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One View of the Blair Years
on 22 August 2007
Alastair Campbell spent the period 1994-2003 as the chief `spin-doctor' of Tony Blair, with job of putting him, and later the New Labour government, in the best possible light. This volume contains edited extracts from the diaries he kept during the period. Like all political documents written specifically for future publication they should be approached critically, so it is useful to know where Campbell stands at present. Helpfully he lists in the Introduction what he believes are the achievements during this period. Some are substantial and undeniable, such as peace in Northern Ireland and the intervention in the Balkans. Others are much more controversial, such as a `reformed educational system' and an `improved health service'. About Iraq, which, rightly or wrongly, will be remembered as the Blair `legacy', he simply says that he hopes the book will add to the discussion that `will run for years, if not decades'.
The diaries themselves are fascinating and give a unique insight to the frenetic world of politics at the highest level, with its endless round of meetings and conferences, and crises, great and small, demanding solutions. The brief sketches of the personalities involved, both national and international, and their interactions, are some of the most interesting parts of the diaries. We learn of the extraordinary way Blair used his closest advisors to deliberately work himself up into a kind of panic before delivering important speeches, and how the endless friction between Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson frequently poisoned the atmosphere. Above all there is the obsession with the media and the image of New Labour. Everyone opposing them (and that means practically all reporters) is vilified by Campbell in abusive, often sexual language, whereas supporters are praised as `sound' and having a clear understanding of the wider view. It is all a little too simplistic. The obsession with the media is in some ways surprising, because Campbell frequently advises others attacked in the press to ignore it, as it will `soon blow over'. He also notes that despite their best efforts the media failed to topple President Clinton, despite the Monica Lewinsky affair.
There are other surprises in the diaries, for example the lengths that Blair went to keep the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, `onside'. Prescott was portrayed in the media as a buffoon and it is no exaggeration to say that the general public concurred with this view and were unable to see what was his role was. Had he been dismissed following the disclosure of his later risible sexual antics with his secretary in his office during working hours, the public would have applauded, but he was not disciplined in any serious way. The reason for his apparent invulnerability is not clear from the diaries.
Campbell certainly pulls no punches, not just about the media and the Tories, and does not hesitate to criticise his own side, usually if they oppose the party line as Mo Mowlam and Claire Short frequently did, but also from time-to-time Blair himself and even Blair's wife, Cherie. This gives the diaries the ring of authenticity and honesty. In other places they are not so convincing. Amongst these is the account of the so-called `dodgy dossier' and its inclusion of the claim that Saddam Hussein had `weapons of mass destruction' available at 45 minutes notice. (Incidentally, neither term appears in the index.) Campbell accuses the BBC of sophistry in its statements about the role of its reporter Andrew Gilligan, but a similar charge could be made about Campbell's account of his own role in preparing the dossier and `outing' the scientist Dr Kelly, who later committed suicide.
The diaries are, inevitably, also about Campbell himself. Regardless of whether one accepts his view of politics or not, one can only admire the energy of a man who overcame a problem with alcohol and a serious psychotic breakdown (which he freely discusses in the diaries) to become, in many people's opinion, the second most powerful man in the country. At times the extraordinary pace of his work and the absurdly long hours resulted in solitary sobbing sessions, had serious consequences for his personal family relations, and were a contributory factor in his decision to leave the job. It is a measure of his loyalty that someone who clearly admires achievement so much could continue to make regular long journeys to support Burnley football club!
I greatly enjoyed these diaries, although they are probably a little long for the general reader who just wants to get a flavour of how New Labour came to power and how it operated when in government. For example, it does not need almost 800 pages to understand that Cabinet was largely a sideshow and that major decisions were taken by Blair and a small group of his closest advisors, or the importance attached to media reporting by New Labour. However, I am sure the detailed material in this volume (and in several further projected volumes) will be of enormous help to future historians of the period.