The Book on Blair: A Key Aide’s 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 Campbell and his fellow conspirators at Downing Street from any sources they could find on the Internet, including out-of-date academic writings which were cut-and-pasted, typos and all.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.

The Book on Blair: A Key Aide’s Diaries