The Alastair Campbell diaries: the Blair years
‘Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.’
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
As Brian, an occupant of the Big Brother house and therefore expert on celebrity in 21st century Britain, pointed out, ‘Politics is fame for ugly people’. Substitute ‘unpleasant’ for ‘ugly’ and Alastair Campbell and his diaries, or rather extracts from diaries, fit the bill. The ‘extracts’ are not political, they are at a rather low level. There is precious little attempt to express or analyse the political standpoint that gave birth to New Labour or drove it forward for the nine years that the diaries cover (1994-2003). In 1994 Blair announced to the Labour Party that principles without power were useless. Campbell treats us to an unedifying account of how he helped Blair and New Labour to shed all principles in favour of power.
‘By now, he had also let me know, and sworn me to secrecy, that he was minded to have a review of the constitution and scrap Clause 4. I have never felt any great ideological attachment to Clause 4 one way or the other... Here was a new leader telling me he was thinking of doing it in his first conference speech as a leader. I said I hope you do, because it’s bold.’ (On Blair’s proposal to drop Clause 4 commitment to common ownership from Labour’s constitution.)
‘Again we were getting credit for being big and bold and ballsy.’ (On Northern Ireland, May 1997.)
Throughout Campbell is concerned only with appearance. The question for each day and each issue is ‘How can we get away with this?’ From the start Blair had surrounded himself with people of his own ilk (including Philip Gould and Alastair Campbell as media advisers). They were all middle-class professionals keen to re-frame Labour politics to serve their own interests: they equated the needs of what they called middle class ‘hard-working’ families with the needs of the working class ‘hard-working’ families. Inevitably the working class was ditched. One of Blair’s first projects was to rid the Labour leadership of the influence of the trade union movement. Having announced that the employers would in future have as much influence on Labour as the unions, Blair flew off to visit Murdoch in Australia and the union leaders found themselves out in the cold.
‘"These people are stupid and they are malevolent...I have no option but to go up there and blow them out of the water". "I’m finished with these people", he said, "absolutely finished with them".’ (Blair on Transport & General Workers Union Conference, Blackpool, July 1995.)
Campbell was not at all perturbed by any of this, except for the need to keep John Prescott on board in Blair’s inner circle to smoothe relations with the party’s membership and any rump of the trade union movement deemed important enough (very few). Constantly in the background of every event over the next nine years are the quarrels, tensions, agreements, exchanges of abuse, fisticuffs and covering-up of corruption amongst Blair’s inner circle: Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Robin Cook, Peter Mandelson, Geoffrey Robinson et al.
The only issue which bites into Campbell’s consciousness is education. From the start he is beset by a succession of ministers, not least the Blairs themselves, sending their children off to selective, grammar or private schools. One suspects this is a sensitive point for even a man with no principles like Campbell because his wife (Fiona Millar) promotes the need for good state education for all. His various attempts to dissuade the Blairs and Harriet Harman from private education or its equivalent come to nothing. He signs off on the subject by quoting Blair: ‘He said whatever you do, make sure Rory and Calum [Campbell’s sons] get a good senior school, because if bright kids are not stretched they go off the rails.’ What Blair thinks should happen to working class children, bright or otherwise, who cannot afford the ‘good schools’ is not a consideration.
Throughout the Diaries a special level of abuse is reserved for the women Campbell and his fellow lads loathe:
‘Philip [Gould] called from a focus group in Edgware to say "Shagger Cook is a hero and they think she (wife) is fucking ghastly".’ January 1999
‘Milburn took me aside at the end of Cabinet, said people were getting really fed up with TB[Blair]’s tolerance of Clare [Short] in Cabinet. He said it was like having a bag lady in there just speaking out on everything.’ January 2003
‘She [Clare Short] was a totally ridiculous figure. Today had been like listening to someone on a bus...’
‘Queen’s Speech day, and Ken fucking Livingstone was leading the news. I think what I hated as much as anything was that we looked so incompetent. It was like something out of the eighties. Cherie’s clothes was still running as a problem.’
There is page upon page of this outpouring of contempt for anyone considered on the left-wing of the party. Yet blatant corruption by Mandelson, Robertson and others is covered up, and the ‘foibles’ of a succession of Tory ex-ministers who are Campbell’s friends are recounted with affection. Campbell is especially alarmed by real opposition, as any middle-class ‘hard worker’ would be:
‘The news was totally dominated by the so called ‘anti-capitalist’ riots in SW1. Both Churchill’s statue and the Cenotaph were defaced. I put out strong words from TB, but was alarmed later watching the softly-softly policing in the street where people were tearing up the lawns and wrecking anything they could find. It was unbelievably depressing.’
Perhaps any prospective reader of the Diaries would expect the high point of Campbell’s account to concern the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, and especially the production of dodgy dossiers on weapons of mass destruction and the death of Dr David Kelly, in which Campbell was centrally involved. You will be disappointed. There are shockingly few moments of revelation. First, an indication of the lines of government thinking: ‘It was also clear that there were likely to be would-be terrorists here as asylum seekers’ (September 2001, full intelligence report following the attack on the World Trade Centre). Second the only mention of torture camps and rendition: ‘Guantanamo was running big and bad, and we were not in shape to deal with it’ (January 2002).
There is supreme irony in one of his few moments of introspection:
‘As during Kosovo, I was getting annoyed at the sense of moral equivalence between what we said, in systems of democracy founded on the duty of politicians to tell the truth, and regimes like Milosevic and the Taliban who felt no such obligations, and yet whose word, even when proven to be false, was often given exactly the same weight.’
Campbell has no insight into his own position as hired liar to the British Prime Minister. This book isn’t worth much.
The Blair years. Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries, Edited by Alastair Campbell and Richard Stott, Hutchinson, 794pp, £25. November 1999