Magazine article The Spectator

It's Just Flim-Flam

Magazine article The Spectator

It's Just Flim-Flam

Article excerpt

IF Alastair Campbell were spontaneously to combust tomorrow in the middle of Parliament Square, splattering bloody bits of spin doctor all over St Margaret's church, the carriage gates and the south side of Her Majesty's Treasury, what would be the consequences? The mess, the memorial service and the inevitable inquiry apart, the only lasting repercussion would be that some hitherto little-known sorcerer's apprentice would succeed to the Campbell throne of spin, and government would continue as before.

Needless to say, this is not the impression you would be likely to gain from the nation's newspapers, or the BBC radio news that politicians publicly denigrate but over which they privately slaver. These sources would lead you to believe that the Prime Minister's press secretary is the very reincarnation of Machiavelli, the satanic spawn of some awful coupling between Peter Mandelson and Margaret Thatcher. The atmosphere is such that the famous remark about the Louisiana twister, Edward Livingstone - `He is a man of splendid abilities, but utterly corrupt. Like rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks' - seems almost kind to the Campbell the media have created.

They say he is unelected, unaccountable, over-powerful, overbearing, disingenuous, arrogant and rude. Maybe he is all those things. It is certainly not my place to say that he is not. But I do feel it behoves me to point out that the only thing that really marks Mr Campbell out from anybody else in public life is a mixture of humbug and mischief on the part of his accusers. Neither of these two impostors is entirely unpalatable by itself, but together they make a terrible cocktail, not unlike claret and gin.

Mr Campbell is indeed unelected and unaccountable, but no more so than the bosses of the FTSE 100 (who are not in any meaningful sense elected by their shareholders, or anybody else), the judges, the chiefs of the police and the armed forces, the management board of the BBC, the editors of our daily newspapers and weekly magazines, Cabinet ministers (who are elected only as MPs), and every other important public figure. Only in the most cursory and theoretical of senses are any of these people accountable to anyone except their boss.

Ah, but the great and the good abovelisted are not in the habit of sending threatening faxes to ministers of the Crown and giving deliberately misleading briefings to senior members of the press, the critic cries. Such is a naive and foolish cry, almost entirely without foundation. Most leaders of the British establishment do little else but send abusive messages to Cabinet ministers and attempt to bamboozle the press with weasel words and sneaky tricks. Almost universally arrogant, overbearing, unelected, unaccountable, duplicitous and often (particularly on the `captain of industry' side) stupid as well, our top people are all as bad as each other, and Alastair Campbell is no worse than the rest of them.

I shall come to the reasons he is painted in such Mephistophelean hues, but must first pause to consider Cool Britannia. Never has so much been written by so many about so little. But let that not distract us from the obvious truth: there is no such thing as Cool Britannia. It is not a new policy, or a definitional statement about the New Britain, or an attempt to rebrand the zephyr of the cultural zeitgeist. …

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