An evening with Alastair Campbell #belfastbook

Once described as the third most powerful person in Britain, the still formidable Alastair Campbell was in Belfast on Wednesday evening as part of the Belfast Book Festival to talk about his new novel Saturday Bloody Saturday (co-written with ex-Burnley striker Paul Fletcher).

It’s a thriller set in 1974, combining a story of a struggling un-named football team and a labyrinthine IRA plot to strike at the heart of the UK establishment. The publisher’s website sums up the plot:

“Football manager Charlie Gordon is struggling with one defeat after another at the club he loves. Only a decent Cup run is keeping him in work, but tensions are running close to the surface ahead of the next round: Chelsea away.

“Footballers fall into two categories: artists or assassins. Soon Charlie is going to find out which players can deliver – and just how much pressure they can all stand.
Meanwhile, as the country prepares for a general election, one of the most dangerous political assassinations in the IRA’s history is being planned in London. An active service unit await the critical signal to proceed…

“Both sides will converge on the capital for a result that will shake everyone’s lives, with consequences far beyond football.”

Campbell is a somewhat controversial figure. A former journalist turned strategist and spokesman for Tony Blair and New Labour, he is now a writer, consultant strategist and mental health campaigner. He is famous as being very much the architect of what became ‘New Labour’ (it was his idea, according to Blair) but also, and more controversially, his role in the Iraq war.

Speaking to a packed house in the Pat Jennings Suite at the refurbished Northern Ireland National Stadium (aka Windsor Park), Campbell, read excerpts from his new novel and broadcaster Seamus McKee guided the audience Q&A.

Saturday Bloody Saturday was prompted by his friendship with the late Martin McGuinness. One questioner asked if this was in particularly bad taste given the late Deputy First Minister’s past as a member of the Provisional IRA. Campbell was unequivocal in his response, claiming that McGuinness had moved on and that dialogue was crucial to the success of the Good Friday Agreement. Campbell also pointed out that McGuinness was able to correct some ‘inaccuracies’’ in the book saying of several plot devices “that would never have happened”.

The book itself draws remarkable parallels with modern day events. In 1974 then Prime Minister Harold Wilson was returned with a minority government (a majority of 3). Wilson’s successor James Callaghan was able to retain power not only with the Lib-Lab pact but also a deal with Ulster Unionists in return for a review of the number of MPs in Northern Ireland.

1974 was also the year of Watergate and we all know what happened the President Richard Milhouse Nixon.

Talking frequently of his own battles with addiction and mental health, Campbell was honest and forthright stating that “psychosis is more common than you think” and admitting that he still suffers from bouts of depression.

Naturally the issue of Brexit arose and Campbell reiterated the views he expressed on his own website:

“I find the DUP hard to fathom on Brexit, I find Labour even harder. Keir Starmer assures me if Labour’s six tests are not met, they will vote against the final deal. But virtually every time Jeremy Corbyn is brought into a debate he normally tries to avoid, all the signals point in the direction of Labour being the handmaiden of Brexit, not the official Opposition of a hopeless government.”

Campbell’s steadfast view is that Brexit is unworkable and can only lead to a hard Irish border. But on Boris Johnson and Theresa May he was even more scathing:

“The limited vestiges of Boris Johnson’s credibility are surely gone now that Heathrow has been added to the long list of issues on which he has been exposed as nothing but a blowhard more concerned about the soundbite of the day than the big issues for tomorrow. So get down in front of the bulldozers, Johnson, or leave the stage. Despite her [May] being so weak, I think she could get rid of Johnson and be strengthened not weakened as a result.”

No evening with Alastair Campbell could pass without mention of ‘The Thick of It’ and rumours that Campbell was inspiration for Malcom Tucker!

Campbell maintained that he did support the Iraq War but “regretted some of the consequences”. In fact, it was tensions on the issue that compelled Campbell to finally leave the Blair camp.

Witnessing Alastair Campbell speak and take questions for over an hour and a half, it is not difficult to understand why he rose to prominence and power. He is very tall, affable, amusing, compelling and charismatic. He is also a mass of contradictions, perhaps not unexpected given his personal passions and the world in which he operates.

Saturday Bloody Saturday is widely available. Belfast Book Festival continues until 16 June with a wide range of literific talks, readings and entertainment.

  • Diarist, author and former-politician Chris Mullin is speaking tonight about his new autobiography Hinterland in The Crescent at 6.30pm.
  • Michael Walker’s Green Shoots examines why we (still) have two football associations on the island, promising an engrossing account of the inside stories, dramas and dreams of the game in Ireland and a definitive history of a footballing nation and its many paradoxes. Strand Arts Centre at 11am on Sunday 10 June.
  • Join Lucy Collins, Maria McManus, Nessa O’Mahony and the HIVE Choir to look back on women’s representation in literature and sound, from suffrage to the present. Who is silent? Who speaks? Who is listening? What is said? What is unsaid? What is heard? What happens in the space between? The Crescent at 6pm on Tuesday 12 June.
  • On Wednesday 13 June at 8pm, Mike Wendling will discuss his book Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House with Elizabeth Nelson Gorman as they analyse the movement that was prominent during Trump’s presidential campaign.

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