Alastair Campbell interview: 'Britain is a problem-drinking country. It's time we woke up to it'

Former No 10 director of communications believes a combination of minimum unit pricing and restricting marketing will help deal with problem

Click to follow
The Independent Online

“I can remember the very first time I was drunk,” says Alastair Campbell. “It was New Year’s Eve in Scotland. I was 13.”

For the former No 10 director of communications, overindulging in alcohol became a recurring theme over the next decade and a half of his life. Teenage boozing, hidden from his family, became more frequent. Three years at Cambridge University were characterised by some stupendous sessions including, as a contemporary recently reminded him, a 32 pints and Scotch marathon in a single day, before several years as a rising star in the 1980s Daily Mirror newsroom culminated in a perhaps inevitable breakdown. “I did have quite a capacity for drink,” Campbell recalls. “My family was never aware of it. I don’t think my friends I was drinking with did either. I’d be out drinking with them but what they didn’t know is that I’d be drinking at other times too.”

Campbell, 56, still has a picture which he says sums up his previous life, taken while on holiday with friends in Russia. “It’s so bad. Me, on a bus, drinking a bottle of lemon vodka, first thing in the morning. It was a month before I cracked up.”

That ‘cracking up’ was the 1986 nervous breakdown Campbell suffered, soon followed by an alcoholism diagnosis, in a hotel foyer while in Glasgow to write an article on then Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Noticing his odd behaviour, two Special Branch officers took him to the nearest jail where he was promptly hospitalised.

Forced to write down his alcohol consumption by a psychiatrist named Ernest Bennie, who all three of his novels have been dedicated to, Campbell stopped drinking. He was 27.

Speaking at his home in north west London, he recalls some of his antics with a smile. A few days after he was dispatched by the Mirror to cover the aftermath of the 1984 Brighton bombing of Margaret Thatcher’s conference hotel, Campbell and a colleague took themselves off to Eastbourne for an all-day drinking session.

“They all started with the best intentions, to get some work done, but I got easily distracted,” he says, tempering the recollections with memories away on assignment of slamming the phone down after an argument with his partner, Fiona Millar, and emptying mini-bars in anger.

A “24-carat, full on bender” of equally epic proportions forms a central part of his new novel My Name Is…, a largely dark tale of a teenage female alcoholic called Hannah and the devastation wrought on family, friends and acquaintances that she comes into contact with as her life spirals out of control. Interspersed within the story are some genuinely funny moments, none more so than Hannah’s soliloquy where she recalls with calmness how leaving home with a desire to finish an essay at her library descends into a stratospheric level of boozing that has become the norm for her, but is jaw-dropping for her friends and their parents listening.

Readers of his diaries will note instantly how the language of the novel, with each chapter told from the first-person perspective of Hannah’s friends, family and acquaintances is unmistakeably 'Campbellian': in the very first sentence of his new novel when, in the midst of childbirth, Hannah’s mother is given the not-so-welcome advice that having a baby is “no worse than sh*tting a melon”.

All his novels have covered topics he has personal experience of. Campbell’s debut, All in the Mind, was based on his own experiences of depression, while 2010’s Maya focused on a global female celebrity’s handling of intense media interest. Yet My Name Is… is undoubtedly his most political to date and he is at pains to point out that Hannah is far from atypical.

“Britain is a problem-drinking country. We need to stop and think which way we go because the problem is massive and we’re not facing up to it. Like Hannah, like me, like anyone who has got a drink, or gambling, or drugs problem, until you accept it there’s no way you can deal with it. David Cameron seemed to accept we had a problem, he was going to introduce minimum pricing then he backed down.”

He spits out the facts and figures he hopes will get the Government to pay more attention to a growing problem. “Problem drinkers in this country? 1.6m. Number who get treated? 108,000. Drink-related hospital admissions? 1.2m. We spend more than £2bn on drug rehab but just 91m on alcohol treatment.

“It can’t go on but it’s getting worse. Liver disease is the only major disease that’s rising in the UK of all the OECD countries. Russia has even had some success with minimum pricing, advertising, availability and treatment. Celtic played a team recently in Kazakhstan and they had to change their sponsor to the lemonade branch of the company. That’s Kazakhstan!

Campbell falls short of calling for a total ban on alcohol advertising, but does want it removed from sport, and thinks a combination of minimum unit pricing and restricting marketing and advertising will probably help.

Campbell attributes the extraordinary rise of female alcoholics in particular to the “normalisation of alcohol at all levels of society”, a recurring theme in his new novel.

He is taking his message to both the upcoming Labour and the Conservative party conference, his first appearance at the Tory event since 1994 when it had already been announced he was leaving journalism to become Tony Blair’s press secretary, and will be speaking with Alcohol Concern.

Another conference he is keeping an eye on is this week’s TUC gathering of unions. Just days following Labour’s report clearing the Unite union of claims it tried to rig the selection of a party candidate in Falkirk, Campbell refers to the Labour/unions relationship as a “balancing act”.

“Sometimes the unions are their own worst enemy and say and do things that drive you to distraction, my diaries are full of that. But they are important part of the Labour party and despite George Osborne’s claim this week he has saved the economy a lot of people are going to need trade unions.”

Ed Miliband told the TUC conference on Tuesday of his “absolute determination” to press ahead with reforms meaning union members would have to opt in to paying money to the party, rather than automatically paying opt-in fees as they do at present. The party could lose millions of pounds if it backfires.

Campbell says he can “see the point” of the proposal given the constant Tory attacks on Labour’s union links, but says: “It’s really important we don’t end up seriously impoverished.”

The cut and thrust of the political communications battle still burns within, all the more so when he refers to strategic mistakes made by Labour in what he says is not doing enough to stand up to “lies over the economy”, citing the LSE Growth Commission Report which concluded that the UK by 2010 had an economic success story to tell, despite the recession.

“The Tories did not inherent a mess, as they constantly put it. The Labour party just has to do a better job of combatting that line. Ed has to focus on the issues he wants to focus on. He’s decided the union link is one of them, fair enough. But I think that for the public it’s always about the economy and public services.

“Osborne is on pretty shaky ground, statistically, when he claims that he has saved the economy – not compared to the US and Germany who took a different approach – but he’s able to do that because we’ve allowed this notion that he inherited a mess to be settled. That’s a mistake.”

He seems to lament the lack of big beasts in opposition, but is quick to add the same can be said of the cabinet: “Who in the street could say who Theresa Villiers or Owen Paterson or Michael Moore is? I bumped into Boris Johnson the other say, at a Rolling Stones gig of all places, and he made the point that when he and I were journalists we would know, and expect most of the public to know, most of the Cabinet. They don’t now. There are fewer big characters around but so much is focused now on the leaders. We have more media space but less a narrower debate. It’s worrying.”

Campbell believes the 2015 election is too tough to call from two years away, but is on hand to help should he be asked, as Gordon Brown did in 2010. However, he is adamant a full-time return to politics, or any job barring manager of Burnley, is not on the cards – on these shores at least.

“Maybe if Hillary Clinton said, ‘right, I’m definitely going for it and I’d love you to come and do the campaign’, I’d do it. I’m not asking for it, but it would have to be something special.”

He is not short of full-time job offers but writing, giving speeches, add in all the charity work, Labour fundraisers, political consultancy in the Balkans, PR consultancy for Portland Communications and Campbell sounds almost as busy as he was in government.

The discussion has come back to alcohol as Portland, founded by another former Tony Blair advisor and Campbell’s deputy, Tim Allan, won a contract to improve the image of infamous lager Stella Artois. Given his undoubted passion to raise awareness of alcohol abuse, does Campbell not see a possible conflict of interest?

“But that’s the freedom I can enjoy. I don’t criticise the alcohol companies for wanting to sell alcohol, because that’s what they do. What I criticise is that politicians on all sides are not facing up to the scale of the problem of addiction in Britain.”

My Name Is… by Alastair Campbell is published on Thursday by Hutchinson