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Why is Alastair Campbell learning German in lockdown?

March 15, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted the former director of communications to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to brush up his German skills. He told DW about his progress — and about fighting depression in lockdown.

Modern languages graduate Alastair Campbell at one of his spiritual homes outside politics, Burnley Football Club's Turf Moor stadium
Modern languages graduate Alastair Campbell maintains a keen interest in politics, mental health and football.Image: Mike Egerton/empics/picture alliance

It was Alastair Campbell's partner and mother to his three kids, Fiona Millar, who gave him an intensive German-language course with the Goethe Institute as a 63rd birthday present last May.

In our interview, Campbell is soon bragging that he's been so keen in class that his tutor, Andrea in Leipzig, has noted he's the most demanding of her charges. But what does that mean? That he's asking a few extra questions 10 months into his course?

"I've written this book in English about depression," Campbell says in German by way of explanation, holding up a copy of Living Better: How I learned to survive depression. "I have translated the book. The whole book! And then I sent it to Andrea, and she then — ha, corrected a little — she then corrected A LOT."

There probably would have been plenty to fix. Campbell's German is confident, grammatically ambitious and fairly free-flowing — and surely better still in writing than in conversation — but it's still a far cry from his flawless French.

Book cover: Living Better: How I Learned to Survive Depression by Alastair Campbell.
The German version's title will read BESSER LEBEN: Wie ich gelernt habe, Depressionen zu überleben, if a publisher bitesImage: John Murray

Strategist, communicator, spin doctor, campaigner

Campbell has published 16 books at this point. His diaries, with volume 8 soon to hit the shelves, exceed 2 million published words.

He's most active today as a prominent journalist, Brexit critic, and mental health advocate. But his fame stems from his being former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's unelected right hand from 1994 (still in opposition at that point) until 2003. 

A file photo of British Prime Minister Tony Blair (R), watched by his Director of Communications and Strategy, Alastair Campbell, as he speaks to the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on the telephone duing his flight back from the Azores, 17 March 2003.
Campbell spent the better part of a decade either at Tony Blair's side or at his shoulderImage: Stefan Rousseau/dpa/picture-alliance

His reputation, especially in Britain's conservative press, snowballed as a conniving and Machiavellian "spin doctor," and as the real driver behind New Labour policy around the turn of the century. In his diaries, though, Campbell often refers to himself as more of a "lightning rod" for Blair's government when times were tough.

Perhaps the event that came to define him (and Blair) was the Iraq war, and later a fiery bust-up with the BBC over its coverage of the steps that led the British government into the conflict.

Campbell resigned his post in front-line politics in 2003 (albeit to be tempted back many times in the future to try to help the Labour Party) when a Defense Ministry civil servant, David Kelly, committed suicide after Downing Street leaked his identity as the source in the BBC's contested reporting.

File photo: Alastair Campbell, the British Government's Director of Communications and Strategy, runs the gauntlet of photographers and cameramen as he arrives at the High Court in London Tuesday August 19, 2003, to give evidence to the Hutton inquiry.
Before being published as books, Campbell's diaries were first released as part of investigations into Britiain's decision to go to war in IraqImage: Stefan Rousseau/dpa/picture-alliance

What role did the pandemic play?

Would the University of Cambridge modern languages graduate have dusted off his German skills in a more normal 2020 and 2021?

"Probably not," he says, wheeling back to Fiona before too long. "She knows me very well," and sensed that her jet-setting partner might need a project to stop him climbing the walls while shut-in at home. Despite the restrictions on travel, Campbell, Fiona and their dog managed a weekend getaway in the southern German city of Freiburg last October to practice, or at least to try to. The hotel staff could not stop themselves from responding in English, Campbell laments, even after he said he wanted to use his German — a tale likely to resonate with English-speakers residing in the country.

Campbell's only reading German books and only listening to German podcasts just now. The podcasts have an obvious political bent, but the literature homes in on suicide and mental health explored in the past and the present.

"I've actually just finished Die Leiden des jüngen Werther [The Suffering of the Young Werther, by Goethe], which I did at university. But I'm now reading Ein allzu kurzes Leben [A Life Too Short], the story of Robert Enke, the footballer who killed himself," Campbell says, back in his mother tongue at this point. He'd read it already, but not in German.

Enke's death marries two issues close to Campbell's heart: mental health and football.

"It's obviously a really sad story and that's partly why I wrote the book about depression, because I think we've got to be more open about this stuff," he says.

Alastair Campbell, former Downing Street Press Secretary and Director of Communications and Strategy for prime minister Tony Blair, holds his dog, as he is interviewed at an anti-Brexit march called 'Wooferendum", in London, Britain October 7, 2018. The march consisted of protesters and their dogs.
In recent years, opposing Brexit has been one of the issues most likely to mobilize Cambpell, and his dog Sky sometimesImage: Reuters/H. Nicholls

And what about Brexit?

During lockdown, Campbell has endured a couple of depressive episodes and one manic episode but describes his overall mental state as "not all that bad," especially when compared to what others are facing.

But one development was already taking its toll on him even prior to the pandemic: Britain's exit from the EU and Boris Johnson's election as prime minister.

"Yes, maybe. Perhaps that was the case," he replies when asked if a German crash course was just another way to plant his personal flag firmly on continental European soil. He lists his personal identities as British first, then Scottish (family roots), then a Yorkshireman (where he was born), then a Londoner (where he lives and where his kids were born). Both "English" and "European" were always afterthoughts on this list, he says, "at least until this damned referendum."


Alastair Campbell playing the bagpipes surrounded by protesters outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Picture date: Monday April 8, 2019.
Campbell will often get out his bagpipes for the cause; just last week he was on British morning TV piping the EU anthem and Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Ode to JoyImage: Victoria Jones/empics/picture alliance

Center-left decline in UK and Germany

To Campbell's critics, plenty of them within the very Labour Party he was expelled from under Jeremy Corbyn's hard-left leadership, the Tony Blair era of government and the Iraq war helped consign Britain's main social democratic party to the doldrums. It's a point of view he doesn't share.

"The last 11 elections in Britain, from a Labour perspective, if you look at it like a football match: lost, lost, lost, lost, Blair, Blair, Blair, lost, lost, lost, lost. Eleven elections, we've won three of them, all with Tony as leader. It's crazy. People talk about learning the lessons of losing, but you have to learn the lessons of winning as well."

Yet Labour are still faring rather better in British polls than Germany's Social Democratic Party. Since Gerhard Schröder's 2005 defeat to Angela Merkel, the party has rolled from one record low result to the next. As the polls currently stand, 2021 could prove the next chapter in that decline, with the Greens hoping to emerge as the second power in German politics.

Merkel and the COVID crisis

Macron's moment as Merkel makes way?

Perhaps the biggest change Campbell envisages for Europe after Merkel is an emboldened Emmanuel Macron going into a second term with a more junior opposite number in Germany and more scope to pursue European integration. Especially now that the UK has left.

"I know Macron a bit, and I think he's a very, very impressive guy, I really do. And I think he's had a very early taste of the Gorbachev syndrome: he gets a lot of grief at home, but people abroad tend to think, 'Actually, why can't they see that this guy has got something a bit special?'"

Campbell believes the sense of change when Merkel leaves will be more keenly felt outside Germany, where her potential successors remain comparatively anonymous for now.

"I've noticed that just in this phase of my life, constantly listening to stuff. These guys, [Markus] Söder and [Armin] Laschet, they're in the news all the time, they're very well known. Whereas outside Germany, they're not."

Germany's would-be chancellors surely aren't globally renowned just yet. But now more than ever, they have the attentive ear of one of the still most influential voices in British politics.

Back in Britain: How German have I become?

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Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam