Monday, July 16, 2007


Self Hating Campbell's Diaries a Treasure Trove

I think Campbell's diaries are just brilliant. I'm not saying that they tell a pleasant story or that anyone comes out of them especially well, but they are so enthrallingly, thrillingly, fascinating about the shabby reality beneath the shabby veneer of New Labour. I only received the book a day ago-Amazon do the best deal by far- but I've read a fair number of the reviews and watched the BBC's excellent three part series last week. I've always maintained that trying to understand politics is like watching a game with very complex rules and players who wander all over the pitch trying to break them without being found out. This book validates my (if you will) personal political science conceit. I'm still reading the book whenever I can- though at nearly 800 pages it is f**king heavy(sorry, AC's foul mouthed style is contagious)-but I thought I'd post a few preliminary thoughts.

1. The Nerve Required in Politics: we often forget the pressures under which top politicians have to operate. Alastair's record of Blair early on in his Labour leadership reveal how essentially bold Blair was, willing to take risks. Looking back ,winning the party over to ditch Clause 4 seems routine, but this book takes us behind the scenes to taste the uncertainty-Robin Cook was totally opposed for instance- and fear of contemplating, planning and then delivering a brilliant coup within a party immersed in its own history which set up his subsequent career as premier. Campbell recognised this courage as Blair's special quality and was attracted, if not wholly seduced by it. Writing in The Sunday Times yesterday, Michael Portillo's article, addressed to Cameron was headed up: 'Charisma won't bring you power David, you need cojones too'.

2.State of Mind of Key Players: Maybe the courage required to survive at this level of politics carries with it penalties inflicted on the mental equilibrium of the top players. In his excellent review of the book Andrew Rawnsley notes Blair seems often at his wits end, in a 'state of panic', especially before making a major speech. This, maybe is understandable- Macmillan used to say answering PMQs was like 'going over the top' in World War I(something, which, of course, he had actually done)- and as the consummate actor, Blair is, performance butterflies go with the territory. Campbell, however, is a different matter. His image has been one of brutal, ruthless efficiency but as a victim of alcoholism and a nervous breakdown, Campbell was by no means what he seemed. He comes over a classic manic depressive, driven, obsessive, frequently weeping and almost socio-pathic, barely sleeping and in a constant ferment of anguish. As Rawnsley notes: He records being 'chronically' then 'clinically' depressed. By January 2000 he is 'homicidal and suicidal'.

And this is when Labour led by a mile in the polls and before Iraq or David Kelly's suicide, when we might think such states of mind were at least merited by circumstance. And when Labour finally wins- in 1997 and 2001- he feels deflated, empty- classic depressive. Campbell, becomes so screwed up the tension blazes off the pages of these diaries. For some hard to fathom reason he loathes the media, of which he himself had been such a prominent practitioner before taking Tony's shilling.

3.Editing: Many have criticised Campbell for excising comment about the dominating theme of Blair's years in power; his unremitting struggle with Gordon Brown. This means the account is seriously incomplete though I for one, a not particularly loyal party member, agree such material would be inappropriate in a volume published at the present time. No doubt Alastair will give us the unexpurgated version sometime in the future when his pension needs a top-up. Another question is whether such diaries should properly appear anyway- but that is another subject.

4. Conclusions: For all their faults, these diaries are a must-read for anyone who wants to see the reality behind the apparently solemn gravitas of government; for students of it, like me, this is a veritable treasure trove. Should we be worried that we are governed by people like this? Yes, we should, but I fear that any modern government would appear to be somewhat similar; given the 24-7 media tension and pressure seem inevitable concomitants to government. The thought which buzzes through my mind as I read these expletive heavily included pages is that Malcolm Tucker, the dominating spin doctor character of The Thick of It, is indeed the perfect fictional, albeit humorous, reflection of this damaged, driven, charismatic and exceptionally able man. How it's author, Armando Ianucci, could capture Campbell so accurately I have no idea.

Rather than Blair's relationship with Brown it is AC's relationship with Tony which dominates the book and surpassing strange it is too. Blair comes over as something more than a brother- he would be the younger and not the older by the way- but more a partner, even a somewhat gay one. Someone possibly in touch with his feminine side, Michael Portillo, comments: The diaries are disagreeably macho, at times almost homoerotic. Campbell and Blair seem to live so close to each other, sometimes in states of undress, 'intimate' really is the word to describe their relationship.

But the most perceptive conclusion I have read to date is provided by Bagehot, the Economist's columnist:

Like many diarists, Mr Campbell is an unreliable narrator. He is megalomaniacal and vain. He thinks Princess Diana fancies him (“there was something about her eyes that went beyond radiance”, he writes, reviving the skills he honed in another former job, as a writer for a pornographic magazine). Everyone keeps trying to calm his misanthropic fury: his wife, Mr Blair, even Mr Clinton. Eventually, you sense that, sad and haunted as he is, the real target of Mr Campbell's ire is himself.

I haven't read the diaries but I did watch the TV programmes - a fascinating hurtle through the last fifteen years I thought.

Having met quite a few of both (and worked with some of the second group), I think modern politicians are rather like modern business leaders and the programmes seemed to confirm my view. They are characterised by the ability to work very hard, to keep an huge amount of information on quick recall in their brains, to appear completely certain of their direction even when they're not, to inspire incredible loyalty even from subordinates even those who really don't like them much, to distil at vast speed the numb of an issue from a load of hardly coherent waffle, to be risk takers able to act without needing to know every last detail, to be willing to sacrifice a 'normal' social and private life.

Along with most of the population I score almost zero against most of these (mostly fine) qualities! No wonder we don't really understand them and that they are often baffled by us...
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