I confess I had butterflies doing the first BBC Politics Live of 2020. It felt like the first day back at school. Beyond Twitter spats and Christmas family banter, the festive period had been politics-free. Would I be rusty, especially as one of the other panelists was the formidable Alastair Campbell? As a former People’s Vote heavyweight, Campbell is something of an arch nemesis who has a reputation for taking no prisoners.
But regardless, one of my new year resolutions is to not dwell on past enmities. I am keen to build some unity, in order to make Brexit as productive as possible. Ahead of the programme, I reminded myself of the importance of not gloating about our impending departure from the EU, regardless of my antipathy to the second referendum crowd.
However, there was an added complication to my plan to be gracious: one of the topics was a discussion on the assassination in Iraq of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Could I avoid making any cheap snipes about Campbell’s role in that war? Well I didn’t gloat, but I did end up sniping.
I said my piece on Trump and the Middle East conflict, trying to reflect the complexities of the situation and warning against over-simplistic sloganeering, either from hawkish, pro-intervention cheerleaders or crass anti-American apologists for a vicious regime.
But then Campbell, after a reasonably nuanced take on the Iran crisis, couldn’t help but resort to a cheap jibe himself. He leaned towards me, smiling, and declared:
““I am sorry to go on about Brexit, but I also think it makes it harder that we are no longer seen as the player that we were inside the European Union.”
That was too much for me. I succumbed and sniped back, double negatives and all:
““Well I am sorry to go on about Iraq, but if I could just point out that the destabilisation of that region has not entirely got nothing to do with you.”
I tried to explain that Soleimani’s brutal rise to power in the Middle East was facilitated by the catastrophic Iraq war. Since then, the Sun has run a clip of the exchange on social media and I have won endless praise for calling-out Campbell. Yet it feels like a rather hollow, shoddy victory.
This may now lose me some of my new Twitter followers, but I want to defend Campbell, or at least make a plea for less sniping. In the clip, as I deliver my retort, Alastair laughs. This has widely been seen as a callous disregard for the lives lost in the Iraq war. In truth, I think Campbell realised he had walked into a ‘gotcha’ moment and was smirking at his own unforced error.
But more importantly, I want to give the benefit of doubt because, in an era of identity politics, in which so many are prepared to use their own subjective offence as a way of closing down discussion, I am wary of endorsing personalised political attacks.
Elsewhere in the programme, Campbell made some astute points about everything from the Labour leadership contest to the crisis in the Gulf. If ideas matter – and as the director of the Academy of Ideas, I believe they really do – then playing the ball not the man will be an essential part of drawing out some of the poison that is coursing through the British body politic. And rather than dismissing Campbell as an evil Remainiac or shouting 'war criminal' at his every utterance, it is better that he should be taken up for what he says, rather than who he is.
Of course, I understand that many of today’s problems of political spin, of the collapse of trust in the political establishment, stem from that ‘dodgy dossier’ era. And I am under no illusion that the consequences for that reckless militarism are still a factor in the creation of everything from the barbarities of the Iranian theocracy to the horrors of Isis. I am not suggesting we forget, much less forgive, but for the sake of more fruitful, straight-talking politics, I’d like to make a plea for moving on.
Constantly referring to past wrongdoings can become a substitute for developing a deeper analysis of today’s foreign-policy challenges, of understanding what is new and different. Indeed, as Campbell himself acknowledged on the panel, the popular revulsion at that earlier Iraq debacle is now regularly used as a way of preventing fresh analysis of what has unfurled in the Middle East since then.
Sloganeering and name-calling have been some of the most unsavoury aspects of Leave/ Remain conflicts over the past few years. This won’t stop overnight. For many Leavers, having been demonised in the vilest terms as racists, stupid and worse, it is hard to simply employ a hug-a-Remainer approach. For those still clinging on to their Remain identity, a degree of bitter resentment and profound disappointment may lead to a lashing out. Certainly, we can expect a regular stream of Brexit-blaming soundbites whatever issue is being discussed, as Alastair Campbell illustrated with his resort to a Brexit snipe in the middle of a discussion about an unrelated conflict across the world. Hopefully, he learned a lesson from his on-air mistake.
Whether he learns the lesson or not, the rest of us should. Here’s to less sniping and better arguing in 2020.