Shtum

John Lanchester

  • The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries edited by Alastair Campbell and Richard Stott
    Hutchinson, 794 pp, £25.00, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 09 179629 7

There is a structural flaw in British politics. In theory, we have a representative democracy: we the electors vote for members of Parliament, whose job is to represent us, and who, collectively, are the sovereign power. In practice, though, it doesn’t quite work like that. We the electors vote for MPs, who regard their primary role as being representatives of their political party, and who pay just enough attention to their electorate in order to get re-elected. In effect, power has been devolved from the electorate to the political parties, and in particular to the leader of whichever party is in government; given a fat enough majority, the prime minister can do more or less what he likes, and the only brake on his power is how much he can get his own backbenchers to sign up to. So a leader can, after winning a general election, in effect take the phone to the electorate off the hook for the next four and a half years. This is not an accident, it is the way the system is supposed to work: a fundamental democratic deficit, designed to deliver functioning majorities of power with a minority share of the vote, and a permanently empowered class of politicians and civil servants. When you make this point to anyone involved in active politics, they always, always say the same thing: ‘What about capital punishment?’ The idea being that if more power was given to the proles, the nation’s lampposts would immediately be festooned with lynched paedophiles. And the answer to that, in turn, is: ‘What about Iraq?’ A system without a democratic deficit would never have gone to war, and would certainly not have gone to war with the two main political parties, ‘representing’ 578 of Parliament’s 646 seats, both whipped to vote in favour.

It is this structural flaw – this democratic deficit – that has caused the role of the press to mutate into that of the de facto opposition. The system is insensitive to popular opinion – it is designed that way – but at the same time there is more and more opportunity for the expression, and manufacture, of popular opinion. The electoral cycle is five years; the news cycle ideally generates new headlines at least three or four times a day, especially when there is a nice fast-breaking scandal or moral panic to hammer away at. Politicians don’t feel that the press represents anyone apart from itself, and think it is arrogant and unaccountable, and the press feels the same things about the politicians, and both are right.

As a result of this, relations between government and media in Britain are always going to be oppositional. For the Labour Party, there is a further complication, in that newspapers tend to have proprietors, and those proprietors tend to be right-wing. The choice is between ignoring the relevant newspapers or courting them. New Labour chose to do the second thing, on the basis that the press, especially the Murdoch press and especially especially the Sun, had played a central role in beating Labour in the 1992 general election. When Blair took over as leader in 1994, he had an overwhelming sense that he needed to court the press, in particular the party’s traditional enemies on the right. As he said in 2000,

Under Thatcher . . . they got drunk on the power she let them wield and then they tore Major to shreds, in part with our complicity. Also, for pragmatic reasons, we entered into a whole series of basically dishonest relationships with them and now they realised that. They realised that they actually have less power than they did and they see us as all-powerful and they want their power back. So there was no point in all-out war, because at the moment we have the upper hand.

The person to whom Blair said that was Alastair Campbell, whom he appointed to run his press operation shortly after becoming party leader. It is worth noticing how accurate Blair’s sense of the press-government relationship is: it makes you wonder, if he saw things so clearly, how on earth he could have put Campbell in charge. There is a structural problem with the government and the press; there is a historical problem with Labour and the press; so this was always going to be a tricky subject for Labour in office. Who to put in charge of this complex, delicate area? I know: let’s find our angriest, shoutiest, most tribal, most aggressive party loyalist. As Craig Brown joked in the Mail on Sunday, it is as if, instead of turning to Doctor Watson for advice, Sherlock Holmes had instead consulted the Hound of the Baskervilles. Campbell is a political journalist who, as part of a not-all-that-complex self-loathing, despises political journalists, a recovering drunk of the type that is angry with everybody all the time, a foul-mouthed natural bully who genuinely hated most of the people it was his job to deal with on a daily basis, and made no secret of it. ¡Olé! Sign him up!

Reading the Diaries, one has to remind oneself that in terms of Blair’s relations with the public, the book mostly covers the good years, when we more or less still believed him. You would never know that from reading Campbell. Right from the start he is boiling with rage. Barely a page passes without someone being called a twat, prat, cunt or wanker. He combines a remorselessly tribal and one-sided approach with a complete conviction about his own high moral purpose. All this adds up to his being, in the phrase of Charles Moore, ‘the most pointlessly combative person in human history’. At one point someone at the Downing Street switchboard, ‘at the end of a not untypical day’, makes the mistake of asking him how he is, and Campbell replies that he feels ‘both homicidal and suicidal’. He means it, too. All this makes his Diaries a strange read, because they are interesting, indeed fascinating, in many of their details, yet draining and demoralising in their cumulative effect. Reading this book is like standing listening to someone ranting and jabbing their finger in your chest, for hours, but saying something really interesting every ten minutes or so. As for the idea that relations with the press went horribly wrong – well, with a man who so hated the press in charge, how else could they possibly have gone?

From the point of view of the reader with a serious interest in politics, there are two crucial things wrong with Campbell’s Diaries. The first is Campbell’s decision to suppress material that would have damaged Gordon Brown. Since the inside story of Blair’s premiership is the story of his relationship with Brown, this is a huge hole in the book; though such mentions of Brown as there are (Blair ‘said that it was interesting that GB had been more co-operative recently’) make it perfectly clear that in the longer, unedited version of the diaries, we can expect to encounter a much fuller and much more angry portrait of the ‘co-creater of New Labour’. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant portion of the unpublished two million odd words are devoted to the TB-GBs. They might in their way be an important historical source; and one can see why Campbell, who is a party loyalist well past the point of fault, would not have wanted to dump on Blair’s successor just at this moment. (It is interesting that some of Brown’s first moves seem so specifically targeted at correcting things that went wrong in the Blair years. The reversal of the special order allowing political appointees to direct civil servants was a v-sign directed at the backs of Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell.)

The other omission is more sinister. It has always been part of the objection to Campbell that he briefed and spun against members of his own government, and that he was ruthless both in the way he rationed access and favours to the press (which you could argue was fair enough, within his brief) and in his willingness to damage people through leaks, gossip and spin. There are points in the Diaries at which well-informed people – Bill Clinton, for instance – blow up at Campbell for spinning against them. But Campbell tells us nothing about this side of his work, the selective leaking of information to lobby correspondents and other journalists. He keeps completely shtum. The strong inference one has to draw from this is that he exercised self-censorship in the writing of the diary, and was very careful never to admit to any negative briefing in print. But that means there is a large dark hole at the heart of Campbell’s account of himself and his work.

So Brown and briefing are the two big things missing from the Diaries. There are two big things to compensate for those omissions, and the first of them is the level of comic, anecdotal and personal detail. There is a large irony here, in that Campbell spent a great deal of time and rage attacking the modern media for its emphasis on personalities, gossip and process, and has now written a 350,000 word book concentrating on exactly those things. Never mind. There is some real comedy in the diary. Sometimes it is inadvertent and Pooterish: ‘GB called and we agreed God was a disaster area’; ‘The fall of Milosevic, which was brilliant.’ But there are some great little sketches, as when Alan Clark is added to a North London dinner party as a last-minute guest.

The Braggs arrived and Melvyn was horrified. He said he loathed Alan C. Alan and Jane arrived in one of his Bentleys, which could barely squeeze through the two lines of parked cars outside. They came to the door, Alan leaving the car parked outside with the engine running and he says: ‘Where does a chap park his charabanc in these parts?’ He was wearing tight beige trousers the like of which I don’t think the street had ever seen. I said I wouldn’t leave the keys in the car. At one point Fiona mentioned there was a bit of crab in the starter and he went into major melodrama, rushing to the door shouting, ‘Crab, crab, I can’t eat crab,’ then throwing up very loudly in the front garden.

The brilliant entry describing the semi-final of the European Championship in 1996, England v. Germany, is one of those times when Campbell catches the texture of this bizarre life, its mixture of hysteria, humour and hypocrisy, and with a glimpse of his gentler family side:

We got to Wembley for the semi-final with Germany and the atmosphere all round the ground was extraordinary. I had never really supported England, and for political reasons I found myself rooting privately for Germany, though as I was sitting next to one of JM’s bodyguards [John Major was still prime minister], even though he was a Scot, I pretended to be backing England. It was one of the most incredible matches I’ve ever seen and to be fair to England, they could and should have won and there was a part of me willing them on. But by the end I felt relief. ‘There goes the feelgood factor,’ said Dennis Howell. I then felt a total heel when I called home and the boys were crying their eyes out. JM looked a bit ashen. Just as we had been worrying, however irrationally, about the political benefits to him of England winning, so a part of him must have been banking on this. He looked pretty sick and the atmosphere at the back of the royal box was not great. I tried not to let my happiness show as we walked to the car. Once we got in, I said ‘Yess,’ and shook my fist. TB said can you leave any celebrations until you get home? I said don’t pretend you feel any different. When we dropped him off, I said Gute Nacht, mein Kapitan. Jetzt sind die Tories gefuckt.

Above all there is the portrait of Blair. Several reviewers have used the word ‘laddish’, and that seems right – there is a certain amount of bottom-ogling – though that might also reflect Blair’s tendency to sound like whoever he is with. It is an affectionate portrait and also often a comic one: ‘The Japanese saw in TB a new and very attractive kind of leader. I wondered if they would have felt the same if they had seen him later, sitting in his bedroom at the residence, wearing nothing but his underpants and an earthquake emergency helmet which we all had in our rooms, pretending to speak Japanese.’

One of Campbell’s foci is ‘TB’s terrible sense of style, e.g. the awful pullover he wore on his walk with Bush and the dreadful creation he wore on the plane’. This becomes a running gag. ‘TB was wearing Nicole Farhi shoes, ludicrous-looking lilac-coloured pyjama-style trousers and a blue smock. After GB left, I said he looked like Austin Powers. He said you are the second person today who’s said that.’ The next day: ‘Up to see TB in the flat. Another Austin Powers moment. Yellow/green underpants and that was it. I said what a prat he looked. He said I was just jealous – how many prime ministers have got a body like this?’ There is a flirtatious edge to this. Martin Amis, in a piece reporting on Blair’s last weeks in office, also described himself flirting with Blair. Some men have that effect on other men; it’s not a gay thing exactly, but it’s not the opposite of a gay thing, and there is something faintly homoerotic about the governmental milieu described here, full of dark-haired men shouting at each other, TB and AC and PM and GB all coming to blows (Mandelson v. Campbell in the course of an argument about whether Blair should wear a tie), bursting into tears, having make-up heart-to-hearts, saying bitchy things about each other behind each others’ backs, and ruthlessly doing each other down while secretly knowing that they are mutually dependent. Anyone being sent to a girls’ boarding school would do well to prepare by reading The Blair Years. The cover photo is part of this, Blair looking up at Campbell with an expression of submissive yearning that verges on the pornographic.

A narrative does eventually emerge from the accumulation of detail in the Diaries – and this is the second big virtue of the book, to match its anecdotal interest. (The selection was made by Richard Stott, who sadly died on 30 July; I suspect it is he who should get the credit for shaping the story.) It is the account of how Blair fell in love with his own certainty and sense of conviction. In Campbell’s early years working with him there are three points when Blair takes huge risks in the conviction that he is right, while most of the people around him are nervous; then things start to go wrong, and everyone else panics, but he sticks to his convictions, keeps working and eventually triumphs. As depicted by Campbell, those occasions were the scrapping of Clause Four in 1994, the process leading up to the Good Friday agreement in 1999, and the bombing of Kosovo and deposing of Milosevic in 2000. The details vary (and in their longer form will surely be of great interest to historians) but the emotional tenor of these stories is the same, and seems to have led Blair to succumb to a form of magical thinking about his ability to will away obstacles. ‘He thinks he’s invincible,’ Derry Irvine tells Campbell, as early as 1997. ‘It happened to Thatcher after ten years. It’s happened to Tony after six months!’ By 2003, this has begun to grate even on Campbell. ‘I was more conscious . . . of how regularly he said: “I know I’m right about this.”’ At another point, Campbell notes that ‘he had clearly been chatting to his maker again.’ That may be the key to Blair’s metamorphosis from a politician who prided himself on his sensitivity to public opinion, to one who prided himself on his ability to ignore it. The full extent of the disaster in Iraq is not present in these pages, but it looms over them as the destination of the narrative.

By the time catastrophe was in plain view, Campbell had left. That probably worked well for Blair, because Campbell’s super abrasive style had already been tested to destruction and beyond over the row with the BBC and the death of David Kelly. Campbell dedicates a hundred pages of the diary to the Iraq build-up and Kelly tragedy. If the intent is as self-exonerating as it seems to be, it fails, because the reader by this point knows perfectly that Campbell exercises self-censorship on the subject of leakings and negative briefings. Even if he had leaked Kelly’s identity to the press, he’d never have admitted it in his diary; the irony is that, for that very reason, the Diaries could never exonerate him. He angrily rebuts allegations that he chaired intelligence meetings but seems oblivous to the reality that he shouldn’t have been in the room at all.

To have Campbell snarling and sneering and bullying his way through the occupation of Iraq would have made the already terrible relations with the press even worse; so although Blair no doubt privately missed Campbell’s advice, his departure worked out OK for the prime minister. That, by this point in the Diaries’ portrait of Blair, is no surprise. Late in the book, Campbell and Peter Mandelson have a reflective lunch together, and what Mandelson says feels like the judgment of someone who knows Blair well and has studied him closely.

He said that TB was different class as a politician. ‘I love his deviousness, his selfishness, his ability to turn everything to his own advantage. His genius as a politician is his understanding of people, but also the fact that he is totally selfish and people either don’t see it or if they do, they don’t seem to mind because of what he brings to them and the job.’

Perhaps that in turn explains Blair’s apparent reliance on Campbell. The press secretary was so many things Blair wasn’t: passionately tribal about Labour, deeply loyal, committed to the idea of politics as a contest between rival teams, and helplessly, unstoppably abrasive. The general hatred of Campbell in the press was highly useful for Blair, since it created (as he at one point says himself) a ‘lightning rod’. Blair didn’t mind Campbell’s negative qualities because for him, they were an asset. Here, as elsewhere, Blair was adapting the lessons of his heroine Mrs Thatcher. She famously said that every prime minister needs a Willie. From Blair’s point of view, it was actively useful to have a press secretary who behaved like a total prick.