Book Reviews: ‘The Blair Years – Extracts From the Alastair Campbell Diaries’, & ‘The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett’
‘The Blair Years – Extracts From the Alastair Campbell Diaries’, edited by Alastair Campbell and Richard Stott. (Hutchinson. £25 hardback.)
Alastair Campbell, former Press Secretary to Tony Blair, has produced a volume of over 700 pages of his diary scribblings that most of the mainstream press has been expectantly salivating over for some time. In approach a hybrid of Richard Crossman’s Diaries and those of Campbell’s long-time friend Alan Clark (while certainly being nearer the latter in tone) it is rarely a dull read, even if there is plenty that has been kept back for fuller, later editions. Whether it met the expectations of the press is a matter for them, though many have been quick to point out that some of the most potentially damaging revelations have been edited out by Campbell for fear of embarrassing the present government, especially particular revelations related to some of the more serious disputes between Blair and Gordon Brown.
Campbell was a man feared by many both inside and outside government, and in truth not all the punches are pulled by any means. Campbell uses his journalistic training to good effect and manages to paint quite detailed personal portraits of the main figures in the UK government over the last ten years and more in a way that has never been done previously. A recovering alcoholic with at least one serious ‘psychotic episode’ as he calls it in his past, Campbell is an emotional man and this makes his diaries all the more readable – and very far removed in most respects from the standard fare usually served up by those deemed to be at the ‘heart of government’.
Apart from the sheer vanity of great numbers of those Blair surrounded himself with over the years (mirroring the vanity of Blair himself), there are at least three other things worthy of comment. First, the way in which an unelected official like Campbell clearly had more authority and power within the government than many – if not most – of the elected politicians, often to the annoyance of both the latter and the civil service. Second, the lack of clarity about how policy decisions sometimes emerged (the discussions and negotiations over Northern Ireland are the most interesting and detailed while the underlying reasons for the Iraq war seem to take poor second place to the military machinations). And third – frivolously if amusingly – the way in which so many of those featured in the diaries appear either partly or fully naked at various points (including Blair himself, Mo Mowlam and several other government officials). Campbell is a former writer of soft-core sex stories, which must have come in handy if you’re recounting heated late night discussions in Downing Street with a Prime Minister sat completely starkers in his office with nothing more than a mug of tea to cover his modesty.
In these edited extracts there were clearly limits to even this though – at no point, for instance, does Gordon Brown ever appear without so much as a tie.
Life of Cobbett
‘The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett’. By Richard Ingrams. (Harper Perennial £8.99)
As a former editor of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams knows a thing or two about being sued for libel and so is well-placed to write a biography of William Cobbett. Cobbett (1763–1835) was a journalist and political agitator. His first brush with the law came when, after a spell in the army, he tried to expose corruption among the officers in his regiment. In response, he was effectively threatened with being tried for treason and so fled to France and then the US. The Establishment were able to use comparable threats against Cobbett and others many times in order to persecute and clamp down on ‘radicals’.
After returning to Britain, Cobbett became an advocate of political, especially parliamentary, reform, a cause he pushed in his remarkable paper the Political Register. In 1810 he was charged with criminal libel following articles he had printed about an alleged army mutiny. It’s astonishing to learn that it was no defence to such a charge to show the truth of what had been written. Cobbett was sentenced to two years in prison.
In 1817 he upped sticks to America again, following the suspension of habeas corpus and worries for his safety. He came back after two years and in 1820 stood as a parliamentary candidate for Coventry in the general election that followed the death of George III. He lost, unsurprisingly given the smear campaign against him and the physical intimidation of potential voters for him.
Cobbett had started his working life as an unpaid labourer on his father’s farm. In 1830 widespread rural hunger led to rick-burning and other actions, in the so-called Swing riots. Cobbett was accused of stirring up the unrest and charged with seditious libel, but this time the jury could not agree and he was acquitted. He was elected MP for Oldham in 1832, after the passage of the Reform Act, but was able to achieve little in this role.
Richard Ingrams brings out many other aspects of Cobbett’s life: his enormous popularity, his love of the countryside, his detestation of Thomas Malthus and William Wilberforce. He has produced a very readable biography that fills in much of the political background and also has the merit of including many quotations from Cobbett’s own writings.