Wednesday, September 05, 2007


A few weeks ago, I wrote a short piece on Political Diaries. I had just bought Alistair Campbell’s mega-tome “The Blair Years” – some 760 odd pages of Blair’s ex Communications Director’s diaries covering the period 1994-2003.

Having read most of the many recent sets of diaries from politicians of all hues, I couldn’t help wondering what these would be like, seeing the media presented Campbell as some form of cross between Machiavelli and the Devil Incarnate. Rory Bremner’s view that Blair spent the whole of his premiership being Campbell’s poodle also left you with a very clear impression of the media’s view of the man – and the impression you were left with was not one you liked much.



Having now finished the book, I have changed my mind. Forget what the critics say, “The Blair Years” is a devastating and thrilling read, and, I think, a very, very important piece of work.

Campbell's views of those he came into contact with are fascinating, particularly such people as Mandleson, whom he clearly likes but who equally clearly frustrates him immensely, Clare Short, whom he simply despises, Clinton, whom he admires enormously, Dubya, whom he thinks is brighter than most people give credit for, Cherie Blair, Carole Caplin, who you feel Campbell almost suspects as having some unspoken hold over Tony Blair, and even Campbell’s wife Fiona, who also works with the Blairs.

The most interesting one of course is Blair himself. The great flaw in the book is that, right at the beginning, Campbell formally notes that certain passages have been modified/left out to avoid putting New Labour/Blair/Brown in a bad light. So all the time you’re reading it, you find yourself thinking – There’s something missing here, or the flow of that bit changes as if some post event changes have been made to the words. And, by definition, the bits where you feel this most are the bits which you really want to read about - like Blair's relationship with Gordon Brown - because there is little doubt that they’re in the original.

The reality of any published diary is that a varying amount of editing has always taken place, quite often with way more than half the original written words not seeing the published light of day. Here it is different. Firstly, this has been done for a specific reason, ie to avoid political embarrassment until much later on when the Full Cream Version is released, and secondly, the excision has been done by the author, and not someone like a Literary Editor, who makes the decisions on what to leave in on much wider and more independent grounds. So, we see Blair (certainly), and Brown (probably certainly) in a somewhat artificially sandpapered light. Occasionally, we are shown a flash of Blair temper, selfishness and petulance, but only in a situation where it occurs over an unimportant issue.

Sad but probably inevitable.

The other person you see portrayed throughout the book is Campbell himself, and here I am quite a convert. Clearly a hugely important man in the way the Government operated, with the occasional “we” rather than TB appearing when perhaps it shouldn’t, as in “we” deciding to sack someone during one of the several reshuffles. It may have been sloppy writing, but I don’t think so.


But in spite of the fact that anyone writing such a book cannot but help wittingly or unwittingly showing themselves to the reader, Campbell comes across as a terrific operator, very wise, very clear thinking, very strategic, and always seeing the big picture, when more people in the Government than you would like to think seem to be fixated on the flea rather than the dog.

In contrast, you feel he’d be great fun on an evening out at the pub, and that’s not something you can say about many of the New Labour Top Team.

You may not like what he was doing politically, but you have to admire immensely the way he did it. Bill Clinton, who as a communicator, Campbell thought was in a different league from all the rest, jokingly according to the book (but one suspects a grain of reality actually) wanted Campbell to takeover as the American Press/Communications Secretary. That says something.

His non Labour bits, when he runs the Marathon, bumming a decent sponsorship out of Dubya, when he does a walkabout with Clinton into the wide-eyed inhabitants of a Lancashire sea-side Fish shop, and particularly all around the mind numbingly frustrating Northern Ireland issues are rivetting reads.

They are not quite up with Alan Clark in the literal sense, who, to my mind, from a “writing” perspective in the political arena, reigns supreme here. But Clark has more time to “smell the daisies” and he does so brilliantly. Read him when he has to shoot the heron which has just devastated his fish ponds, and if you finish that bit without a tear in your eye there’s something a bit wrong with you. Campbell’s book isn’t like that because it’s much more focused on the politics, but he does write with great feeling.

The comparison with Clark is intriguing, because bizarrely, it turns out in the book that they were great friends, with Clark talking to Campbell far more in the latter stage of his life that I bet the Tory leaders would have liked, had they known. Campbell comes across as a really good, honest bloke, with tons of gravitas but also with, believe it or not, a ton of integrity – someone who, if you were picking up teams at school, you’d make bloody sure you got him on your side.

The book itself, I am sure, will become an absolutely invaluable historical tool. One suspects that not too many of the Big Players over the last 10 years have been sufficiently driven to keep a meaningful, detailed diary like Campbell (it’s very, very comprehensive), so it may well be the only inside version in the end that historians can rely on. You also feel slowly, as the book winds on, his gradually increasing lack of motivation and occasional despair at a life which consumes him totally and you really feel for him over even the survival of his marriage. Yet, he still kept on, with the job and the writing, until the Weapons of Mass Destruction, the “Dodgy Dossier” and David Kelly seemed to tip him over the edge and make him decide to leave. It’s all there, and you live it precipitately, day by day.


Writing a book, be it biography or autobiography, after the event, is totally different. They’ll all do that when the time comes – even John Prescott is in the throes, so my mind at least is in hyperboggle mode there. But in the Diary, the whole thing fizzes along in a very unique way.

It’s intriguing to read the critics and the book reviewers on it all as well. There are very few of them that don’t come in for some degree of savaging – it’s really about how many limbs Campbell is trying to remove from each of them. So it’s not surprising that when the critics have their one page chance to get their retaliation in, they all seem to have a go. Some damn it with faint praise, and some seem to verge on suppressed rubbishing.

The reality is that Campbell was One of Them, before he became Blair’s Communications Director. They must all, to some extent, feel betrayed and perhaps jealous, partly because he did the job so well. They have stayed on the sidelines, whereas he has taken centre stage, and there seems a thread of synchronised envy running through all the reviews I read. In the end, I got fed up with them, and decided to come to my own conclusions.

I think it’s the best set of diaries by a country mile since Alan Clark’s – in some ways it’s better, others not. But it runs them very close. They’re exciting, vivid, important, passionate, relevant, funny, individual and in places very moving. I simply didn’t expect that.

It’s a long while since a book has given me as much pleasure as this one did.



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