THE BLAIR YEARS: THE ALASTAIR CAMPBELL DIARIES
By Alastair Campbell
Alfred A. Knopf, 794 pages, $35
By now we surely all know that Senator Joseph McCarthy was quite right: He just spoke 50 years too soon. His words about “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men” gave a remarkably good description of the way the Iraq war was hatched and launched by the Bush administration, with considerable help from Tony Blair.
And from Alastair Campbell: As Mr. Blair’s press secretary, spin doctor and consigliere from 1994 to 2003 (the Karl Rove of the Blair government), Mr. Campbell was a key player in the “New Labour project,” standing hatchet-faced at his capo’s side while Mr. Blair won the first two of his three general elections. Mr. Campbell had a more important role than all but a few others in weaving the web of misrepresentation and deceit on which we were taken to war.
Once Tony Blair had promised George Bush that he would support an invasion, this had to be justified, and from the summer of 2002 to the following March, Mr. Campbell worked tirelessly to this end, concocting the specious “dossier” which claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed a lethal armory ready for use within 45 minutes. Above all he will be remembered for the first months of 2003. In February he prepared the still more infamous “dodgy dossier” about W.M.D., supposedly hot intelligence but in reality cobbled together by Mr. Campbell and his fellow conspirators at Downing Street from any sources they could find on the Internet, including out-of-date academic writings which were cut-and-pasted, typos and all.
When the invasion took place and no W.M.D. were found, Andrew Gilligan of the B.B.C. said matter-of-factly that the government had “sexed up” the intelligence, as indeed it had. At this point Mr. Campbell (who has been described as the most pointlessly combative person in existence) picked an epic fight with the B.B.C., a story not at all fully or candidly covered in The Blair Years, the diaries Mr. Campbell has now published.
To tell it as briefly as possible, Mr. Campbell determined to “fuck Gilligan,” as he characteristically put it. This involved “outing” or exposing one of the reporter’s sources, the distinguished W.M.D. authority David Kelly, who was hounded to his suicide. A hearing was held by Lord Hutton, an honest but obtuse judge, whose report seemingly exonerated Mr. Campbell. The chairman and the director general of the B.B.C. resigned, Mr. Campbell preened himself before leaving his job—and yet polls showed that the British people had decided the B.B.C. was right and the Blair junta wrong, which was of course the case. Oh, and have I mentioned what happened in Iraq?
IT WAS LONG KNOWN THAT Alastair Campbell was keeping a diary; he used to boast to friends that it would make him more money than a best-selling thriller, and he has been paid a reputed $3 million for the book. When General George C. Marshall retired (the great Chief of Staff in World War II, Secretary of State, and Defense Secretary, he who inspired McCarthy’s premature words), a New York publisher offered him an advance of $1 million for his memoirs, an unheard-of figure more than 50 years ago. But he courteously declined, saying that it would be making a private profit from public service. We have put away such namby-pamby notions, or, it would seem, any idea that a prime minister should have stopped his press aide keeping a secret record of confidential conversations with government colleagues and foreign rulers for subsequent and lucrative publication.
If nothing else, then, The Blair Years ought to be a useful historical record, and it does have some interest, if not of the kind the writer intends. Mr. Campbell admits that he has not only shortened the original but heavily censored it to remove most of the content about the bitter feud between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer for 10 years and now Mr. Blair’s successor, because “I have no desire to make it harder for anyone, let alone Gordon.” Since that feud was the central theme of the past 10 years, these diaries have been shorn of a large part of their value.
But there is more to it. During the Hutton hearings, passages from Mr. Campbell’s diaries were produced in evidence, in the abbreviated, almost shorthand form in which he kept them, which is markedly different from the form in which they have now been “written up” for publication. That must raise questions about authenticity, questions raised in other ways also.
He wrote in November 1994 that “I loved these chats with Robin [Cook, who would be Mr. Blair’s first Foreign Secretary, who resigned in protest at the Iraq war, and who died suddenly two years ago] because he managed to combine innocence, wit and political dexterity.” Then in May 1995, Mr. Campbell is smitten by Princess Diana (one of the comic subtexts is that he thinks she found him attractive, when she was obviously just fluttering her eyelashes as she did at every man): “drop-dead gorgeous, in a way that the millions of photos didn’t quite get … there was something about her eyes that went beyond radiance.” My emphasis—but why the past tense? Neither Cook nor Diana was dead at the time these entries were supposedly written, so one must infer that they have been doctored—sexed up, one might say—with the same careless clumsiness that Mr. Campbell showed in another context: The author of the dodgy dossiers has now given us his dodgy diaries.
In other ways their value is diminished. The great diarists, from Pepys on, have lived through events worth recording and met people worth knowing, but they evinced personal qualities—self-awareness and self-honesty—which Mr. Campbell entirely lacks. His unconsciousness is in fact so complete as to be almost autistic. What the excellent Catherine Bennett of the Guardian has called “this monumentally lowering book” might be a psychiatric case study. These are the diaries of an acute manic-depressive, and of a deeply troubled personality.
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).