Assembly Speaker, 8 October 2018 – Alastair Campbell
Eager eyes and questioning sixth formers welcomed Alastair Campbell to Camden School for Girls Sixth Form on Monday 8 October. He is a journalist and political activist but above all most renowned for his work as Blair’s campaign manager and spokesmen. His speech covered a range of issues and topics, including a focus on his own personal experience of a crisis relevant to us all: mental health.
“One day you will look back on these days and think: those were the best days of my life.” He outlined how this is a phrase so often said to teenagers by a teacher, parent or grandparent but it is a phrase that Campbell immediately started his talk by dismissing. He claims that not only does this convey unrealistic expectations but it was also factually untrue for himself and for many teenagers. He definitely won bonus points, here amongst the sixth formers who are being weighed down by preparing for A-levels, UCAS applications and a hard to manage social life!
Campbell then went on to take us through a short timeline of his life, starting with his surprising achievement of being the first student in his school to be admitted to Oxbridge. As a teenager, he would have been disbelieving had he been told that he would go on to become successful as a political journalist, that he would one day become one of the prime minister’s (Tony Blair) closest campaign managers, and that he would have the privilege of meeting and speaking personally to Nelson Mandela. The one thing he might not have been surprised to find out is that in his early twenties he would be hospitalised for mental health issues.
His clear message to us and the adage which he has lived his life and career by is one that was passed on to him by the very wise Nelson Mandela - that life can take us by surprise but also that any one thing may “.. always seem impossible until it happens.”
Campbell claims that the mood in the air of the world at the moment is dire. The questionable leadership of Trump, Orban and Erdogan , the pressing disaster of climate change and Brexit makes us feel as though we cannot do anything to combat this sea change and so we all feel hopeless. But, he underlined, it is this very mindset which needs to change, we need to be ‘more ambitious and more bold.’ Often we are told and thus assume that we can’t make change happen, but this is not true. If we believe something we must fight for it. This is his attitude towards advocating for a people’s vote with regard to a second referendum on Brexit, and this is his attitude towards advocating for improved mental health services throughout the country. We need to change the stigma surrounding mental health; he outlined how when he was younger the stigma surrounded physical diseases such as cancer and they were never spoken about or addressed in public. Now we address them and can speak about them openly, and mental health must be treated in the exact same way. ‘You wouldn’t walk over a cancer patient lying in pain the street so why has it been normalised to step over mentally ill homeless people?’ The taboo needs to be unpicked and our generation is the one to do it.
Campbell’s final message was that: ‘Those who say you can’t change the world are only saying that because they want to change it in their own way.’
His heartfelt speech was followed by students, on the edge of their seats, to ask him controversial questions; one definite motivation was that the best questions won signed copies of one of his books. He managed to back Blair’s decision on devolution and Iraq with the justification that it was right at the time and that it is important to show other governments that we are not afraid; he claimed the People’s Vote does not undermine democracy anymore than voting to leave the EU did; he adheres to lowering the voting age; he accuses Corbyn of not campaigning enough for the Remain Campaign and is repulsed by the anti-semitism in the Labour party. Overall, we sixth formers were impressed by his passion driving our passion for change; it is almost as if his job was to write speeches and answer questions.
Immediately following the assembly he posted this message on his twitter feed:
‘Fantastic Q&A with Camden School for Girls Sixth Form. As ever questions more penetrating than most journalists!’
Lily – Sixth Form Head Girl