Alastair Campbell can’t write. If that sounds like one of the less significant charges one might level against Tony Blair’s former spin-doctor then stick with me. Because anyone who can spill out thousands of words and still be so unoriginal and lacking in insight or self-perception must have things they are trying to hide. That is why the laborious ‘long-think’ that Campbell wrote this week for the equally laborious ‘Tortoise’ website is worth pausing over.
For those who have missed it, Campbell was this week invited by Tortoise to write a multi-thousand word piece on the recent events in Afghanistan. Since Campbell was right-hand man to Tony Blair when the then Prime Minister chose to send British forces into Afghanistan alongside America almost exactly 20 years ago this could have been an interesting piece. If it happened to be big on detail and bogged down in policy minutiae then all the better. That is what such a forum is self-professedly for.
Yet Campbell did none of this. His first paragraph is taken up with a claim that Johnson imagines that he is Churchill, only ‘with lots of hair and no comb’. It shows a special type of small-mindedness to start a piece about the human catastrophe and foreign policy disaster that is Afghanistan by making an unoriginal crack about Boris Johnson’s hair. But once caught in cliché alley, Campbell can find no way of getting out from it. His follow-on observation is that ‘in reality Boris Johnson is a combination of Captain Mainwaring, Corporal Jones and Private Pike’ from Dad’s Army.
Campbell goes on to accuse Johnson of ‘blustering’, ‘blundering’ and failing to show ‘leadership’. Later we learn that there is a risk that the Afghan exit will strengthen ‘the hard Right at home’. Which is one of the things about parochial internationalists like Campbell. In America they look abroad and talk about Trump or Biden. In Britain they look abroad and see only Brexit.
What responsibility will Campbell himself take? We cannot find out because soon enough Campbell is back to his personal obsessions. ‘I’ll readily admit to my bias against Johnson’ he says at one point, which must be a relief to the women of Kandahar. But he explains that this is because he has observed so many presidents and prime ministers up close and thinks that the UK is ‘ill-served by this PM and his cabinet of Brexit yes-men and women.’
So finally we are at the point. What can we learn about Afghanistan from Alastair Campbell? Unsurprisingly we learn that he thinks that Tony Blair would have done a better job than Johnson over Afghanistan. And as the man who helped Blair get the UK into Afghanistan and then get stuck there for 20 years you would have thought this would be the moment for some insight. For example, just why did the mission to destroy al Qaeda camps turn into a mission to state-build in the country and then into a mission that lasted a full 20 years, with nothing to show for it at the end but a better-armed, fully American-equipped Taliban? Surely this could be a moment for Campbell to share some insight into how all this happened?
In a similar manner, Campbell is interested in Johnson’s alleged ‘lies’. As the spin-doctor widely credited with erasing the principle of truthfulness in government and single-handedly infecting the public discourse with untruth as a way of government (witness Michael Howard saying this to his face once on Newsnight) Campbell might have been in a good position to explain how we got here. But we get none of this.
Instead Campbell asks ‘Where is Johnson the serious prime minister, or even Johnson the statesman?’ Instead he says we have a ‘sado-populist nationalist’ in No. 10. If most people tried to imagine sadism in political leadership it would probably include a regime which dismembers its political and religious opponents outside their front doors and hangs their bodies in the streets. Or a regime which finds it amusing to rape and then torture people who they suspect of being gay. Both these things have been done in recent days by the Taliban regime. But Alastair Campbell is not very interested in them. He has used up all his ‘sado’ language on Boris Johnson. While trying to think global Campbell can only think local, and local-partisan at that.
There are several oddities in all of this. The first is the fact that Alastair Campbell bemoans Brexit Britain for not being a bigger player on the world stage. Yet half a decade on from the 2016 vote it is the Remainers like Campbell who take so little interest in the wider world. They might have spent the last five years strengthening the UK’s role with its allies, rebuilding old alliances and forming new ones. Instead they have been on a mission of self-immolation, hoping that if they burn their own country down they will at least take their political enemies with them, perhaps managing a final cry of ‘I told you so’.
The second oddity in this is that Campbell repeatedly berates Johnson and co. for what he regards as a fundamental lack of seriousness. This would be much easier to take if Campbell himself did not fairly regularly have periods of painful unseriousness in full public view. During one of his recent outbursts Campbell decided to post a video of himself dressed as a veteran, putting on a comic accent and singing a weird song of his own invention to make some unclear point about Boris Johnson and Brexit. It is hard to take precise lessons on correct behaviour from Alastair Campbell.
Yet the bigger problem (Campbell would doubtless call it ‘the elephant in the room’) is the fact, which is nowhere reflected upon, that UK forces went into Afghanistan at Campbell and Blair’s urging, and under their leadership. It is now clear to everyone that we went in with an unclear mission, a changing battle plan and a constantly evolving mission-purpose. Campbell and Blair did all of this whilst instituting cuts to the armed forces. At the precise moment that the Blair government decided that the armed forces were a thing that they enjoyed using. More than 450 UK service personnel lost their lives in the conflict in question.
So a moment of self-reflection might have been expected when Campbell was asked to do his ‘big think’ on Afghanistan. Instead he revealed what all bad writing reveals. Not just that Alastair Campbell cannot write, but that (as always comes with bad writing) he has trouble thinking or reflecting honestly as well.