Magazine article The Spectator

Campbell Holds a Mirror Up to Shallow Britain

Magazine article The Spectator

Campbell Holds a Mirror Up to Shallow Britain

Article excerpt

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. …

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