Alastair Campbell is one of the few political figures since the death of Spitting Image to lodge himself firmly in the nation’s visual imagination. He’d stand at the edge of the scene, watching Blair with a passionate intensity, hand near mouth, forming a silhouette as distinctive as that of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, many of the phrases and headlines of the age were his too, but they were spoken by others. We have had to wait for his diaries to get his own words in his own name.
There is quite a tradition of political diaries, with Tony Benn’s and Alan Clark’s being the most recent high profile examples. And from the outside it seems extraordinary that anyone working in a profession as demanding and exhausting as politics could find the time to write a diary. Perhaps there is a driving urge to record your actions in your own terms rather than entrusting them to the press and to historians? To sit exhausted, in the receding heat of the day, noting down your own account is an act of control.
For the reader, it saves us from that blight of conventional political memoirs: hindsight. We have a raw, if partisan story; rather than a prosing justification, which recasts and tidies.
But while a diary may be written as an act of control, the publishing of it surrenders that control, first to the press and then to readers. Fast moving fingers will flicker through the first copies looking to capture news: assessments of Brown, fights, reversals. In the search for yet another hot stale story from the New Labour soap opera, reflections on the press, deprecations of the media prism‚ and the lobby system will be flashed past.
And then, if the book does break through and become a hit with the public – as so few political books now do – then it will almost certainly be because it confirms people’s prejudices about Campbell and New Labour. When Alan Clark describes standing at the window of his top floor ministerial office and literally urinating on the world below, it resonated because he was a Tory minister behaving like a total and utter B’Stard. Fact was comfortably predictable.
The timing of publication, just as Tony Blair leaves office, means that the Campbell diaries will be a natural sorting house for general reflections on the Blair years. In particular the run up to the Iraq war, which still feels fresh because the facts of it are still in contention and the wounds are still raw. More widely, it will be a chance to reflect on spin‚ a term as inseparable from Blair as sleaze is from Major’s Tory party – rightly or wrongly in either case.
Outside the immediate reception of his diaries there will be a chance to judge the behaviour of the press, post-Blair. In the absence of the Blair spin machine‚ and the overarching master-story of Blair and Brown, will journalists get on their bikes and start looking for investigative, public interest stories? Will they report more and channel spin doctors less? Will we see a parliament page back in the broadsheets, speeches carried at length on the TV news?
As Campbell himself has noted, the media may decry spin doctors but seem to be addicted to their medicine. His diary will feed the news machine for a while. Then people will move on and find a new master story. Perhaps a Heseltine figure within the Brown cabinet? Perhaps a Whitewater style pseudo-scandal?
The test of Alastair Campbell’s legacy is not just in what he writes about it. It is in how much changes once he finally leaves the stage altogether. If the business of politics and the business of media continues much as before, then the answer to why things are the way they are won’t be found solely within the personality of the man. Instead he will look like a driven individual who stood in the torrent of news and attempted, foolhardily if you like, to direct it for a while.
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