Interview

FROM THE ARCHIVES: In Conversation with Alex Salmond

8 Apr 2018 at 09:00

This was the first In Conversation interview I did for Total Politics, back in July 2008, nearly ten years ago. I met Alex Salmond in his House of Commons office and talked for close on two hours. It was a strange experience as he twice had to go to vote, which meant that we continued the conversation walking through the Commons corridors with me holding my recording machine under his mouth. We finished off the interview in full public view just off Central Lobby. Alex Salmond is a politician’s politician. He’s deeply tribal, yet maintains genial relations with many people who don’t share his views. He’s got a very well-developed sense of humour and this shines through here. The interview created quite a storm when it was published, mainly because he committed the treasonous act of maintaining that Margaret Thatcher wasn’t all bad. The Scottish media went into full ‘outrage mode’ and the story led the Scottish news agenda for a couple of days. It was difficult for Salmond to maintain he had been misquoted because the interview is a verbatim transcript. When I saw what was happening I almost doubted my own recording so I went back and checked that the transcript was 100% accurate. Luckily – for me – it was.

When was the last time you said sorry for something?
Personally, I said to my wife on Saturday morning, the holiday we’ve just booked, may well have to been unbooked. I didn’t say sorry once. I said it a hundred times. When you’re First Minister you probably don’t find it wise to own up to mistake after mistake…

But people quite like a politician who has the guts to say sorry, don’t they?
That’s right. If you do change your mind on something it’s best to admit it. I haven’t had many disagreements… Macmillan once got into some dreadful trouble with the Tory Party and kept losing the Conservative whip until he became leader. After that, things became considerably easier. People didn’t try to expel him any more.

It didn’t quite work for Iain Duncan Smith.
Well, it’s been my experience in the SNP. I was always getting into trouble before I became leader. And then my troubles stopped! I got expelled from the SNP in 1982 as a rather brash young man, and probably rather insensitive to other people’s opinion. I’ve often reflected that there was a considerable amount of fault on my side. In 1988 I was given a seven day suspension from the House of Commons and all I was doing was intervening in the budget speech. I thought I was hard done by and it was very unfair…but I just got on with it. I lived to fight another day.

You are probably more forgiving now than others were to you at the time, possibly?
Yes, I’ve often reflected that you should avoid political disciplinary action for political reasons. Fine, if people run off with the church funds, you’ve got no choice in the matter, but wherever you can you should avoid using procedures of the party as a means of suppressing political dissent.

Why were you expelled?
The formal reason was for forming a political group within the SNP. This was called the ’79 Group. We tried to get round a ban on this group by forming the Scottish Socialist Society. Seven of us were expelled – most of them have done well since! Being expelled can be no bad thing. It didn’t stop me becoming leader.

Let’s talk about leadership. When you decided to return to the leadership, did you really think you could end up as First Minister?
Oh yes, absolutely. I certainly thought it wasn’t odds on but I thought we had a fair chance of winning.

How do you think you have changed as a leader second time around? You seem a lot calmer, a lot more at ease with yourself. You’ve shed the chat show Charlie image. You had a reputation for enjoying life, being the life and soul of the party, whereas now we see a slightly different Alex Salmond.
Older and wiser. Certainly not sadder! Things could not have worked out better, but this was not calculated. Nobody calculates “I shall resign”. I resigned when we were ahead in the polls, but I felt ten years was long enough. With the press reaction to the SNP, I was becoming the issue – they weren’t seeing past me. Despite the fact that every newspaper was fiercely anti SNP, they had never quite managed to stop me and I got the feeling that I had become a block on the SNP getting a fair shout. I thought someone else might get a fair shout. Actually, I was quite wrong because John [Swinney] got treated far worse than I was. Even Neil Kinnock used to moan about the papers but at least he had the Mirror and the FT on his side. We had nothing. I thought someone else would get a honeymoon, get a better press and it would be better for the party. I didn’t calculate “I’ll resign, come back again, win the 2007 election”, nobody can calculate like that.

You came back and stood for a seat for the Scottish parliament which you might easily not have won. That, if I read it rightly, has given you far more of a mandate than you might have dreamt of.
I said I’d stand for a seat in the North East of Scotland – so it’s very familiar but it was the kind of seat we had to win to win the election. I thought we could win the whole thing and if I won my seat we’d do just that. I thought the party needed a fillip. We’d lost a lot of elections and we needed a boost. Winning Gordon would give us that boost. If I stood there it would encourage everyone else to believe we could win overall. I started from third place, after all.

When you walked into the First Minister’s office for the first time what did you think? When Boris walked into the London Mayor’s office for the first time, there was this slight sense of disbelief that he had done it. Did you have any of that or did you immediately sit down and start barking out orders?
It was a bit different because it’s not until 12 days later than you’re elected by the chamber. That moment of saying “my goodness, we’ve done it” doesn’t come till some time later. Even though I knew there was no combination to stop us, it’s not until you get the vote read out that is the defining moment. That’s the equivalent of Boris going into the Mayor’s office.

Emotionally, how did you feel? Euphoric? Tearful? A proud moment in the Salmond family…
My family were up the gallery.

If it was me, I wouldn’t have been able to look up to them as it would start me off…
My wife, my wee sister and my Dad were there. My Dad had never seen me speak in a parliamentary chamber. He didn’t really approve of me setting foot in the House of Commons. My mother often came down, but it was the first time my Dad had seen me in the Scottish parliament chamber.

So proud on two counts.
Oh yes, very. It was a hell of a moment.

Were you daunted at all by the job? Most politicians, although outwardly self confident, have elements of self doubt. They think: “I’ve got the job now. Am I up to it?”
I don’t do daunted. The one moment I would say in my year in office that I did feel a bit daunted was the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport. It was the day of the Royal opening of the Parliament on 1 July. I had gone back to Bute House with a few friends, with Sean Connery actually, and was watching TV coverage when it came on. The daunting bit is, you might watch events but with this it wasn’t just about watching, I was expected to do something about it. The civil service are very good at telling you ‘what happens now, this is what you need to coordinate’. You don’t have too much time to fret about being daunted. The decisions you have to make are quite interesting. You have to think about the consequences of what happened and how the rest of society is going to feel about it. So you take decisions like going to the airport the next day – something which wasn’t universally applauded, but nevertheless you have to go, and then going from the airport to the central mosque in Glasgow with leaders of every religious group in Scotland and Strathclyde Police, making sure society doesn’t fracture as a result of a terrorist assault. That’s the daunting bit, when you realise it’s not some other person that’s behind the eight ball, it’s you. It’s not really a moment you can go and consult your special advisers, you’ve just got to get on with it. I suspect if you asked the present Prime Minister, or his predecessor, or his predecessor’s predecessor [John Major] who was a nice guy, I suspect their ‘daunted’ moment was to do with war, deploying troops.

I suspect with Tony Blair it was Princess Diana’s death, because if he had got one word wrong he would have been characterised by that for the rest of his term in office.
Quite. On the Glasgow attack, I did interviews at the airport and I wanted to get points across as carefully as I could without prejudicing the investigation that the perpetrators were not part of the fabric of our Asian community in Scotland. It was a vital message to get across as early as possible to prevent any stories of ‘the enemy within’ developing.

The SNP gets quite a lot of support from Asian community, doesn’t it?
We get huge support from them, but whether we did or not, that message had to be put. It was the duty and responsibility of the First Minister to communicate it in the interest of public order and the fabric and community of the realm of Scotland, regardless of what any junior Minister in London might think.

Is there any kind of turf war in these circumstances between Edinburgh and London? Gordon Brown was seen to have reacted well to the incident, but it was on your territory.
None whatsoever. The transfer of the suspects south of the border was a law officers’; decision, nothing to do with politics.

Did you and Gordon Brown talk?
Within seconds of it happening. He was literally just in office, his first few days. He arranged the COBRA meeting. I arranged our equivalent meeting in what we now call the Resilience Room. It was called the Emergency Room but it’s very difficult if you are trying to be calm to do an interview in a room in front of a bloody big notice which says EMERGENCY! We now have a Scottish Government Resilience Room!

How much contact do you have with Gordon Brown and how do you get on with him?
Quite a lot. Most recently during the fuel dispute at Grangemouth, but initially we had quite a lot of contact. More than I had with his predecessor. If you remember, he didn’t phone or write when we took power.

You must have found that quite insulting.
No, I found it great. Another miscalculation. I thought for the master of presentation it was an extremely foolish thing to do. Maybe it was because he was demob happy so he didn’t care any more.

Your relationship with Brown is presumably businesslike rather than particularly friendly?
You wouldn’t expect us to be bosom buddies, walking arm in arm to the pub for a wee snifter. Let’s put it that way. You wouldn’t expect us to be bosom friends when we both have high stakes to play for. On national emergencies there’s no question you have to operate together. There has never been any suggestion that I have noticed north or south of the border that – well, maybe the odd junior minister in the Scotland Office, but for everybody serious, political differences get put to one side. Secondly, there are genuine political differences. I believe in independence for Scotland, clearly the Prime Minister doesn’t. No amount of words or meetings or rapprochements will bring us together on that issue. And that applies to a range of other issues too. We have a genuine political disagreement. The best we can do is let the people decide that. There is also a third area, which is why I have been keen to get the join ministerial committees back, which is policies which are not essential to the ethos of either government. An example is the Marine Bill. Both governments believe in environmental control, clean seas. No one argues it is a bad idea, so for these things you need an institution which gets agreement where agreement can be got. I am anxious to avoid unnecessary disagreements as they are a complete waste of time. The Joint Ministerial Committee hasn’t met for six years but it met again recently under Jack Straw’s chairmanship and it was a good meeting. I am not expecting great things but I am hoping for progress in a range of areas.

If he loses the Glasgow East by election, do you think he’s toast?
I think there are people in the Labour Party who will be less than supportive of him in these circumstances.

I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ then…
I have seen many people carry on under the same circumstances and even recovered so I am very wary about being certain. I think the problem is not so much, is Gordon close to his party, it’s whether he’s close to the electorate. That’s his underlying problem. There are aspects of Labour just now which look to me like John Major in the 1990s, and for some of the same reasons. I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but I suspect that Gordon is very aware of the problem he’s got, with a track record stretching over eleven years. When Major came in at first, although he had been Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary nobody seriously believed he had been at the epicentre of the Thatcher project so he was almost there without form.

How many seats are you aiming to win in the next Westminster election?
A minimum of 20.

That’s a fairly high bar, as you have never got more than half way there.
Not quite true. We got 11 in 1974. As an economist I am good with figures. I think that is a reasonable objective.

From your agenda of independence for Scotland, what is the best result of the next election?
A hung Parliament. Absolutely. Let’s call it a balanced Parliament.

It seems to me that the Conservatives are cosying up to SNP in quite an overt manner in many ways and that you are showing a bit of ankle yourselves. Would I be correct?
[affects to look affronted] Showing a bit of ankle?! We don’t use such terms in Scotland!

I’m sure you have your own phrase!
It is certainly true that of the other parties in the Scottish Parliament the Greens – who have been very constructive – and the Conservatives have been the opposition parties who have understood best the advantages for opposition of minority government and they have got most out of the political situation in my opinion. The Labour Party have just been heads down and charging and usually missing, bypassing the matador and heading into the crowd somewhere. And the Liberals? I just cannot fathom the Liberal Party, but that may be a statement which can be applied generally. But in the Scottish Parliament I have no idea what they are doing. I don’t think they do either. In politics you are either believe for good reasons that circumstances will change in your favour at some point in the future and that principled opposition will get you whatever reward you are looking for or alternatively you take the opportunity for administration because you believe you can help change things for the better. The Liberal Democrats actually managed to turn down administration in three Parliaments in the space of a few weeks.

Some sort of record.
They turned it down in Scotland, they turned it down in Wales, and depending on how you interpret the Ming Campbell/Gordon Brown meeting, they turned it down in Westminster as well. It would tend for me to indicate some sort of psychosis going on within the Liberal Democrats.

Your party has traditionally been very antagonistic towards the Conservatives but there has definitely been a change of mood. Is this because you can see David Cameron, to quote the famous phrase, as someone “you can do business with”?
I have spoken about the Tories in the Scottish Parliament, where they have been more constructive than other opposition parties, but I think you wouldn’t have to scratch very hard in London to see real anti-Scottish antagonism from many elements of the Conservative Party – there’s a whole range of quotations, so I don’t think the leopard has changed his spots.

Cameron has been very pro Scottish in some of the comments he has made.
Maybe the wrapping has changed somewhat but I think the leopard is still there.

But if there is a hung Parliament where the Conservatives are the largest party, is there any conceivable circumstance where you could see SNP MPs going into coalition with the Conservatives?
None at all

So you completely rule that out.
We have a policy on that. We don’t have a policy preventing a formal coalition with the Labour Party but I don’t see circumstances where we would be in a formal coalition with the Labour Party either, right now. In a hung Parliament we wouldn’t be trying to enter a coalition, we’d be trying to exert influence. Believe me, the best way to exert influence in Westminster is not to be in a formal coalition.

So it would be on an issue by issue basis.
Yeah, you would maximise your influence. A good example of what is possible is to look at the DUP on the 42 day vote. The SNP could not have done a deal on this because we had a principled objection. You can’t mortgage your political soul but the DUP weren’t in that position. They could make a good argument for being in favour of 42 days detention. But without the engagement they wouldn’t have been in favour of it as they turned out to be. Even in a Parliament with a majority of 66 circumstances can arise where a small party can be extremely powerful in a vote to save the Prime Minister’s bacon. In a Parliament with a much smaller majority or no majority at all it is going to happen more often, and that’s what we would do.

I perceive that the SNP has changed a lot in the last ten years. The Conservatives were seen as a terrible enemy by you and the SNP was seen to be a very left wing party by the Conservatives. It seems to me that you have copied Bill Clinton – I’ll be careful where I go with this analogy – and tried to create a big tent for the SNP, so you can attract ex Conservative voters who had previously felt put off by some of the more left wing ideas of the SNP.
I suppose I have tried to bring the SNP into the mainstream of Scotland. We have a very competitive economic agenda. Many businesspeople have warmed towards the SNP. We need a competitive edge, a competitive advantage. That side of SNP politics – get on with it, get things done, speed up decision making, reduce bureaucracy. The SNP has a strong, beating social conscience, which is very Scottish in itself. One of the reasons Scotland didn’t take to Lady Thatcher was because of that. It didn’t mind the economic side so much. We could see the sense in some of that. But we didn’t like the social side at all. One of the most famous phrases in Scottish history is the ‘Community of the realm’ – I used it earlier. This idea that there is a community of interest stretching across the population. It’s a very Scottish concept and Scotland doesn’t like people who regale against it.

Doesn’t that illustrate the problem that Scotland is seen as having quite a big public sector, a bit too much of the Nanny State, and as the country of Adam Smith it is no longer seen as the country of enterprise. Or am I betraying English prejudices by even daring to suggest such a thing?
I think you are betraying Adam Smith. He was not just a friend of economics. He was a moral philosopher. Margaret Thatcher had only ever read the Penguin edition of Wealth of Nations and she missed out the moral sentiments. I would absolutely defend the reputation of Adam Smith against the Adam Smith Institute.

You’re a better man than I am.
I said to Eamonn Butler [Deputy Director of the ASI], if Adam Smith could sue, you’d be in real trouble.

*What can you do as a government to ram home the message that Scotland wants the world’s business? We only ever see in London, mainly because the London media rarely reports anything about Scotland unless it’s bad, things like the Donald Trump incident where it seems he wants to take his bat and ball home because he can’t get planning permission for a £2 billion golf project.
He hasn’t quite taken his bat and ball home but I am conflicted from commenting on it because it’s in my constituency and I am “cup-tied”. I can’t prejudice the results of the public inquiry. But on the broader point I don’t think Scotland has an international projection problem welcoming business. We’ve had a very good reception in the US. Against a very difficult investor climate we have done spectacularly well in key sectors. That will be exemplified even more in our Year of Homecoming, and we expect you to take part in this, Iain. This is for first, second, third, fourth, fifth generation Scots.

I am a quarter Scottish.
There we are, we’ve got you. There are 100 million Scots around the planet.

I am a descendant of one of Robbie Burns’ bastard children…
Iain, you are perfectly positioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of your ancestor. That only happens every 250 years!

Indeed.
Therefore I am instructing, nay commandeering 100 million people to come back to Scotland at some point during 2009 to enjoy the festivities.

Preferably not all at once.
No, because we have stretched the events from Burns Night to St Andrews Day. We have five themes. Burns himself, Scottish history of enterprise and innovation, the enlightenment, Adam Smith, Golf, Scottish history, genealogy, the gathering of the clans to Edinburgh. All the transatlantic flights have already been booked.

It’s all becoming clear to me now. That’s why you want the referendum in 2010 so you can sweep to victory on the back of this tide of nationalist euphoria which you will unleash in 2009.
You’ve got it. You’ve seen through me again.

That’s why Wendy Alexander wanted it now. Now I get it!
I didn’t get to the fifth theme, whisky.

We’ll gloss over that one. I don’t drink.
Can I welcome the change in direction of the Conservative Party, but I have to say the Conservative affection for whisky was about its only redeeming feature.

Don’t take me as typical of the Conservative Party, in oh so many ways!
I think I had already worked that bit out, Iain.

What is the future of the bases under an independent Scotland?
One thing that never comes up when you talk about the Barnett Formula, in public expenditure terms, Scotland gets 7% of defence expenditure, so if you held defence expenditure at the same level, you could generate more jobs. We won’t have the next generation of nuclear missiles. Hans Blix wouldn’t have much trouble in coming to Scotland and finding Weapons of Mass Destruction. He’d have managed that in an afternoon. I don’t think it’s reasonable to have that for the next forty years or so.

Nuclear power?
We’re against any renewal of nuclear power for Scotland, but we’ll have it until 2020.

The UK government is going hell for leather for nuclear power.
We’re going hell for leather for renewables. We’ve also just signed a contract for £700 million with Scottish Coal. Scots coal will now be burnt in Scots power stations. We can get the clean power investment we’re looking for. And at this rate we can get down to zero carbon emissions using clean coal.

You’re not going to waste money on wind power, are you?
We’ll have comparative advantage in wind power, lots of wind. Offshore wind has a lot going for it. In the Murray Firth we have a utilisation of 53% – I don’t know of any land based wind turbines with more than 30%. But we also have a comparative advantage in wave energy and tidal energy. It’s going to be big in the future. The Pentland Firth is the Saudi Arabia or tidal power, potentially. I notice Gordon Brown has nicked that phrase – very naughty of him. I launched the world’s largest innovation prize in Washington in April, the Saltaire Prize, which will be judged by scientific luminaries throughout the world. You have to demonstrate the device in Scotland. You can enter yourself, Iain

Hmmm. I can demonstrate good use of wind, but let’s not go there.
The idea is to establish Scotland as the marine renewables centre of the universe. We had a full page headline in Fortune Magazine – Scotland Rules the Waves. I loved that! My view on energy is that you position yourself where you have a natural competitive advantage. We don’t have it in nuclear technology. We’d have to buy it from France or somewhere else. We’ll get to 30% renewable production, 50% by 2020 and bigger after that if the technology fits into place. It will because the economics are dictating it. And we have to address to the outrageous entry costs to connect to the grid.

Is it a frustration for you being First Minister than you only have powers over certain areas and not others. For example, you don’t have full control over economic policy. You have limited tax raising powers which you choose not to use…
Once upon a time they were called the Towering Heights of the economy…

You mean Commanding Heights…
Indeed. Yes, it is a frustration, of course it is. Can you do nothing about the economy, no I don’t agree with that, but you are boxed in to enterprise policy, business incentives and supply side initiatives. However, we have done something dramatic for small businesses with the elimination of business rates for example. But for Commanding Heights intervention on adjustment of tax then you are heavily restricted and that is a real frustration, of course it is.

Do you think you will ever use the tax raising powers you’ve got?
I don’t see that in the foreseeable future.

A subject dear to my heart is an English Parliament, which you presumably approve of…
I am right behind you. I’m surprised at Ken Clarke’s lily-livered report.

Are you? It’s a compromise, isn’t it?
I was being ironic. Certain compromises you can muddle through, but if I was producing a way to protect the essential integrity of the United Kingdom – which, I’m not – I wouldn’t produce that. This in and out rubbish is a lot of nonsense. You have to think about the whole constitutional structure and come up with something a bit more elegant.

Do you agree that there is a resurgence of an acceptable form of English nationalism and that a lot of English people feel disadvantaged?
I have huge sympathy with the political argument. As you know, by choice, SNP MPs have abstained from every vote on English legislation which dies not have an immediate Scottish consequence. And when we have intervened it’s usually on the side of the English majority. If you’re asking me should people in England be able to run their own Health Service, their education system and a variety of other pieces of legislation then my answer is yes. They should be able to do it without the bossy interference of Scots Labour MPs. We had this in reverse through the 1980s. Because I believe in independence for Scotland I also believe in independence for England. I know there are a lot of doom mongers who say that England couldn’t stand on its own two feet. I deprecate that sort of talk.[laughs]. I have great confidence in England’s ability to be self governing.

  • We are so grateful!*
    Sometimes it helps for people to see the wood from the trees to talk like that. Nothing makes me more angry than people who deprecate the abilities of their own country, their own people. You can’t deprecate a country’s abilities without having an effect on the people within the country. It’s insidious and damaging. Patriotism is said to be the last refuge of the scoundrel. The reverse is the last refuge of the scoundrel in politics.

Does it irritate you when you read things in the English newspapers – and I get it all the time on my blog – about what a miserable Scottish bastard Andy Murray is? How the English shouldn’t support him because he said he didn’t want England to win in the World Cup?
I don’t think that the plain people of England would think that. The sort of people who think that are the sort of people who go on your blog! [roars with laughter].

Thank you! But let me put the reverse point to you. I always want Scotland to win at any sport. It’s partly my country too. But there are plenty of Scots who revel in an English defeat of any sort – even against the Germans, for God’s sake!
I have form on this matter. You’re not talking to the First Minister who supports other teams against England in the world cup – that was my predecessor [Jack McConnell]. I think that individuals have every right to a bit of banter.

But it goes beyond banter.
When you become national leader you’re under a different set of rules. Anything I say can be interpreted as the view of the country. People should back your own country. No one is obligated to support anyone else, but I don’t think you should get your kicks and thrills by some proxy. It’s pathetic. I have never indulged in it. If you go into a TV room in the House of Commons when England is playing, all you have to do is look at the phalanx of Scottish Labour MPs cheering on whoever they are playing against. And you think to yourself, there’s the Scottish Unionist Party. These are the people who want to have their country run from somewhere else!

In May 2011 you will be up for re-election. What do you want the Scottish people to be thinking about your four years in government. What will guarantee you your re-election?
Remember we will be having a referendum in 2010. I want our record in government to reinforce the popularity and trust in the SNP. By our deeds we shall be known. People do not expect miracles. They do not expect a minority government to have transformed the country in the space of twelve months but most people seem to be happy with what they have seen so far. The trust in government as expressed in the Social Attitude Survey has risen by twenty points – from 50% to 70%.

It was important for you in the first year to display competence, I suppose, as none of you had any experience of running a government department!
The SNP Cabinet has people in it who have worked for Standard Life, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Scottish Amicable. They’ve done a few things.

It must be a relief to have got through the first year with a reputation for competence.
It was a desirable objective. As you probably have noticed, I am not short of confidence, so relief is the wrong phrase, but I was determined that that should be done. So much so that I banned their holidays last Summer and said look, you’re Cabinet Ministers, make your mark. And they did.

My point is that the Scottish media is against the SNP and apart from the Labour Party most other people in politics have said quite nice things about you.
If you get complimented by your critics then that is better than just being complimented by your friends. But we have a lot of achievements to be complimented on. We have a new style of government. We slashed business rates for small companies, freezing council tax, abolished tolls, saved the hospitals, reduced prescription charges. We’re now trying to get to some of the more underlying structural challenges – reshaping the relationship between central and local government. If we can do that, there will be a big gain. We’ve already abolished more than 60 ring fences. We are attacking on the binge drinking culture, which is an even bigger problem than it is in England. This is difficult because we are tilting against vested interested, the power of which you would not believe.

So how do you think you’ve done overall?
Well, I’m not going to do a Wendy Alexander and give myself ten out of ten [laughs].

QUICK FIRE

James McAvoy or Sean Connery
Has to be Sean Connery, but I would never pit two fantastic Scots against each other.

Oatcakes or Haggis
Oatcakes win, but only marginally.

Favourite View
Culloden Bay. If you haven’t seen it, you must. A couple of Tory MPs have holiday homes there. It’s fabulous.

Wendy or Douglas
Wendy

Last time you cried
[pauses] I shed a tear recently. There was an episode of Star Trek that was particularly poignant [collapses in giggles].

What music makes you dance?
My guilty secret is that I like country and western music. I am a devotee of Tammy Wynette. I went to Scottish Ballet recently. Wonderful, but in the interval I had to give a speech. I told them it was the first ballet I had ever been to so they were thinking I was a complete philistine. I then told them I was the only frontline politician who had once starred in an opera, and it’s true. I had a lead role in an operetta. My musical tastes are wide. I have also done a duet with Sandi Thom.

Favourite food
In the early part of June you can get Duke of York potatoes, fresh sea trout and Scottish asparagus. Usually they are out of sync, but sometimes you can get them all in season together.

Favourite comedian
Elaine C Smith, the wife of Rab C Nesbitt.

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Personal

A Letter To My 16 Year Old Self

7 Apr 2018 at 08:00

I wrote this in 2010. I wouldn’t change a word of it now…

Dear Iain,

This could turn into a 100 page epistle, if I am not careful. As you know, you have had a perfect childhood – brought up by two loving parents in a wonderful rural environment. I know you know how lucky you have been. Life isn’t always this perfect, as you are about to find out, as you enter adulthood.

My first bit of advice will not come as a surprise. You need to develop a harder edge. You can’t be liked by everyone, no matter how hard you try. There are people out there who will want to do you down and slag you off. You cannot win everyone over and there’s no point in trying. You know that throughout your school days you have been bullied by various people and yet you’ve never stood up to them. Now’s the time to start. Do it once and it becomes very easy the next time. You know you give the impression of being an extrovert, the life and soul of the party and willing to speak up in a meeting. Yet you and I both know that you have an inate shyness which you constantly seek to repress. Few people know the real you. Keep it that way. Those who want to dig beneath the surface will do so. Those who are only interested in you for what they can get out of you won’t bother. There will come a time when everyone seems to want to know you. To want a bit of you. Beware of those people. They’re easy to spot. They’re the ones who look over your shoulder at a party to see if there’s anyone more important there. What I am saying is that you should be very careful of loving the spotlight a little too much. Fight your natural disposition for your head to get that little bit too big. It’s a fight you will probably never win, though!

My second piece of advice is about your future career. You and I both know that you knew you didn’t want to be a farmer from about the age of eight, even though everyone in your wider family expects you to take over the farm. We also know how difficult has been to carry on the pretence that you would be going to agricultural college. But getting ungraded in Physics O Level and Grade D in Biology was a pretty good indication to everyone that this was not a direction in which you are headed. You feel you are letting your parents down, but you’re not. They want what’s best for you and will support you in whatever you do. You know that deep down. At the moment, because you’ve suddenly found out that German is the only subject you excel at, you intend to be a German teacher. Fine, you think that now, but don’t put all your eggs in that basket. Your career is likely to take a very different direction. You recently joined the Liberal Party and have discovered an interest in politics. If I told you now that Margaret Thatcher would have a huge influence on your future life and that you would write books about her, you’d probably laugh. Throughout your career you’ll come across people you feel inferior to or that in some way they are better than you. You will envy the self assurance and confidence of those who have been to public school and Oxbridge. Fight it. You know deep down they are no better than you, but it is true that you will always have to fight that bit harder than they do to get where you want to be.

You know as well as I do that you are, and will be, under tremendous pressure to conform – not just to what is expected of you career-wise, but also in your personal life. People will expect you to get a girlfriend – indeed, a succession of them – and get married and live happily ever after. Just like most of your friends and cousins (except most of them end up divorced!). Life ain’t like that, as you are already coming to realise. You don’t have to pretend to me. I know the inner feelings you’ve had since the age of eight, and so do you. You know that society in 1978 demands you should feel ashamed. But you don’t. And you’re right not to. So far so good.

The Britain of 2010 is very different from that of 1978. You won’t believe me now, but one day you will somehow summon up the courage to be open about exactly who – and what – you are. The path won’t be smooth and one or two people will be hurt along the way, and it may well mean that you don’t achieve what you want to in your career, but you will have no regrets. No one you care about will shun you, you just need the courage to say ‘accept me for who I am or do the other thing’.

You’re scared. That’s natural. You won’t make the first move. You carry on the pretence for some time, and break a number of female hearts along the way. You’re not playing them along – you genuinely care about them, but deep down you know that there’s something not quite right, that you need more. So you get to a certain stage and won’t go further. One day – and it’s some time off, everything will fall into place. I promise you that one day you’ll find what you’re looking for. And you’ll be happy.

You have a wonderful life to look forward to, one which most people would envy. It’s not all smooth sailing – it would be boring if it was, wouldn’t it? But if it’s any consolation, you’d probably settle for it now.

Bonne chance

Iain

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LBC Book Club: Iain talk to Brian Barwell

Iain talks to the former FA chief executive about his new book on the relationship between television and football.

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Diary

ConHome Diary: Gang Grooming & Why Theresa May Could Fight the 2022 Election

6 Apr 2018 at 16:00

So far this year there have been 51 murders in London. If the rate continues we will have close on 200 murders in 2018 compared to 130 last year. That’s quite an increase. The mayor of London is completely devoid of ideas as to what to do and jerks his knee by blaming police cuts for the rise. The right instinctively blames the fall in the number of Stop & Searches, while the left – in the form of Diane Abbott – blames social deprivation. David Lammy says a lot of it is down to drug gang turf wars. In truth, there is no single cause, and if we’re honest it’s probably in part down to all of these things. There is no short term ‘single bullet’ solution. I had a teenage caller on my programme on Tuesday who said one of the long-term solutions is to get rid of ‘gang grooming’. He reckoned that it’s schools who hold the key to stopping 12 or 13 year-olds joining gangs. Gangs give some kids the feeling of belonging and family that they may have lacked in their home lives. The reality of gang life needs to be explained to young boys, especially young black boys, at a very early age. It’s a truth we all need to recognise.
*
By Thursday night at midnight every company in the country with more than 250 employees had to file gender pay gap information to the government. I may not like this nanny state approach to the issue, but it’s thrown up some very interesting information. It may be a blunt instrument but it does show how much work there is to do on the subject of equal pay and opportunity. Airlines complain that of course there is a big gap with them because most of their employees are cabin crew, of which 70% are women and much lower paid than pilots, only three per cent of whom are women. Perhaps they ought to ask themselves why only 3% are female and then do something about it. There’s no intrinsic reason for women to shun the opportunity to train as pilots.
*

Someone asked me this week if I thought it was now possible that Theresa May could fight the 2022 election as Conservative leader. Most people assume that she will step down after Brexit is complete at the beginning of 2021, giving her successor time to bed in before an election. If her performance continues to improve, as it has done in recent weeks, then she may be able to demand the right to continue. I’d say there was only a 10-20% of her still being in Downing Street in 2022, but that per centage may well grow over the coming months. Watch the betting markets. As the local election campaign gets underway – and has anyone noticed? – it will be interesting to see if Labour’s anti-semitism woes have any effect on voting patterns. There has been a remarkable dearth of opinion polls in the last fortnight so we have no evidence to go on, but it would be remarkable if Labour hadn’t lost a couple of per centage points. The last poll showed a three point Tory lead. If by the end of the year there is a 6 or 7 point Tory lead, I suspect Theresa May will have every right to say she ain’t goin’ nowhere.
*
I had a week off last week and started watching Game of Thrones. I must admit it took quite a few episodes to really get it into it. There are so many characters that it’s quite difficult to follow who’s who and how they relate to each other. It all fell into place when I realised that the Queen was actually shagging her own brother. And the series isn’t even set on the Isle of Sheppey, a place where the family trees apparently don’t fork to often. Or so rumour has it.
*

Isn’t Turkey a member of NATO? Why then is it buying defence systems from Russia? This week Turkey’s President held a summit with Putin and Iran’s President Rouhani. I think of it as the Summit of the Three Monkeys. Hear no evil, see no evil, and evil. I’ll leave you to guess which one is which.
*
The Greatest Showman has possibly the best ever movie soundtrack. Discuss.

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Find Out if Iain Could Persuade Jim in Eltham to Become Gay

Amazing

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WATCH: CNN Talk: Can We Wean Ourselves off Plastic?

6 Apr 2018 at 13:11

Can we wean ourselves off plastic? That was our question today. If you want a good laugh make sure you watch the first few minutes when I expose Ayesha’s coffee cup habit!

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LBC 97.3: Iain Dale talks to Darren Rathband

Iain talks to PC David Rathband's twin brother Darren about his suicide.

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Personal

Forty Things That I Loved About the 1980s

6 Apr 2018 at 09:00

1. Margaret Thatcher

2. Labour couldn’t win an election

3. Putting the Unions back in their box

4. Enabling millions of people to buy shares for the first time

5. A-ha & Alphaville

6. Audi Quattros

7. Ejecting the Argentinians from the Falklands

8. Enabling hundreds of thousands of people to buy their own homes

9. Ronald Reagan & Mikhail Gorbachev

10. The Mullett

11. Ian Botham

12. Airplane

13. Trevor Brooking & Alan Devonshire, Tony Cottee & Frank McAvennie.

14. Winning the Cold War

15. Trivial Pursuit

16. Tina Turner

17. J R Ewing

18. Nena’s 99 Luftballons and her hairy armpits

19. The Conservatives winning three elections in a row

20. The advent of Sky TV.

21. The ZX Spectrum

22. Apricot computers

23. Shoulder Pads

24. The Pet Shop Boys

25. Mrs Mangel

26. Sue Ellen’s quivering lip

27. Anne & Nick

28. Frank Bough’s jumpers

29. Gyles Brandreth’s jumpers

30. The vanquishing of Arthur Scargill

31. Big in Japan

32. The smell of the Sunday Times magazine

33. The VW Scirocco

34. Wired for Sound

35. Vincent Hanna

36. Wogan

37. Gregory’s Girl

38. Squarials

39. Krystal Carrington

40. Limahl

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LBC Book Club: Iain Dale talks to Joan Collins

Joan Collins discusses her book THE WORLD ACCORDING TO JOAN.

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UK Politics

If You're Standing in the May Elections, Here are 20 Pieces of Advice...

5 Apr 2018 at 09:00

A few years ago I wrote this in relation to people who stand for Parliament. It got quite a reaction. So if you’re standing for your local council in the May elections, quite a lot of this applies to you too!

1. You can’t do everything yourself. Let others take the strain. You are the leader of the campaign. Act like it.
2. Keep your cool. There will be moments in the campaign when you want to scream your head off. Resist the temptation. Count to ten. Then count to twenty.
3. Your campaign workers are volunteers. They don’t have to turn out to help you. They do it because they want to. Motivate them. Treat them well.
4. Make sure all your literature is proof read. Three times. And not by you.
5. If you have a campaign blog, never write a spontaneous blogpost. Always run it by someone else first. Be incredibly careful what you tweet. Imagine your name in bold print in the Daily Mirror. If you hesitate before pressing SEND, it probably means you shouldn’t.
6. Make sure you keep to your normal sleep patterns. You may think you are Superman/Superwoman, but you’re not. You need your sleep. Make sure you get it.
7. You don’t need to hold a long campaign meeting every morning. Three times a week is usually enough. Make sure that the only people who attend are those who really should. Restrict meetings to half an hour.
8. Posters do not gain extra votes. But they make your local party feel good and give your campaign the appearance of momentum. Do not put them up too early. And do not put them up all at once. And if they get ripped down, make sure your campaign team has a strategy for replacing them within 24 hours.
9. Personalise your Sorry You Were Out Cards. Include your ten campaign pledges on them. And include an apparently handwritten message and signature.
10. Do not drive anywhere yourself. Especially, do not drive your campaign vehicle. Appoint a PA who will drive you everywhere and cater for your every whim.Tell them to make sure you eat properly, and regularly. McCoys, Coke and Mars Bars do not a healthy diet make.
11. If Party HQ offer you the chance of a visit from a politician even you have barely heard of, turn them down. Even if you have heard of them, consider turning them down. Visits from national politicians use up too many resources and rarely attract a single extra vote.
12. Don’t canvas before 10am or after 8.30pm. It looks desperate and annoys people. And be very careful about canvassing on Sundays. People don’t like it. Use Sundays to catch up on deliveries in areas with no deliverers.
13. Resist the temptation to strangle the next person who asks “How’s it going?” or “Are you going to win?”. They’re only being polite.
14. If you’re in a high profile marginal seat which the media find interesting, avoid spending half your day giving them interviews. Your only media focus is local. Ignore Michael Crick. He’s not there to help you.
15. Avoid the natural desire to believe what voters tell you on the doorstep. Most of them will tell you what you want to hear in order to get you off the doorstep. If they say “I’ll see how I feel on the day” you can safely put them down as a Liberal Democrat.
16. Your Get Out The Vote operation is more important than anything else you do during the campaign. Satisfy yourself that your Agent and Campaign Manager have it in hand and they know what they are doing.
17. Ignore those who tell you not to appear at your count until it is well underway. It’s your moment. Relish it. Prepare your speech. If you lose unexpectedly, you will be remembered for how you react. Act graciously towards your opponents during the counting and in your speech.
18. If you lose, you will be tempted to blame someone. Your party leader. Your local party. Anyone but yourself. Don’t. Whatever your personal thoughts, no one likes a bad loser. Be dignified and take it on the chin.
19. If you win, hubris may take over. It really wasn’t all down to you, you know. And make sure others know you know that.
20. Make sure you write a personal thank you letter – and I mean write, not type – to all those who helped on your campaign. Do it within a week of polling day. You really could not have done it without them.

Good luck, and try to enjoy it!

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Play Radio: Iain interviews BNP Deputy Leader Simon Darby

Play Talk, June 2009

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WATCH: CNNTalk - Can the Gender Pay Gap Ever Be Bridged?

4 Apr 2018 at 21:07

A feisty discussion, which turns rather heated towards the end! With Ayesha Hazirika, Liam Halligan and me, with Hannah Vaughan Jones presenting.

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Brenda in Chelmsford tells Iain About Caring for Her Husband Who Has Dementia

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Interview

FROM THE ARCHIVES: In Conversation With Alastair Campbell

4 Apr 2018 at 09:00

I did this interview in July 2010. Alastair never knowingly gives a bad interview and he was certainly very open in this two hour conversation.

When did you start writing your diary?
I’ve always done a diary, I started when I was a kid when my dad was in hospital and I used to write him daily digests. As Tony was preparing to leave I was getting so inundated with ideas, other people’s ideas, about how I might say something, do something about it and I just thought sod it, I’ll do it. I’ll give my own version based on the diaries but it would be just be a single volume which was just extracts. Obviously a lot of focus has been put on the fact that I took out stuff that people thought might be damaging to Gordon but actually what I was trying to do was do a book about Tony. It’s very much the key episodes for Tony really. So that was what the Blair Years was largely about, and then this just follows on from it.

But how unexpurgated is it because presumably you can only ever publish a fraction of the material that you’ve got.
It’s pretty much unexpurgated because I’ve kept out a lot of stuff that people would not be remotely interested in. You know, how your kids are doing at school and holidays. Some judgements you had to make legally. But by and large in terms of the key moments and the big stuff it’s unexpurgated. Bear in mind most days I didn’t have more than 10, 15, 20 minutes to write. So where some days are a couple of sentences, that’s all I did. Other days where it’s ream and reams and reams, that’s what I did.

How difficult do you find the judgement about leaving stuff in that you know is actually quite hurtful to someone?
I did think a lot about that. And some stuff, where I felt… you know, I did make a lot of judgements in The Blair Years and I veered towards leaving out. This time I probably veered towards leaving in. Partly because we’re talking about a long, relatively long time ago. Also to be absolutely honest every single one of us who’s a big player as it were within the New Labour, it’s not as if we’re not used to people saying part true critical things. Now I suppose the difference is that it’s us saying it. I sometimes left things out if they were in the mouth of others and I felt actually it was unfair to them. But when I say unexpurgated, its ‘unexpurgated. There’s nothing there I’ve taken out. Sometimes taste, sometimes law, you know, libel sometimes just because you think it’s too harsh or it’s something that is so rooted in that moment that you think it’s unfair, either unfair on the person saying it or about the person about whom its said.

And who do you think will feel most uncomfortable reading them?
I don t know. I think of all of us. When The Blair Years came out Jonathan Powell came up with this really great line. He said, ‘well no one can say this is a self-serving memoir because you come across as a complete lunatic’. So I think all of us at points will think ooh, maybe I would have rather not have seen that in print.

How can you go on about change when you’ve been in power for 13 years and Gordon Brown as Prime Minister then brings Mandelson back, brings you back and one or two others. It completely goes against that message doesn’t it?
I can see that. I think the change, from Gordon’s perspective was that he had to represent both continuity and change. I felt he could do both. Continuity is a good thing, it gives him experience, it gives him the record, it gives him a sense of knows what he’s for and what he’s on about. I think change was about the way the world had changed and the change challenges. If you were talking about the economy, or public services or foreign policy or the constitution or climate change the challenges had changed and that was what would give you the policy agenda going forward.

But wasn’t his problem right from the start was that there was no plan? You just kept waiting for this vision and it never really came. He had 13 years to decide what to do, for goodness sake! This was illustrated in Peter Watt’s book when he said come the election that never was there wasn’t even a draft manifesto ready and Harriet Harman ended up writing it!
I think he needed the continuity. The change bit was more difficult because Tony and Gordon were politically not that far apart. Tony may have been more on the outer edges of modernisation and the public services end and so forth, but actually, certainly, going back to where this book starts, the differences in so far as they existed were deciding who’s going to do the job and whether they can stand against each other. So I think it was the loss of the sense of continuity that gave him that problem that you defined. People were saying hold on a minute where is all this new stuff. I mean there was a plan.

My view is that if Tony Blair had been leader at this election he would still be in Downing Street now. What do you think?
Well it’s an interesting hypothetical. Tony used to say that no one in a top job should stay more than eight years. Now, I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. I certainly think that Tony, if he had been able to get through and fight this election, he was certainly the sort of opponent David Cameron would have found very, very difficult.

Did he ever contemplate actually carrying on that long?
No I don’t think so. He was always of the view that eight years was about as long as you could go. And he went 10. Now that being said I mean who knows. Who knows. Who knows whether the party would have allowed it.

Why did you go back into Downing Street after it nearly ate you up the first time around?
John Harris in The Guardian said it’s perfectly obvious to him Gordon Brown was the source of my depression. And I said, oh no, I used to get depression before Gordon. But people like him were saying how can you put up with all this angst and grief he’s causing you and then go back and help him in 2010. Now part of it is tribalism…

And that’s what people who aren’t involved in politics never get.
Yeah, I think that’s right. They just see the how can you put up with it. But part of it is also a residual understanding of his strengths and so I found at every stage, there were points at which I said to Tony ‘this is just terrible, I can’t go on like this’.

Did you actually ever come close to snapping?
Well there are points at which you think, there is another way here. But the point is Tony was the boss and Tony was always of the view, certainly for the bulk of the time he was always of the view that the problems were way outweighed by the strengths and the brilliance that Gordon brought to it. One, he was the boss and you had to go along with that, but secondly, he had a point. And so when the whole before the last election where there were lots of people saying that Gordon should be replaced kicked off, I was never 100 per cent of that view because you just don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know that we might’ve ended up in a worst position. You just don’t know.

But if Blair knew Brown was going to succeed him, it would have been good for him to be Foreign Secretary for a few years rather than just be Chancellor.
I think Gordon would have found it very hard to be anything other than Chancellor. Not that he couldn’t have done those jobs, but you know how they would have been perceived. But looking back, and I mean I haven’t talked to him about this, but would it have been sensible to have some sort of competition, some sort of leadership election? There is a view that the party would have found it very difficult for Gordon not to have been Tony’s successor.

But Gordon Brown appeared to think that the leadership was an entitlement, his by right and I think that was the root of the reason why he ultimately failed…
Possibly.

Because a normal politician would have had to fight for it and he just didn’t. He fought for it in the sense that there was a continual undermining of Blair but that was it.
No, I can see that and I think it would have been better had there been a fairly broad field. When you look now and see David and Ed Miliband in competition you do ask yourselves whether it might have been better back then. Prescott said so at the time.

Prescott comes out of your diaries as a bit of a hero.
Tony had a lot of doubts about John from the start but I think at the end he would say he had a great deputy leader. Really great.

He was sort of Heineken deputy leader- he could reach parts that Tony couldn’t.
But he was also somebody who’s political judgement and expertise is not to be underestimated. John’s always been somebody who, because of his rather curious relationship with the English language, has always been underestimated. People by and large do wear their hearts on their sleeves. I do, Gordon, whether he was saying what he thought or not you could always tell. Tony was probably the most able to just hide a little bit what he was thinking. Peter maybe a bit as well. But basically we were all pretty open people and John Prescott is somebody who, you know when he’s in a good mood, you know when he’s in a bad mood, you know when he’s serious, you know when he’s not. And I was the person who dealt with a lot of that.

And Peter Mandelson doesn’t come out of the book so well.
There was a problem there with me and Peter in that I never felt I could be totally open with Peter and I think funnily enoughin this recent campaign Peter and I worked really well together. Total openness, close. Back then I was never quite sure what he was up to but that’s part of who Peter is. The other thing I’ve learnt over time is that we’ve all got strengths and weaknesses and you have to appreciate all them. Sometimes the weakness is just the flip of the strength. It’s the other side of the coin and so you don’t necessarily get one without the other.

Is there part of you that would have liked to have been an elected politician but you had enough self knowledge to know that you were psychologically unsuited?
No, I don’t think so. The answer to the first part is yes. The answer to the second part is no I think I would be quite suited to it but it’s just the way the thing has worked out . In 1994 I was getting bored with journalism. In my mind I was thinking about moving into politics in some way. John Smith dies, Tony asks me to work for him and I do. Now actually there’s a passage towards the end of this volume which I’d totally forgotten about until I transcribed the diaries where Tony starts sounding me out about whether I should stand. By then I felt I was doing what I needed to do for him and for the Labour Party in that position. By 2001 I’m thinking as David Miliband Pat McFadden, James Purnell, you know these guys they’re all starting to get seats.. and I’m thinking maybe I should do that, but actually by then I’m kind of a round peg in a round a hole. But then by 2003, when I left, I just wanted out of the thing. By 2005 when I go back it’s very much to go back and that’s it. In 2010 I go back again and I sort of feel if I was going to stand I should have done it when David [Miliband] did.

Surely when Kitty Usher decided to go in Burnley, you must have thought, maybe now’s the time.
I did think that in 2005, and I thought it again this time. And actually when the results came in from Burnley and we lost it I felt quite bad about that because I think I could have won that. But you just have to make judgements and I did make a judgement about it when I left in 2003.

You will never escape the so-called dodgy dossier, however much you try and explain what it was or what it was not. That will hang around your neck for the rest of your life.
Well that’s for you to say. I get asked about it in interviews but when I go about the place talking to people very rarely does it come up.

You will always be associated with David Kelly. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it are, you will still always be associated with that.
If you put your head above the parapet and you do the sort of job that I did in the way that I did it there’ll be lots and lots and lots of things. I was thinking the other day, ‘bog standard comprehensive’, ‘People’s princess’… But every time I get into a cab in London if the driver is from Kosovo, I promise you I never pay. The driver will say ‘what you guys did in Kosovo, we’ll never forget it’. Going to Northern Ireland and it’s different. Yes, I accept the premise of the question and it’s a very, very odd situation because David Kelly, I never met him. I never met him. And yet we became inextricably linked. But all you can do, as you say, is keep explaining. That would never have happened if it had not been for what Gilligan broadcast.

When you learnt of David Kelly’s death you must have been like jumping off a cliff.
I felt a juggernaut coming my way. That was exactly what I felt. I felt an absolute juggernaut. And the truth is, you think about it. You do think about something like that. I don’t want to be pompous about it but they [the diaries] are, I think, quite an important historical document because they show politics and politicians in all their guises. And it shows how hard it is. It was hard enough for me but what it’s like too for Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron? I mean it is such a difficult job. And it’s why although I will continue to work against the Tories and so forth I will always try and step back because I know how hard it is. And the other day for example when the David Laws thing was breaking and I did a blog about it Fiona said why are you so sympathetic? I said look, you’ve got to step back a bit and try and imagine you’re in their shoes. I don’t know them. I don’t know these guys as well as I knew our own guys. I’ve got very little time for Cameron in relation to this because of the way he exploited it in our campaign. But I did feel some sympathy for Laws.

Is there part of you that thinks you don’t want to push someone like that too far because you’ve always got David Kelly in the background? I’m not saying you pushed David Kelly to that, but I’ve always thought over this expenses thing that at some point someone could top themselves.
No, funnily enough,

I mean Laws I’m really worried about him.
Really?

I’ve been there. I’ve had to come out to my parents at his age, I know what it was like.
Well I can remember the Nick Brown thing. When Nick Brown was being done over by the News of the World. I remember that, I very quickly sensed that eventually he said that was the thing he was most worried about. I don’t really want to go there. Look, some MPs did terrible things but the general sense being given is that they are all at it but they are not. Most MPs have to subsidise their own existence. You know that, I know that, most journalists know that.

What do you admire about Adam Boulton?
I suppose the way he’s been there for a long time but I think that’s part of his problem to be honest with you.

Have you spoken to him since your incident?
No.

But what happened when you went off air? Did it continue?
Oh yeah he just carried on ranting. “You’re a fucking liar, Mandelson’s a fucking liar, you’re all fucking liars”. Poor old Jeremy Thompson was trying to carrying on his broadcast.

And what provoked that? Just the fact that he was tired after the election?
I think it’s that, I really don’t know. Look, he really doesn’t like me, there is no going back. I think a lot of these journalists who see other journalists actually going over the other side of the fence have an issue with it. If you think about Adam Boulton’s life, he stands in Downing Street and talks about what’s happening inside but he’s not there. I think over the years he has really come to resent people like me. And he’s got this thing you know. I love the way he is describing me as unelected. Most people in politics are unelected, let’s be honest about it. Civil servants, defence chiefs, the people who run the quangos, journalists, people like Adam Boulton. The reason I was there is because Gordon Brown, in this very odd constitutional situation, had asked me to go back and help him, and then asked me to go and do some interviews because the Cabinet were meeting. So Boulton says he resented this unelected person telling him what the government was doing. Well that’s what he does 24 hours a day.

Did you actually think he was going to hit you at one point?
I thought he might headbutt me at one point. He came so close into my space. I remember thinking what happens if somebody headbutts you live on TV. Are you entitled, a la John Prescott, to go and hit back or do you have to stand there? I really was thinking about that. I thought he totally completely lost it. Now I don’t know if it’s true, I heard that Murdoch phoned him the next day and said well done. What Sky love is being talked about so they were being talked about. The really funny thing is when, if you are involved in something like that, you’re so conscious, I mean I was very conscious I’ve got a bit of temper, so I was saying to myself ‘keep calm’, so when I was saying ‘calm, calm’ I was probably talking to myself! I went back to Number 10 and I walked into what is my old office, you know the suite of offices at number 12 and they all stood up and clapped. I had no idea it had become this instant big thing.

But didn’t he do just what you did with Jon Snow after the Hutton Report was published?
No I don’t think so. To this day, I think I did the right thing there. Don’t get Fiona going on it! That was one of our biggest rows, of the many we have had. It reached that point where the media wasn’t listening on that story, and I just thought sod it, I’m going to have to do something about this. Now did I get a bit aggressive? People say they want candour and passion in politics and I was very candid. I’ve not seen that interview since – I’m not someone who goes and looks at how you did on the telly – but I read the transcript when I was appearing for the Chilcot enquiry, and I stand by every word. I stand by every word.

It wasn’t the words, it was the demeanour.
Yeah but sometimes you have to go just a little bit over the top for people to notice, and I’m not saying that was planned, but nobody could say I wasn’t saying what I thought.

And do you think it was right in retrospect to do the presidential thing after the Hutton Inquiry, the podium at the bottom of the stairs?
Well look, I felt I was entitled after all that we’d been through to say what I thought and, you know, I think that as to the venue, somebody else found that for me. It wouldn’t have mattered to me where it was. But I think I was entitled, after all the shit that was thrown at me over such a long period, you know with war protestors outside the house and all the rest of it. I was entitled to have my say.

How often does depression strike you, and how do you know what’s triggering it?
That is a hard one. I don’t record all my kind of depressive moments in my diary.

Reading the last book, correct me if I’m wrong, I just got the impression you could tell when something’s really building up, but you can’t actually stop it.
I can tell but you can’t stop it, no. Some people can. Now as it happens I had quite a bad episode just before Easter. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out, that was probably all the angst of going back. I’d promised Gordon, Gordon had been trying to get me to go back for a long time. I knew I could help him in some ways…

In your former position?
Or any other position. Lots of different positions but certainly that would have been one of them. And I just knew that that it wasn’t right, for me, and it therefore wasn’t going to be right. I had a pretty bad episode. Funnily enough, it’s just amazing how sometimes other people can see things for you. We were in Scotland on holiday at Easter and met up with Charles Kennedy and his wife Sarah, as usually do. I don’t think she’s even aware of this but Sarah basically persuaded me in my own arguments about how the Tories were stoppable. I’d been saying that Cameron had a problem with the public, that there people were beginning to resent the money and the posters and the negativity about Gordon and so forth. So I actually came back early from my holiday. I came back the next day. And the point I was making is that I neither saw that one coming, nor did I see it going. You always tend always to get a depressive episode after you’ve been through a big thing. I’ve had a bit of a wobble since.

Is depression also largely the reason why you haven’t gone into elected politics?
No I don’t think that’s the reason. I honestly think that I would have done had events worked out differently. I still might, but if this thing lasts five years I’d be 57 at the next election. I was 53 last week. Back in the old days that was fine.

Well I’ve already decided that I’m done with it now.
Have you?

Because I’d be 52 at the next election. Who do you know that gets selected in the Tory party over the age of 50?
I’ve probably made that decision too but I just don’t know it now. Depression is interesting because it’s really hard to describe, because it’s like childbirth. I’ve seen Fiona having a baby three times now, and you just think, how do you ever want to go through that again? Answer: because you forget the pain, and it’s the same with depression. When I’m not depressed I find it very hard to explain what it’s like and one of the reasons I wrote the novel because I wanted to give some sense of it. I used to have to wait until I was depressed to get in the right mood to write. But if I waited too long and became genuinely depressed I couldn’t write. The thing that really helps is having a sense of purpose. What it must be like for people who are depressed and unemployed? I can’t even begin to think. Tony to be fair he didn’t know how bad it was until he read the diary. I used to tell him but he said he never realised I was actually that bad.

Is it something that unless someone suffers from it they can ever really understand? It’s very hard for me to understand because I’ve never ever had any kind of depression whatsoever.
Fiona finds it hard as she has to live with it so she sees what it’s like when it’s really bad. I find for example with the kids even though they can see when I’m depressed, I’m not quite as bad with them as I am just with Fiona because with Fiona I can feel that I can let myself go. Likewise if I’m out and about. I mean you know, I remember periods when things were really really intense at work, when I was actually in a state of clinical depression. You’ve just got to keep going. It’s very hard

How bad does it get in those circumstances? Have you ever come close to thinking ‘I’m going to top myself’?
No, but you understand why people do. Where I’ve got to now is, depression at its worst is feeling l dead and alive at the same time. You feel you’re alive, there’s a glass of water there, you know you’ve got to drink it, you’ve got to eat but you feel completely dead inside and where I’ve got to is an understanding that it passes. One of the first lessons of crisis management is understand it will end, and that’s the same with depression. It will end. It may end in medications, it may end in you going to hospital but it will end.

When you had that incident on the Andrew Marr show were you in the middle of it then?
Possibly. That was just a moment of absolute frustration. I’d been through the whole inquiry. I’d really prepared for that inquiry. I’m self-employed and I literally blanked out a month to prepare because I knew there were a lot of people gagging for me to screw up, desperate for it. So I prepared very very hard and I answered all the questions fully, honestly, fairly. I took it seriously. As I came out there were hundreds of journalists hanging around and I could sense their disappointment. There’s a guy [Andrew Marr] who has made a very good living out of being part of this media culture, and when he threw in that question about the figures – by the way the BBC have apologised on this about getting the figures wrong, they won’t do it on air but they have apologised. He got it wrong. He said they were UN figures about casualties – I think it was just a combination of things. The thing that was going through my mind was like you said earlier, that, it didn’t matter what I said to him, it didn’t matter what I said to him. And they like to say that, like Adam Boulton, they’ve got no agenda, they’re totally impartial. Bollocks.

And what about this role you have now as a sort of ambassador for people with depression. Are you comfortable in that role, is it something you like doing?
Yeah, I’ve got, I mean the only problem it gives me is that leukaemia, lymphoma research, they think I’m theirs…

They’ve done quite well from you haven’t they?
Cathy Gilmore is the chief executive, she’s brilliant. She stared off as a volunteer eight years ago and she’s now chief exec, and whenever I pop up on the radio or television talking about mental health she sends me this text and she says “tart”. No I do, because if one in four people in the public get mental health problem in their life, why should politics be any different?

There are a lot of politicians, past and present who have suffered from depression aren’t there?
The Norwegian Prime Minister told his cabinet he had to resign because of his depression and they insisted he stayed. He took a sabbatical, his ratings went stratospheric. I do feel comfortable with it because I’ve never felt ashamed of it. It is like some people get cancer, some people break their leg, some people get depression. And I think it’s important that we understand it in politics because I suspect it attracts more people of a mentally ill bent than other areas. We should be open about it. I won’t say who it was but there were a couple of candidates at the last election who came to me and said ‘look I’ve got problems’ and I said look I think it’s great that you’re open about it but I don’t want to be prescriptive. And neither of them were. I feel it’s never harmed me. I feel I get a pretty unfair press. I’m not moaning about it, it’s just a fact. On this issue I don’t. I feel actually the press have been pretty fair on this and I think that’s in part because within journalism you’ll find there are more people getting this then you’d realise, so I don’t mind that.

Is it true, as Lance Price told me, that it was actually Tony Blair who made the psychologically flawed quote?
You’ll have to wait for future volumes of the diaries.

Oh come on.
No I’m not saying.

You took the rap for it. Did you, in the final days of the Brown bunker, take the loaded pistol to Gordon Brown and say ‘it’s time to go’.
No. It was a fascinating few days. We were conscious about what was happening with the Liberals. I wasn’t aware of what was going on in the Tory party at all. There was certainly a point at which I wrote Gordon a note, saying in addition to pursing this track with the Lib Dems, we do need to start planning as it were, you know, an exit and it will be an important moment. These are really important moments. You’ve got to think about them and so I certainly wouldn’t say that was his lack of involvement, just saying you’ve really got to think about this, assuming this [the Lib-Lab coalition] wouldn’t work.

Why did Gordon Brown surround himself with thugs like Whelan, Balls and McBride?
Don’t know. There’s quite a lot about Charlie in this volume. I didn’t know McBride at all well. Ed Balls, he does have a lot of strengths. Charlie Whelan had some but I think Gordon would have done himself a service if he’d not had people like that too close to the operation

What was the truth of the meeting that was helped with the Lib Dems on the Monday afternoon?
I was getting text messages from Liberal Democrats who were not at the meeting saying this is all going very badly. So I sent a message back saying why, what do you mean? Oh Balls really rude, duh duh duh. So I sent a message to Peter [Mandelson] saying ‘don’t know what’s going on but I’m getting messages from Liberals saying this is going terribly and people are being really rude to them’. Peter sent me a message straight back saying ‘I don’t understand where that’s coming from, it’s going perfectly well’. You know what Peter’s like, he’s a very good judge of mood and that sort of thing. Afterwards when I talked to Peter and Andrew [Adonis] about it they said Ed Balls had been polite and Ed Miliband had behaved perfectly well. What that said to me was actually that the Liberals had already decided, that they’d already made their choice.

I think I wrote at the time that they were doing this to get cover with the left wing of their party.
Absolutely right, I’m sure that’s right. Vince [Cable] was the one that was talking most of all from a let’s try and keep it going viewpoint. Paddy [Ashdown], Ming Campbell, Charlie Kennedy, David Steel were all pushing towards us.

Which hurt more, Labour losing the election or Burnley being relegated?
Well I’d prepared myself mentally for Burnley over a long period, but it was a bad week, though, wasn’t it?

You’ve taken to the internet like a duck to water.
Oh, you think so?

Well, I do actually. But I do think part of it’s because of your personality. Because it is a bit sort of compulsive.
Well, there’s a few things to tell you, first of all that is all me.

Having taught you all you know…
That is me. I don’t know how to, I mean yesterday, my first hashtag. I’m hopeless at it, honestly. I get so many complaints off people who can’t read my blog off their iPhone.

That’s because it’s appallingly designed. That’s not your fault.
Well it is my fault, I OK’d the design. Anyway I’ve got to change it.

I remember having a surreal evening where I got an email from you saying ‘I’m going to start a blog how should I do it’ and then within minutes Piers Morgan had come up on Facebook chat thing and he said ‘oh I always read your blog when I’m in America, bla bla bla’. I thought can it get any more surreal than this?
Piers is very anti twitter. I like Twitter though, and I found on the blog, I found during the election what was interesting, was that I kind of used it as a bit of a strategic sounding board as well. Dave Muir who is one of Gordon’s strategists, even before when I went back, I would be sort of not flying kites for them. I don’t mean in an organised way but it’s almost like a focus group goes on. You work out the ones who are just sort of rabid Tory or rabid Labour, but actually you can work out when something’s kind of connecting.

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Why a Gap Year Is the Best Thing I Ever Did

3 Apr 2018 at 09:00

It really gets my goat when I hear people who ought to know better advising 18 year olds not to go on gap years. Instead, they should concentrate on getting work experience and extra training. Balls.

Going on a gap year was the best decision I have ever made – apart from hitching myself to Mr Simmons, of course.

I spent my gap year in Germany, mainly because the following September I would start my German degree course at UEA. It seemed a good idea to gain a greater degree of fluency in the language before I started. By the time I came back I was virtually fluent and had a far better grasp of the language, which meant that I was able to sail through the first year.

But there was something more important than that. I grew up during that year. I became an adult. I no longer had my parents and family to rely on. I was on my own. Independent. I well remember the day my parents took me to Harwich to get the ferry to the Hook of Holland. I remember going up the escalator and losing sight of my mother, who was in floods of tears. To be honest so was I. She told me a few years ago that she at that moment she thought she genuinely wouldn’t ever see me again.

I duly arrived in Bad Wildungen, a small spa town in Hessen, close to the Edersee of Dambusters fame, to which I had been twice before on school exchanges. It took me several weeks to find a job.

I had only gone out there with about £100 (it was 1980, after all!) and was about to run out. But the Werner Wicker Klinik came to the rescue and I got a job as a nursing assistant in the swimming pool area. I had no lifeguard qualifications and certainly knew nothing about nursing. But it was a job. And it paid. DM1650 a month – a huge amount to me.

The next thing to do was to get my own room. Up to that point I had been staying with my penfriend’s family. It was the first time I would live on my own. And I didn’t like it at all. Although I had made quite a few friends, it was always soul destroying to spend an evening in a solitary room watching an old black and white TV. And believe me, German TV was dreadful. Dubbed episodes of Dallas proved to be the highlight of the week. “Sue Ellen, bist du schon wieder besoffen?” “JR, ich hasse dich”. It wasn’t quite the same, somehow.

But I lived above a bar in the Brunnenallee, so life was never particularly quiet. And the work was incredibly rewarding. I ended up doing a lot of physiotherapy and hyrotherapy on the patients, again with no training. Most had suffered spinal injuries in motorcycle accidents, or had spinal conditions associted with skoliosis. I spent the first few days wandering around in a bit of a daze, just feeling sorry for everyone. I can’t remember who, but someone said the secret of being able to work in a hospital like that was to take the emotion out of it and never feel sorry for the patients. Once I had got my brain around that, it was fine.

It was in that year that I became a man. Now, that sounds an odd thing to say, but I would not have missed it for the world. And if 18 year olds are now being discouraged by some bureaucrat from UCAS from having the same life enhancing experience as I did, then things have reached a pretty pass.

So if you are a teenager reading this, follow your instincts. If you think a gap year is what you need, move heaven and earth to make it happen. I’ve never regretted it for a minute.

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