See the passage in April 2002 when Mr. Campbell accompanied Mr. Blair to Crawford to visit President Bush. The vital importance of that Texas meeting was that it was there, we can now be quite sure, that Mr. Blair committed British troops to an invasion of Iraq, although he pretended otherwise for almost a year and has not admitted—cannot admit—the truth to this day. But all Mr. Campbell records is an exchange with Mr. Bush. “He asked me why I wasn’t drinking and I said I was a recovering drunk. Me too, he said.” They compared notes, and Mr. Campbell (who later, with Mr. Blair, “reckoned Bush had been quite a lad in his youth, both on the booze and birds front”) explained that he’d suffered a severe breakdown in 1986.
Some of his old Fleet Street colleagues preferred him on the bottle, however violent he sometimes was, and his conduct throughout his Downing Street years displayed in extreme degree the classic dry-drunk’s hysterical aggression. One symptom was the Tourette’s cascade of obscenities that peppered his speech, and now laces his diaries: “I said to TB if she fucked him around too much, he should just kick her out”; “Fuck knows where these things came from”; “it was an immediate fucking nightmare”; “I had fucked up”; and so on, and on. The profanity is not only wearisome but plainly neurotic.
But his unconsciousness relates to deeds as well as words. Throughout the book runs a sparring match between Mr. Campbell and Peter Mandelson, his rival for Mr. Blair’s affections as intimate confidant. Mr. Mandelson was ejected from the Blair cabinet twice, in December 1998 with justice, and then in January 2001, after he had returned as Northern Ireland Secretary, most unjustly, simply because Mr. Campbell thought his head was needed to propitiate the media, and never mind the rights and wrongs. This was something a few journalists perceived at the time. “I was appalled at Robert Harris going on TV effectively saying I had pushed him out,” Mr. Campbell screeches—this after three pages in which he has described doing just that.
Here’s one of the book’s rare points of historical interest. Mr. Campbell’s account of the Northern Ireland negotiations, still seen by some as Mr. Blair’s triumph, confirms what could then be guessed inferentially, that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the leaders of the I.R.A. and its political front, Sinn Fein, ran rings around Mr. Blair: The fewer concessions they made, the more he made in return. The one person inside the Blair junta who resented this was Mandelson, who felt that Mr. Blair “was too prone to buying the line from Adams.” Just how far that was connected with Mr. Mandelson’s framing-up and firing is a truly important question for historians.
It’s also of interest to be shown (or, once again, to have confirmed) just how close the relationship was between Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch, once described by another Downing Street flak as the 24th member of the Blair cabinet.
Above all, the book demonstrates the sheer baseness and cheapness of the regime that Mr. Campbell served. Over the years, some critics said that the Blair junta was obsessed with presentation to the exclusion of policy, was trivial and trashy in its obsessions, a glitzy package with nothing inside. Anyone who doubted the truth of those charges can now find them justified page by excruciating page. Polemical denunciations have been written about Mr. Blair and his government; as the author of one of them, I can only say that The Blair Years is by far the most damaging book about Tony Blair yet published—and the one real value of this book may be to disabuse those Americans who fail to see that he comes out of Iraq worse than Mr. Bush rather than better, or who still have any illusions about him at all.
Just before leaving office Mr. Blair showed his unique mixture of chutzpah and cognitive dissonance when he denounced the “feral” media. This theme is echoed by Mr. Campbell, ranting and raging obscenely at a press for which he once worked and then spent years trying to control. There’s a hilarious moment when “I had an interesting chat with Tina and Harry Evans … about how awful the modern press was,” and another, at the height of the Gilligan-Kelly affair, when “TB and I agreed that the media were a real democratic problem.”
They could not have been more right, but the real “problem” of the press, on both sides of the Atlantic, was its shameful credulity about the way we were taken to war, and its failure to expose the falsehoods we were peddled. That’s the lesson to be drawn from this dismal and utterly depressing document.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include The Controversy of Zion (Perseus), The Strange Death of Tory England (Allen Lane) and, most recently, Yo, Blair! (Politico’s).
Follow Geoffrey Wheatcroft via RSS.