Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, lead.
PUBLISHED: 11:00 22 June 2018 | UPDATED: 10:49 25 June 2018
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Editor-at-Large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL states politics and media have become a “madhouse”
To Birmingham, and a conference of around 450 headteachers and other school leaders, where I was the after dinner turn.
Partly for my own amusement, and to test the waters of opinion, I often forego the standard late night fare, and instead get the organisers to place ‘Ask Alastair Anything’ postcards on the tables, gather in the questions and I shape my speech around them.
For a start, there are always some that you can play for laughs, like the one asking if I knew Gary Barlow, who was performing in the same building, the ICC, and could I get him to pop in later? Or the table of Burnley fans asking for a free bottle of red wine – I obliged. Or the head who gave me a choice of questions... “What should our generation be teaching the next generation about politics right now?” or “Do you wear matching socks and pants?” (No).
It was impossible to answer all of the several hundred questions, so I spent the main course working out the main areas of interest and concern.
In terms of the volume of questions on each subject, the state of the Labour Party came slightly ahead of Brexit, which came slightly ahead of what I call ‘life and times’ questions, including several on my daughter Grace challenging my feminist credentials live on radio, then lots on Burnley, (several asking what heads could learn from the leadership skills of our manager Sean Dyche), lots on mental health, and lots on education policy.
The questions, never mind the answers, would not have made pretty reading for our current political leaders. Of the
Labour questions, only one – “Why don’t you get fully behind Jeremy Corbyn?” – carried what I would assess as a positive tone about the party today. For the rest, it was all “will Labour ever win again? … shall I give up paying my subs? … will David Miliband come back to UK politics? … what does Labour need to do to become a credible alternative government?”
Things were no better for Mrs May, so eventually I asked for a show of hands... who thinks she is doing a good job as prime minister? The lights went up so I could see if any hands did likewise. Not one hand was raised. Not one out of 450 leaders in schools thought the leader of the country’s government was doing a good job. So I asked about Corbyn. Who thought he would make a good PM? About eight hands went up.
When we got to Brexit, I asked who was optimistic about the way it was going. One hand up. A whole forest of hands for pessimistic. This follows a pattern I see virtually everywhere I go these days. In parliament and the media, all we hear is that Brexit has to happen. Out in the country there are millions of people asking why, given those same MPs are virtually united now in accepting it is not going to be good for the country.
One name, that of David Cameron, came up just once, and that was as part of a ‘snog, marry, avoid?’ triptych with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. I played that one for laughs too, then declined to answer, but I did point out how extraordinary it was that Cameron had just vanished from the public space, leaving behind such mayhem. Apparently he is hoping his memoirs will revise his place in history. I would suggest his place in history is secure, a key figure in a story of hubris and incompetence leading to humiliation and national decline.
If I had a quid for every exasperated citizen asking me “what can I do to help stop Brexit?” I would be able to make a sizeable donation to one of the various anti-Brexit campaign groups. The campaign landscape is complicated, thought at least there has been some coalescence around the single goal of a People’s Vote on the final deal that Mrs May secures, and it is hard to see what is anti-democratic about that.
I find myself often saying to the exasperated – and I know it is far from perfect – that we all have to do what we think we can do, and keep the argument alive in whatever way we can, up to the real crunch point, when our MPs have to vote on the deal, knowing that it is going to damage the country.
Here are four examples of ‘do what you think you can do’ being done well. Alice Skinner is a 24-year-old illustrator and visual artist, much of whose work fights the fight for feminism. But she has also done a top illustration, now taking pride of place on the front page of the People’s Vote website, urging people to sign up for this Saturday’s march in London.
My second Order of the Campbell Medal for Great Anti-Brexit campaigning goes to the student groups OFOC and FFS for getting close to the stage at Labour Live, and making sure Jeremy Corbyn saw their ‘STOP BACKING BREXIT’ banner. Now he is the party’s leader, he and his fans appear less keen on the politics of protest than they used to.
My third example is Wooferendum, who are planning a march of dogs on Downing Street to ‘hound’ – geddit? – Mrs May into putting country before party. Sadly our dog Molly died recently but Wooferendum is softening my resistance to getting another one soon.
But perhaps the greatest accolade of all should go to Matt Kelly, editor and founder of The New European. When he called me in the wake of the referendum asking if I would get involved in a new pop-up paper, sharing his frustration at what had happened I said “yes”. I’m not sure either of us thought it would still be here two years later. One hundred issues later, there are many more to come, all fighting to get some sense into the madhouse that our politics and so much of our media have become.
What a wonderful send-off for Stephen Hawking, truly entering the pantheon of greats in having his ashes interred alongside those of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton inside Westminster Abbey. And what a confirmation of the Pravda-in-reverse nature of most of our media these days that amid the extensive coverage, the words Brexit and NHS – he hated the first, loved the second, and believed the government approach to both was hugely damaging to the country – did not get a mention.
George Orwell’s statue stands proud and tall outside New Broadcasting House. I hope BBC executives and journalists reflect on what he would have thought of their current coverage of Brexit, as they stroll to work in Orwell’s shadow, trying to work out how not to cover the People’s Vote march this weekend out of fear of upsetting the government or the Brextremist press.