Alastair Campbell, The Blair Years: Extracts from Alastair Campbell Diaries (Hutchinson, 2007), £25
Soon after he had accompanied Tony Blair on his famous journey across the world to Hayman Island to pledge allegiance to Rupert Murdoch’s business interests, Alastair Campbell had a meeting with his former mentor, Neil Kinnock. It was towards the end of July 1995 and Campbell had “heard whispers” that Kinnock “was a bit disaffected with TB”. The former Labour leader began with heavy sarcasm (“a joke or three about the Oratory”) before giving way to an explosion of rage. It is worth quoting Kinnock’s diatribe (as reported by Campbell, of course) at length:
“’Oh Margaret Thatcher, not too bad you know, not such a bad person, quite radical, and of course you had to admire her determination and her leadership—that’s what the fucking leader says.’ ‘Now, now’, I said, trying to calm things… ‘Don’t “now, now” me. I’ll fucking tell him—too radical my arse. That woman fucking killed people… He’s sold out before he’s even got there.’ ‘Sold out what?’ ‘Everything…tax, health, education, unions, full employment, race, immigration, everything, he’s totally sold out. And for what? What are we FOR? It won’t matter if we win, the bankers and the stockbrokers have got us already by the fucking balls, laughing their heads off’.”
What Kinnock found particularly objectionable was Blair’s visit to Murdoch, flying “halfway round the world to grease him up”. “We gave him absolutely nothing,” Campbell insisted. “You will,” Kinnock replied.
Of course, Kinnock soon calmed down and even conceded that “his ‘sell-out’ analysis would have carried more conviction if he hadn’t sold out once or twice himself”. Indeed, Campbell told him that New Labour was “your creation”.
What is interesting is that Kinnock’s critique was absolutely spot on—with one important exception. He could not possibly have imagined that Blair, ably assisted by Campbell, and with Kinnock’s own acquiescence, would go on to kill considerably more people than Thatcher.
Who is Alastair Campbell? His first claim to fame came on 9 May 1980 when the Sun carried a story celebrating his exploits as a sex worker. The young Campbell was featured as a British gigolo, having sex with middle aged women in return for money and presents. Campbell has, of course, subsequently claimed that he had been “sexed up”, but at least for this observer of his career, he will always be a “sex worker gone bad”. He went on to write pornography for Forum magazine before abandoning all standards to become a tabloid journalist.
Although Campbell has been described as the most influential journalist there has ever been in British politics, this is really misleading—conflating journalism with propaganda. He was never concerned with informing his readers, with “speaking truth to power”. Instead Campbell’s defining characteristic was the need to be of service to powerful men. He started with Robert Maxwell, the then proprietor of the Daily Mirror, who was to go on to become the biggest thief in British history. His loyalty to the appalling Maxwell was absolute and uncompromising.
From Maxwell he went on to become part of Neil Kinnock’s circle, helping orchestrate his assault on the Labour left and on Militant. And finally he became Tony Blair’s press secretary in September 1994. Campbell was to be one of the most important architects of the New Labour project, sometimes described as the real deputy prime minister.
How to account for his influence? First there is the collapse of the Labour Party, its effective transformation into a docile vehicle for whatever the leadership want. This process was accomplished at every level of the party, up to and including the cabinet. Under Blair his “court” became decisive and Campbell was the ultimate courtier, prepared to do his master’s bidding, no matter how unsavoury it might be. The diaries might actually be of some use to future historians in establishing the culture of Blair’s court, its “laddism” and casual sexism, for example.
The other factor explaining Campbell’s importance is the need that New Labour had, and still has, to disguise its policies from the Labour Party’s supporters. A government uncompromisingly committed to neoliberalism, to furthering the interests of capital, had been elected as a backlash against these very same policies. New Labour was wholeheartedly committed to a pro-business agenda, carrying forward the same policies that had brought the Tories down. This had to be hidden, disguised, “spun” as something else. It involved an unprecedented degree of political dishonesty that was to be masterminded, in the main, by Campbell. This was to culminate with the Iraq war where the attempt was made to disguise a commitment to invade as a search for peace, and a non-existent Iraqi threat as an imminent danger.
What of the diary extracts themselves? Given Campbell’s track record, one cannot believe anything he writes. This, one feels, is a man who would lie to himself as easily as to other people. And indeed the book is absolutely self-serving, put together to make money and salvage reputations. One suspects it is intended to prepare the way for his election as a Labour MP sometime in the near future.
Campbell unwittingly portrays himself as someone who is profoundly insecure and consequently terribly susceptible to flattery. He dutifully records Neil Kinnock telling him he could be “the next Michael Parkinson”, Alan Clark, the reactionary and racist Tory MP (a close friend), telling him he could be the next leader of the Labour Party, Nicholas Soames, another Tory MP, telling him he was a “sex god”, Tony Blair telling him what “a big person” he was and even George Bush promising to “kiss his arse”.
Most embarrassingly, there is the supposed attraction that he and Princess Diana had for each other. He writes of how her eyes “went beyond radiance… I’m lost in her beauty”, of her “magical quality…we discovered we had a shared loathing of cats.” One dreads to think what his pornography was like. And most obscenely, he records Tony Blair suggesting that he should become his personal representative in occupied Iraq, “be his person totally gripping it… I said I was not keen, but he clearly was.”
There are some supposed revelations in the book. For example, Martin Bell’s independent candidature against Neil Hamilton at Tatton in 1997 turns out to have been a New Labour stunt. It was all Campbell’s brainchild and he actually describes it as “the Hamilton scam”. Interestingly, the media has not picked up on Campbell’s portrayal of Bell as a New Labour stooge. More important, however, is what has been excised from his account. For example, one would conclude that Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, had more influence on the government than Rupert Murdoch. British support for Clinton’s indefensible attack on Sudan in August 1998, destroying the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, goes completely unremarked. Most astonishingly, he has nothing to say about his key role in New Labour’s “dirty tricks”, in the media manipulation that was his actual job. And the bitter conflict between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown has been altogether removed from the record.
The book does usefully highlight the contrast in New Labour’s attitude towards the trade unions on the one hand and the union buster Rupert Murdoch on the other. On 1 May 1995 the veteran union leader Rodney Bickerstaffe warned Campbell that Blair would need the unions once in power: “I reported back to TB who said they can just fuck off.” Indeed, Campbell notes the difficulty Blair had disguising his “contempt” for the unions. Murdoch, however, was treated with respect, indeed deference. And, of course, Murdoch’s influence on New Labour policy was to far exceed that of the TUC. Under Tony Blair, Britain was to become a paradise for big business and the super-rich.
Of most interest, inevitably, is Campbell’s sanitised account of the Iraq war. As early as 23 July 2002 he has Blair and his advisers acknowledging that “the US had pretty much made up their minds” about invading Iraq. Blair “was pretty clear that we had to be with the Americans”. When the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, “raised the prospect of not going in with the US, TB said that would be the biggest shift in foreign policy in 50 years”. Britain would stand by the Americans no matter what. There was no problem with regime change because, according to Blair, that was the “route to dealing with” weapons of mass destruction.
What followed was an increasingly desperate attempt to rally support for the war. Everything was subordinated to it. Guantanamo, for example, was not seen as a problem itself, but as a presentational problem for New Labour. (“Guantanamo was running big and bad.”) Even the American warning that two British detainees might face execution was seen from the point of view of the problems it would cause the government rather than the problems it would cause the victims.
But despite all the difficulties there were heady moments. As Jack Straw put it, Tony Blair was “effectively vice-president of the free world”. There were, it seems, no delusions that these men were not capable of embracing. Campbell’s role, of course, was to “sex up” the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in order to provide justification for an illegal war of aggression. The highlight of his career saw him help manufacture a war that has cost over half a million people their lives and that will certainly cost the lives of many more people before it is over. Through all this the only person he really feels sorry for is himself.
What of the great 15 February 2003 anti_war demonstration? It inevitably gets short shrift. He complains of the “wall to wall, uncritical coverage of the march and the usual over the top claims about its size”, although he does admit it “was very big”. That evening, after he had done his 18-mile run and was on his way home, he “bumped into no end of people coming back from the march, placards under arms, faces full of self-righteousness” and “occasional loathing when they spotted me”. What is remarkable, of course, is how little resonance the biggest protest movement in British history had in New Labour. This, in itself, is a tribute to the success that Blair and Co have had in transforming the Labour Party, severing its links with the labour movement and consolidating its ties with big business.
Has Campbell any regrets about the Iraq war and its catastrophic consequences? Absolutely not. His only concern is very New Labour: maximising the blood money this discreditable volume will earn him. By some accounts it is working out at something like £2 for every Iraqi he has helped to kill.