Stephen Pollard

Campbell holds a mirror up to shallow Britain

Stephen Pollard, who as David Blunkett’s biographer longed to see Alastair Campbell’s journal, says it tells us as much about the nation as it does about New Labour

Campbell holds a mirror up to shallow Britain
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Stephen Pollard, who as David Blunkett’s biographer longed to see Alastair Campbell’s journal, says it tells us as much about the nation as it does about New Labour

Alastair Campbell may be no Chips Channon or Alan Clark, but his diaries are at least readable. Very readable. And that is not something one can take for granted with New Labour diarists. The last set, from David Blunkett, managed to turn one of the most melodramatic political stories of all time into a turgid cure for insomnia.

The Campbell diaries’ importance lies not in any great revelations but as the final part of a New Labour Trilogy. More than just telling us about modern politics, however, they act as a guide to modern Britain.

Two previous books have been essential reading about The Project. Philip Gould’s Unfinished Revolution was a detailed account of how a coterie of (to use their own word) ‘modernisers’ took power and launched a revolution within the Labour party, transforming it from the greatest election-losing machine in Western politics to an unstoppable winning force. Donald Macintyre’s biography of Peter Mandelson then put flesh on the bones, personalising the strategic story with the life — and, most importantly, rivalries — of the Rasputin of the Blair revolution. Alastair Campbell’s diaries conclude the trilogy. Unintentionally, however, they move the story beyond politics to the state of Britain itself.

Ostensibly, Campbell’s book is simply edited highlights of his daily diary, an insider’s account of the Blair years. TB fretted, PM took offence, BC gladhanded — that sort of thing (in the New Labour world, you were no one if you weren’t initials). And it’s fascinating stuff for political junkies. Who wouldn’t want to know that TB described Roy Hattersley as ‘a fat, pompous bugger’? Who wouldn’t want to know that, at a small private dinner with Diana, ‘TB couldn’t work out whether to flirt with her or treat her like he would a visiting dignitary’? And who wouldn’t have guessed that, ‘he ended up doing a bit of both’?

But there’s little of this that actually matters or changes our perception of the New Labour court. How I longed, when writing my biography of David Blunkett, to have access to Mr Campbell’s fabled diary. There were only three people I approached for an interview who would not speak to me. One is now Prime Minister. One was Prime Minister until a few days ago. And the other was Alastair Campbell. On the basis of his diaries, I didn’t miss much.

In his introduction he is quite explicit about his purpose. ‘I always intended, on my terms, to be part of the mix that starts to shape the first draft of historical judgement around him. This is my first contribution to that...’.

You’ll look in vain for the inside story of the TBGBs, which has been excised. But it’s not what is left out about Gordon Brown (who comes across, even with heavy editing, as neurotic — or, one might say, psychologically flawed) that matters. The real interest of Alastair Campbell’s diaries lies not in what they do or don’t say about New Labour, but in what New Labour says about us.

AC was one of the five progenitors of New Labour (and sole author of the phrase itself, he tells us). Messrs Blair, Brown, Campbell, Gould and Mandelson are the most brilliantly strategic political team in history. But their success was built not merely on understanding what focus groups said and then putting the results in the mouths of New Labour politicians, as the caricatures would have it, but on divining the changes in the British mindset and changing the modus operandi of politics accordingly.

It’s all there in Alastair Campbell’s diaries: celebrity, superficiality, gossip, violence, duplicity. Yes, the detailed slog of Northern Ireland is also there. Campbell devotes page after page to it. But so, too, is everything else — not least the fights, both catfights and

real fights; there is an unintentionally hilar-ious account of Peter Mandelson throwing punches at Campbell and having to be restrained by Tony Blair.

The columnist Peter Hitchens coined the most telling nickname for Tony Blair after his tribute to Diana on the morning of her death: Princess Tony. Hitchens uses it sneeringly, but it perfectly captures what New Labour sought to be. The People’s Princess was the perfect New Labour icon. Aptly, Campbell devotes much space to relations with Princess Diana. Over dinner, AC tells PD (Campbell doesn’t do it, but it’s surely only fitting for Diana to be initialised) that she is ‘the best media operator in the world’. Blandly attractive and shallow, image-obsessed and intellectually superficial, Diana and New Labour were made for each other. Still more, Diana was made for a Great Britain which lapped up heat and Big Brother, empty vessels all. Just as Diana knew instinctively how to turn herself into a heroine for the new Britain, so Blair and Campbell understood that the country wanted not a leader but a cuddle. Vote Labour — we’re nicer than that other horrible lot.

Campbell realised intuitively how Britain had changed. Panorama and Newsnight were all very well, but Richard & Judy was where it was at. It was win-win: ‘Amazingly, we were pretty much allowed to choose the questions ...TB was at his best on the phone-in, much more relaxed, lovely and frank about Cherie.’ Serious stuff, indeed.

Nothing demonstrates how perfectly suited the fundamental shallowness of New Labour was to the modern electorate than the one occasion on which Blair ignored its triviality, in the aftermath of 9/11. Fully grasping the Islamist threat, he was resolute and forward-thinking. He was firm on Iraq. He even defended Israel’s right to defend itself from terror, against his own Cabinet’s instincts. And he was repaid with a kick in the political groin by an electorate for which such things are far too troubling to be worth thinking about. Instead of sustained analysis of the real problems, it is far easier just to shout ‘Iraq’ and close our eyes.

A constant refrain in Campbell’s diaries is Blair’s complaint that Labour politicians are not ‘serious’ — whether it is Clare Short hawking her supposed conscience around the TV studios, or some other overpromoted Buggins. But we get the politicians we want, and New Labour was, in that respect, perfect. Elected as New Labour, Blair indeed governed as New Labour. The result is an NHS which throws good money after bad, schools which churn out illiterates, welfare dependency at record levels and a political culture in which the opposition has to sink to the same lowest common denominator. LCD — the ultimate New Labour initials.

Alastair Campbell no doubt thinks he has done his former boss a good service. Even the warts in his portrait of Tony Blair are borne of admiration. But he has, unwittingly, exposed the deliberate emptiness at the heart of New Labour — and at the heart of a Britain which lapped it up.