Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 July 2007
Bah! I was going to treat you all to a pastiche of the Alastair Campbell diaries in this column – but that’s already been done by all the Sundays and Private Eye and I don’t want to appear a copy-cat. So instead of sending up Campbell’s deathless prose, I’ll just write about what’s in the book.
Which is, of course, precisely what everyone else has done, but so what. The Blair Years is the UK political publishing sensation of the past decade – I can’t think of a political book that has had anything like its impact since Will Hutton’s The State We’re In way back in 1995, and that was a much slower burner – and I want to share my twopence-halfpenny-worth.
Not that I have deep insider knowledge to impart on the events described by Campbell: far from it. I met him on many occasions in the 1990s when I was working as a political journalist, but the only one that sticks in my mind is a New Statesman lunch at the Groucho Club in summer 1995 when we had a shouting match. He suggested that we should tell him in advance when we were about to publish a story that might embarrass New Labour. I suggested that he could go fuck himself, and it went downhill from there. Nine months later, the Statesman was bought by Geoffrey Robinson, who installed as editor the ultra-Blairite Ian Hargreaves, who in turn fired me and all the other lefties on the magazine apart from John Pilger. So maybe I should have been more diplomatic in dealing with Campbell.
Whatever, I decided around that time that I’d had it with political journalism, at least in the sense of hanging around Westminster chasing stories, covering the party conferences and all that. I’d done 10 years at Tribune and the Statesman, and it had mostly been fun. But I’d had enough of dealing with poisonous spin-doctors and I was sick of politicians who acted as if they had a god-given right to interfere with the left press. I was jaded. It was time for a change. A book on the Labour Party, then goodbye to all that.
I didn’t quite manage the definitive breach – I’m still writing this column, still addicted to political news – but for the past 10 years I have been pretty much spin-doctor-free. I’m in touch with a few politicians I meet for lunch or a couple of beers. But that’s just about it. I’m almost completely out of the loop, which makes me feel just a tad twitchy.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Having read the Campbell diaries from cover to cover, I realise that I’m not that much worse informed about what’s going on than the journalists who are closest to the action.
There might not be much that is news in The Blair Years, though there is a lot more than the first dismissive reports of the book’s contents suggested last week. But there is a great deal that is new. The picture the book paints of life in Tony Blair’s court is more vivid and more detailed than anything an outsider could produce – and it is also at odds in crucial respects with received journalistic wisdom.
On the internal dynamics of the Blair government, for instance, most accounts have hitherto stressed Blair’s dominance of the government or the fraught relationship between Blair and Gordon Brown. But it’s clear from Campbell that, in the first term at least, it makes much more sense to think of the government in terms of a complex series of trade-offs among a “big four” of Blair, Brown, John Prescott and Robin Cook.
No one before Campbell has ever captured the extraordinary intensity and drama-queen pettiness of the rivalries at the heart of New Labour. Nor is there any previous account that makes clear just how neurotic Blair and his entourage were about public opinion. There is also a vast amount in The Blair Years that is genuinely revelatory on the Irish peace process, the Kosovo crisis, Europe and the “special relationship” with the US.
Yes, the Campbell diaries are a self-serving effort by someone whose reputation for truth-telling is not what it might be. Yes, they reveal him to be hate-filled and hate-fuelled. Yes, they have been cut to comply with the Official Secrets Act and to remove anything likely to damage Gordon Brown. There is nothing much in them on policy, and the sections on the build-up to the Iraq war and the post-invasion bust-up between Campbell and the BBC are particularly disappointing, adding little to what is already in the public sphere.
In short, The Blair Years is not trustworthy, nor is it the last word on anything. But it is an important work of contemporary history that will change the way we look at Labour’s first decade in office after 1997. It’s funny how it seems so long ago...