Book Review from the October 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Blair Years – Extracts From the Alastair Campbell Diaries, edited by Alastair Campbell and Richard Stott. Hutchinson. £25 hardback.
Alastair Campbell, former Press Secretary to Tony Blair, has produced a volume of over 700 pages of his diary scribblings that most of the mainstream press has been expectantly salivating over for some time. In approach a hybrid of Richard Crossman’s Diaries and those of Campbell’s long-time friend Alan Clark (while certainly being nearer the latter in tone) it is rarely a dull read, even if there is plenty that has been kept back for fuller, later editions. Whether it met the expectations of the press is a matter for them, though many have been quick to point out that some of the most potentially damaging revelations have been edited out by Campbell for fear of embarrassing the present government, especially particular revelations related to some of the more serious disputes between Blair and Gordon Brown.
Campbell was a man feared by many both inside and outside government, and in truth not all the punches are pulled by any means. Campbell uses his journalistic training to good effect and manages to paint quite detailed personal portraits of the main figures in the UK government over the last ten years and more in a way that has never been done previously. A recovering alcoholic with at least one serious ‘psychotic episode’ as he calls it in his past, Campbell is an emotional man and this makes his diaries all the more readable – and very far removed in most respects from the standard fare usually served up by those deemed to be at the ‘heart of government’.
Apart from the sheer vanity of great numbers of those Blair surrounded himself with over the years (mirroring the vanity of Blair himself), there are at least three other things worthy of comment. First, the way in which an unelected official like Campbell clearly had more authority and power within the government than many – if not most – of the elected politicians, often to the annoyance of both the latter and the civil service. Second, the lack of clarity about how policy decisions sometimes emerged (the discussions and negotiations over Northern Ireland are the most interesting and detailed while the underlying reasons for the Iraq war seem to take poor second place to the military machinations). And third – frivolously if amusingly – the way in which so many of those featured in the diaries appear either partly or fully naked at various points (including Blair himself, Mo Mowlam and several other government officials). Campbell is a former writer of soft-core sex stories, which must have come in handy if you’re recounting heated late night discussions in Downing Street with a Prime Minister sat completely starkers in his office with nothing more than a mug of tea to cover his modesty.
In these edited extracts there were clearly limits to even this though – at no point, for instance, does Gordon Brown ever appear without so much as a tie.