Familiarity and Contempt
Tony Blair's press secretary settles accounts with the media.

Reviewed by Martin Kettle
Sunday, July 29, 2007


The Alastair Campbell Diaries

By Alastair Campbell

Knopf. 794 pp. $35

Superficially, Alastair Campbell may seem more an American political type than a British one. Traditionally, the 10 Downing Street press secretary was -- and under Gordon Brown is once again -- an anonymous career civil servant. Tony Blair's larger than life press secretary, by contrast, was a partisan warrior spokesman of a kind more familiar in Washington.

Yet Campbell was forged in a specifically British crucible. Battle-hardened as a tabloid political reporter, he was brought into government by the newly elected prime minister in May 1997 with a mission to stop the British media -- which only this year Blair described as a "feral beast" -- from doing to his Labor government what it had done to John Major's defeated Conservatives.

Campbell remained on the job for more than six years, a key confidant and a massively controversial figure, as obsessed by the media as the media were obsessed by him. He quit in August 2003, as Blair's domestic popularity started to dim in the aftermath of the Iraq war, but their mutual dependency continued. When Campbell left Downing Street for the last time, Blair said to him, in words that illuminate something about both men: "You do realize I will phone you every day, don't you?"

From early in the Blair era it was an open secret that Campbell was keeping a diary and, more recently, that he would go into print with it as soon as Blair left Downing Street, which the former premier finally did on June 27. Initial expectations in the London political world were immense, not least because Campbell mischievously referred to the diary as his pension plan. Later, those expectations were heavily discounted after it became clear that the book, already reduced to less than 20 percent of the original material, was heavily self-censored.

The published version reportedly has been purged of most of the entries that might show Brown in a bad light (though the new prime minister does not appear glowingly in what remains), might upset the Bush administration (likewise), might distress Cherie Blair and her children, or might indicate Campbell spent much of his time bad-mouthing reporters. In its British edition, The Blair Years is accurately described on the cover as "Extracts from the Alastair Campbell diaries." For the U.S. edition, the publisher has removed the important reference to extracts.

Campbell's book must therefore be read with care. It is not the full, unexpurgated, inside story of the Blair era. For that we must wait at least until Campbell publishes the whole text -- which is unlikely as long as Labor remains in power. What we have got is both spun and doctored. Yet much remains, not least the author's -- and Blair's -- obsession with soccer (Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson gets more references in these diaries than any of the journalists with whom Campbell spent most of his waking hours) and celebrity (Princess Diana was "absolutely, spell-bindingly, drop-dead gorgeous, in a way that the millions of photos didn't quite get"), and his expletive-filled language.

It would have been deeply misleading if Campbell's pungent English had been excised, too. Happily, it remains mostly intact, though some of Blair's expletives -- less frequent to begin with -- apparently have been removed. In an August 2003 entry, Campbell records being instructed to turn over part of his manuscript to Lord Hutton's inquiry into the suicide of British defense scientist David Kelly. With tensions mounting over Iraq, Blair telephones from vacation to be told that there is "a fair bit of bad language" in the sections handed to Hutton. The premier is alarmed. " 'How much?' A fair bit. '[Verb]?' Yes. '[Noun]?' Probably, can't remember. 'Bloody hell, Alastair.' "

Yet even with these cautions, this is beyond question the most important and revelatory book so far written about the inner workings of Blair's government. Along with Brown, strategist Peter Mandelson and pollster Philip Gould, Campbell was at the heart of the New Labor project that transformed an ailing party that had lost four successive British general elections into a dominant party that won the next three and may yet win more. After 1997, he was at Blair's side in Downing Street through all the key events -- from the death of Princess Diana to Kelly's suicide, the ebbs and flows of the Northern Ireland peace process, and selling the government's foreign strategy, with increasing desperation, from Kosovo to Iraq.

Visits to Washington and dealings with U.S. administrations inevitably figure large in his account. Campbell was dazzled by Bill Clinton, spooked by Dick Cheney, and respectful (at least in the published version) of George W. Bush, with whom he discussed drinking problems (Campbell's was worse than the president's), running and God (Campbell is a believer in the former and a non-believer in the latter). Visiting this newspaper with Blair in 1996, he found chairman Katharine Graham "impressive" and the editorial board "very right-wing."

By turns arrogant, brilliant, combative, demotic and emotional, Campbell delivers his impressions and verdicts in a wholly committed, staccato style. It is an earthy account of life in the Blair government's 24/7 media-centric world. As Campbell might say, he doesn't do reflection.

As with so much of Blair's career, the big question raised by this book is whether Blair's approach to politics was a paradigm for others to follow or an aberration for others to avoid. Whether governments can keep the modern media at arm's length, as Brown, borrowing from the Bush White House, is now trying to do, or whether they are doomed to scrap it out, is a crucial question.

Campbell's diaries scream that the daily combat is inescapable. His career suggests it will end in tears. Watching the media coverage of Campbell's last day in No. 10, Gould observed that "You'd have thought the Pope had died." Campbell's own view of the media, however, was less elevated: "God, I hate these people." They could carve those words on his tombstone. ยท

Martin Kettle is a political columnist for the London Guardian and was previously the paper's U.S. bureau chief.

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