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Independent Bath Literature Festival: Art is as powerful as politics, claims Alastair Campbell

Former Downing Street communications chief reveals change of heart inspired by the three novels he has written since leaving government

Alastair Campbell says he now believes art can be just as effective at bringing about social change as politics – after undergoing a change of heart since leaving Westminster.

Tony Blair’s former director of communications said he had no time for arts people who “constantly badgered” him when he worked at No 10 Downing Street, but he has had a rethink since researching the UK’s relationship with alcohol for his third novel.

“The cultural space can have just as big an impact as the political space. Take Steve McQueen accepting his Oscar the other day and dedicating it to the 21 million people still living in slavery – until he made that film, did people really think that?

“Sometimes the cultural space can do more than politics. And that’s something I did not think when I was in government.”

Campbell was talking at The Independent Bath Literature Festival about the three novels he has written since leaving politics.

His first, All in the Mind, drew on his own experiences with depression and alcoholism. It was an emotional process. “I had the idea of how one of the characters was going to die on my way to a football match. So I pulled into a lay-by and wrote about 7,000 words on my BlackBerry. Someone tapped on my window to check if I was all right because I was in floods of tears.”

His new novel, My Name Is…, tells the story of a teenage alcoholic girl through the eyes of 27 people around her. Campbell said that the UK has a drink problem that is exacerbated by high-impact advertising of alcohol at sports and music events, too-low prices and the “normalisation” of binge drinking in society.

“Carlsberg is the official beer of the England football team. Every soap opera is set in a pub,” he said. “One day perhaps we’ll see a bit of a link.” He admitted that Labour had taken a “step in the wrong direction” when it introduced 24-hour licensing.

“Vladimir Putin is not the most popular man in the world at the moment but the only country in Europe that has really tried to tackle this is Russia. Sometimes the state has to step in.”