excepted) and listen to music not news’ is not just a New Year Resolution, but a sensible tactic in my mental health toolbox.
I did however have a couple of things in the diary for January 31, 2020, that could not be done from beneath the duvet. First, a boxing session with my personal trainer Keir, who advises me not just on fitness but on diet, and insists I send him an account of everything I eat.
I fear this may have caused consternation from time to time when I accidentally send my ‘food diary’ to the other Keir in my contacts. What ‘Keir S’ for Starmer makes of random messages telling him I had porridge and coffee for breakfast, a banana mid-morning, soup and a Pret protein salad for lunch, three apples mid-afternoon, and chicken and loads of vegetables for dinner, with a ‘minor lapse’ of chocolate raisins, I don’t know. He has bigger fish to fry right now.
The boxing training continues despite Piers Morgan – he who spends so much of his time raging about the weakness of others – wimping out of a fight which Sport Relief wished to make one of the centrepieces of this year’s fundraising, confident that the hype and then the actuality of me punching out his lights, or he punching out mine, would have raised well into seven figures for good causes.
Frank Warren was lined up to help organise and promote. Burnley manager Sean Dyche had agreed to be my corner man. Piers had stated on TV to long-suffering Good Morning Britain viewers that he was up for it. We agreed a date, it was happening.
Then came the most pitiful string of text messages imaginable, any and every excuse dressed up to disguise the central fact – he was bottling it. Hey ho, Keir (the trainer) always said he would.
The other thing in my diary for January 31, 2020, was a visit to Goldman Sachs. Now before you go thinking this was a paid speaking gig (the likes of which saw ‘The Office of David Cameron Ltd’ make in excess of £800k profit last year, while – they can’t have heard her speak – Theresa May is reportedly getting a £190,000 ‘signing-on fee’ from a US speaker agency!) it wasn’t.
I was there to represent the charity Mind and thank bankers who have donated £1.5 million to fund a mental health support programme for students at 10 universities.
The People’s Vote campaign having lost – and I really do hate losing – I have switched most of my campaigning energies back into the mental health arena. Indeed the day before I had been in Pentonville prison spending a day with the mental health team there. Some amazing people doing some pretty amazing things in very challenging circumstances. Some funny moments too, amid the sadness and the illness and the real human struggles going on… like the guy who shouted through bars … “eh Alastair, will you do me a favour when you get out?”
“Nut Boris for me.”
After the Goldman Sachs visit, through by mid-pm, I could have gone home and got under the duvet with my book. But I had tentatively agreed to do a few media interviews. A part of me (and the whole of my partner Fiona, who could not bring herself to watch the news at all last Friday) thought ‘what is the point?’ It’s not like when we were campaigning to get the second referendum, when interviews were an important vehicle to build support. It was happening. We were leaving, and no amount of words last Friday evening was going to change that.
Yet with the Labour leadership pretty much absent from the field (sound familiar?), and the SNP understandably linking our exit from the EU to their campaign for Scotland’s exit from the UK, I thought surely some of us have to get on the box and just say that for all the celebration of the Brexiteers, for many millions, this was just a really, really sad day, and though we all hope the UK does well, we also fear for the future, and fear we have chosen our own decline, and chosen to lose more than we will gain.
I did half a dozen interviews, a bit halfheartedly to be honest, though I got good feedback for not losing my cool in a debate with Ann Widdecombe on Channel 4 News.
But my favourite was a very short interview – one question – with Jason Farrell of Sky News. He was asking a number of people to choose a picture which they felt “represented what we are leaving”. Nigel Farage chose a photo of the European Commission building. Perhaps he will miss it. Vote Leave’s Matthew Elliott went for an image of a huge pile of boxes ready to be moved from Brussels to Strasbourg for the monthly parliamentary meeting there. Unembarrassed by the fact his choice showed how much media lies from the likes of Boris Johnson helped get us out, Brexit ‘bad boy’ Andy Wigmore chose a picture of ‘bendy bananas’. James O’Brien went for the Grand Place in Brussels, lit up in the colours of the Union flag. Craig Oliver opted for a picture of the ‘UK/EU passports’ sign at the UK border at Heathrow Airport.
My first instinct was to choose the famous image of Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand holding hands in a ceremony in 1984 marking the Battle of Verdun, scene of 800,000 casualties in a battle lasting 10 months in an area of 10 square kilometres in the First World War.
To see the German chancellor and the French president so bonded underlined to me one of the most important reasons for the European Union – peace between nations historically defined by war. That Margaret Thatcher dismissed it sniffily as “just two grown men holding hands” suggested she was never fully seized of the non-economic benefits, considerable though they were, of our membership.
But given the choice was about our leaving, I felt I owed it to Jason to pick something more UK-centric. In the end I chose two, which together told the story of how I was feeling and why. The first – happy days – was from the early days of the Blair government, a European summit in Holland, at which the Dutch hosts had the idea of all the leaders riding bikes over a bridge. I spotted a ‘Britain leading in Europe’ opportunity, urged Tony to grab a bike, pedal hard and ‘win’. In the background Kohl and Jacques Chirac, neither of whom mounted a bike, both of whom could sense there was a new kid on the block who had to be taken seriously, looked on, half amused, half annoyed.
If you had asked any of us whether the UK would be leaving the EU by the time TB reached pensionable age all would have not just said no, but wondered what possessed you to ask the question. Yet here we are, out, flags down, in the EU no more.
So the picture is a reminder not just of a time when we really felt like Britain was set to lead in Europe, and cement our future there, but also a prompt to ask why we failed to cement it sufficient to fight off the sceptics, at the time noisy but marginal figures on the landscape.
Amid the incredible sadness and anger at what the Brexiteers have done we should have the humility to ask what we did wrong, or didn’t do right, for the country to get from there to here in little over two decades. That is for another day, or perhaps another book.
But I chose another picture from today to go alongside the bike race, of the new 50p coin and the claim for Brexit that it is about “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”. It is entirely possible that all three will be undermined – indeed have been already – by what we have chosen to do as a country. I hope I am wrong. That too is entirely possible. After all, I was clearly wrong, as Tony Blair pedalled ahead of his fellow leaders, to think that if we engaged in Europe, led in Europe, sought to shape Europe to be more closely aligned to the values and policies on which we were elected, we would never leave.
However, I think it is as least arguable that the peace process in Northern Ireland has already been damaged by Brexit, and as with so much of this project many of the tough questions there remain unsettled, so it can be damaged further; arguable using the government’s own analysis that every course forward suggested by Johnson now will leave a considerable hole in the economy set against what it would be if we had stayed; and arguable that friendships with the nations closest to us have already been undermined.
Time will tell. But as I look at these three pictures in sequence now, I go from ‘great moment in history’ to ‘felt like something good was happening’ to ‘who are you lot trying to kid?’ The combination makes the bed, the duvet, and a good novel a highly attractive proposition.