York Union Review: Alastair Campbell: Life and Times

reviews the sold out York Union event

Photo Credit: Alex Byron

Photo Credit: Alex Byron

Friday saw Alastair Campbell visit the University for the second York Union event of the week. It was always going to be popular. In fact just before it started the Physics building was full of people hoping to get a spare seat to the sold out event.

Straight away Campbell made the audience feel engaged as he began a very frank journey through his life. Starting from his birth in Yorkshire he spoke of his Dad’s accident and how that spurred him to begin writing a diary, of moving to Leicester and hating life at Cambridge University and his days at the Daily Mirror and work for Tony Blair. It was here in politics that Campbell wanted to be and here where he found his most important work.

Through explaining all of these life experiences he was never shy about his battle with mental health describing it honestly as feeling like he was ‘cracking up’ with a ‘mind made of glass’. On top of this he suffered with alcoholism and both affected not only his personal life but his career. As Tony Blair did, Campbell encouraged the audience to relinquish any stigma they had against mental health. He described the mental health debate as ‘not where it should be’, ultimately expressing the view that as a nation we need to prioritise mental health up with physical health. Campbell explained that perhaps the younger generation were best to do this, not only because they are becoming more open but because they are experiencing more pressure than ever before. The conclusion was that people need to, ‘get wise’.

Photo Credit: Alex Byron

Photo Credit: Alex Byron

Actually during the whole talk it seemed the audience was left with much food for thought. Not only was Campbell keen to change people’s perception of mental health but of politics too. He explained how people were only going to be able to make a difference through being more active, saying that when members of the public complained about politicians they were actually complaining about themselves- the politicians are meant to act as the public’s voice and the public’s voice needs to be stronger. Campbell encouraged anyone with a real interest in politics to get involved in any way they could, whether that be through protests or as being a school governor.

The event ended with a Q&A session, drawing on many key aspects of the talk including education and aspiration. Campbell mentioned throughout that successful people know how to learn from failure. Schools in turn should aim to focus on people’s strengths and nurture ambitions rather than group everyone under one bracket. Overall it seemed Alastair Campbell wasn’t afraid to have an open discussion with the audience and I think the whole lecture hall left with a new perspective on a range of issues.

Photo Credit: Alex Byron

Photo Credit: Alex Byron

5 comments

  1. Has Alistair Campbell suddenly transformed in public perception from a spin-doctor who pretended he’d read books at Cambridge and helped author the Iraq War dossier to a nice, warm-hearted man? I can appreciate that Alistair Campbell was frank, honest, and reflective, and I’m grateful that he managed to make the audience think about a range of issues; I also accept that he challenged people’s perception of mental health, which is no doubt a good thing – of course this means that the event was fundamentally a success.

    Yet I find it somewhat disturbing to say the least that you didn’t mention the Iraq War – perhaps we as a public have over-estimated and misinterpreted Campbell’s role in the whole fiasco, and obviously being blamed for such an egregious war would have contributed to severe mental health issues. Yet surely we cannot at the moment quite shake off the Iraq War and Campbell’s role in it as a heavily pertinent issue that still needs to be at least alluded to. We do not all need to be George Galloway and yell at him, but it should at least be continually mentioned (IMO)

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  2. While enormously important and a very pressing issue, I feel that Campbell opened with his mental health history as a buffer to any opinions we may have already had about him when we entered the auditorium.

    I find it quite laughable how little was spoken or asked about the very, very many ‘controversial’ (at the least) incidents through the New Labour years, and I find it even more laughable (I’m not actually laughing) that he believes the onus is 100% on the public to forgive and forget the expenses scandal; forgive and forget the (at least) one million people marching through London, ignored about the Iraq war; and presumably forgive and forget about Fracking, now that the government are probably going to go ahead with it.

    For anyone at the talk, he indeed did come over as a very pleasant gentleman with many amazing stories. But he was a spin doctor, he knows how to work a crowd. His running bit with Seldon’s private school past (not that I disagree with him) and his talk on mental health produced a very ‘us against them’ attitude, rather than an ‘audience against Campbell’ attitude.

    Yet he is so wrong to believe that we should ignore past failings over government and ignore the times we have been ignored. The idea that the truth will always prevail, no matter how much it is quashed, is a wrong one.

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  3. I was not a massive fan of Campbell when I entered the talk, but his opening discussion about mental health was very interesting and I almost felt myself starting to like him. Opening himself up like that to a room full of students, dotted with the odd pensioner, was admirable.

    His opinions on education were interesting, many of them I agreed with. I was , however, somewhat puzzled by his liking of meritocracy and getting the best out of every child, contrasted with his dislike of grammar schools; an institution that brings the best out of clever kids and provides an alternative for those who can’t afford to attend private school, something he also seemed to dislike.

    It was not surprising that he chose to discuss less controversial issues, although a little bit of discussion about some high profile New Labour policies would have been interesting.

    On a slightly more negative note, as with the previous York Union events I have attended, the lad who chairs the event was dreadful. His opening speech was cringe-worthy, his arrogance and lack of respect towards Campbell was unnecessary and annoying and his insistence on not letting the speaker choose who to take questions from is always annoying, and a complete waste of time. Campbell and others before him have clearly been confused and annoyed be this. Why does he think a man of Campbell’s calibre is incapable of selecting a person from the audience? It was cringe-worthy to see the chair step on his toes so much. He really needs to change how he does things and realise that he is not the star of the show.

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  4. Not a very good review of the event…

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  5. 7 Feb ’14 at 5:38 pm

    To be fair...

    Al I agree with some of what you say but if I could stick up for the chair (and the idea of having a chair) on just one point. These events are often run on a tight time schedule and sometimes a chair is needed to hurry up questions or switch to a 2-at-a-time format. Speakers aren’t always AS conscious of these things and (like Snow this morning) would love to keep talking.

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