The New Statesman this week runs a piece I wrote about what I had learned from reading my diaries of our first two years in power. Here it is …
‘Nobody can accuse you of writing a self-serving memoir,’ said Jonathan Powell when he first read my diaries four years ago as part of the official vetting process for The Blair Years. ‘You come over as a complete lunatic,’ said the then Prime Minister’s chief of staff. Harsh, but certainly the fact I kept a diary like this suggests a certain manic, obsessive tendency.
Reading the full account of Labour’s first two years in office now, from a distance of 13 years, I do find myself asking how I ever found the time. The entries themselves suggest long hours packed with a mix of the planned and the unexpected, a jumble of issues, meetings and personalities that today gives me a headache just thinking about them. My mood is not always good, my judgements sometimes overly harsh, my demands of others – not least my partner and my staff – excessive.
I usually did it late at night, in a mix of shorthand and scribble, sometimes first thing in the morning, occasionally, after intensely busy periods like a party conference or yet another round of Northern Ireland negotiations, whenever a gap appeared in the schedule.
Power and the People is a big book, and my diary a large body of words. Almost eighty per cent of the material here was not in The Blair Years. But it is far from a complete account of the time. It is very much my perspective. That has its advantages, because I hope my journalistic training gives me a good eye for detail. More important, I was always there or thereabouts at the centre of power, Cherie sometimes complaining I spent more time with her husband than she did. But it has its limitations too. Because my job was press secretary, the diaries do at times suggest an excessive focus on presentation at the expense of policy. That this impression took hold did the government no service, though the issues it raises, about the impact of the modern media on government and politics, are real.
Improving systems of co-ordination was sensible and long overdue, if not always easy to implement. But allowing them to become such an issue, and seeking to dominate the debate so aggressively on our terms, suggested we took into government a mindset we would have been better to leave at the door of Number 10. I am not overly taken with much that the new government does, but I did rather admire the way that their message over Christmas and the New Year appeared to be ‘we’re on holiday, see you when we get back.’
This volume covers the honeymoon period, sometimes said to be the longest in history. Yet even in the early days of government it is possible to spot seeds being sown which would later see our media relations become a running sore. I was also surprised to see that just days in, I was thinking about leaving. It is the broader political context, as well as my moods, that explains the disjunction between the nervousness we felt, and the all-powerful, all-conquering mighty machine many appeared to think we were. We had come from a long period of Opposition, during which the media had done Labour considerable damage. We were not always sure about the civil service’s capacity or desire for change. TB in particular worried about the Party not adapting to the rigours of government. So we centralised considerably, and a lot of that centralisation ran through me. But in seeking to make sure we set the agenda, we – or certainly I – sometimes lost sight of the difference between the important and the urgent. The pressures of the 24 hour media – and I don’t think any democratic government has really adapted well to its existence – are all to be immediate and tactical. But government should always be strategic.
As the diary is a day to day account, it is not easy to discern a clear driving strategy throughout. Whether managing new relationships in Europe, chairing the G8 and the EU simultaneously, supporting Bill Clinton at the height of his difficulties, dealing with the death of Princess Diana, or the intermittent personal and political scandals which came our way, time and again we see TB showing exceptional qualities. But all of these things took time, effort and energy and to some extent took us off the main strategic course.
When it comes to public service reform, for example, Tony Blair became more strategic as his Premiership went on, yet he also became less popular. It is hard to drive through real change without not just the official mandate of the electorate but also their consent as you go. If you don’t command consent in the modern era it becomes harder to govern. So the diaries raise the issue of how leaders seek to balance conviction and consent. People are always saying that they want politicians to show the courage of their convictions but when they do they tend to be portrayed as arrogant and out of touch. President Obama struggled with this same problem in his first two years, as TB did particularly in the later stages of his Premiership.
TB has acknowledged we could have done more on domestic reform in the first term, when the consent for change was certainly there. But so many events, good and bad, planned and unplanned, political and personal, seem on looking back to have crowded in. We did a lot to reform the economy – notably Bank of England independence – as well as introduce the New Deal, the minimum wage, Sure Start. We started to improve public services. We delivered devolution to Scotland and Wales. But these do not come over as the dominant missions of the time. If anything, Northern Ireland does. Transcribing the diaries seven years ago, after I left my full-time position in Downing Street, was largely a chore. But every now and then I came across something that took my breath away. One such was the entry, eleven days after the 1997 election when ‘TB said he reckoned he could see a way of sorting the Northern Ireland problem.’ There was a wonderful boldness to that. On this issue he was always strategic, yet also manic, relentless, determined never to take no for an answer. As well as living these events, I have relived them many times in the writing and editing process. But to this day I cannot fully work out how the Good Friday Agreement came together. The day that it did was one of the best of the many I spent in TB’s company. The diary includes as full an account as I can give. But I am not sure any of us know the whole story of what was going on as the parties suddenly reached agreement. Of course the GFA was the beginning not the end. The Omagh bombing was an attempt to blow it apart. I still get moved reading the account of the aftermath and in particular the Blair-Clinton visit.
Northern Ireland and Kosovo were two of TB’s finest hours. They are also areas where I feel the much derided ‘spin’ with which I became synonymous was put to good effect. Former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern once said that there were times when it was only what my counterpart Joe Lennon and I were up to in keeping the media busy that gave the politicians the space to keep the show on the road. Kosovo was a war that was never going to be lost militarily, but as this volume ends we are losing the public relations war, and that is something slowly and steadily that we put right.
But this book is not a paeon of praise to anybody. What I hope it does is capture something of the essence of the issues and characters within it. Bill Clinton comes out well. Gerhard Schroeder starts to, but fades. Jacques Chirac is a mix of charming and infuriating. Nelson Mandela remains one of the few people still able to make the hairs on my neck stand to attention, the memory of Boris Yeltsin always able to bring a smile to my lips.
On the domestic front, the so-called Big Guns of opposition days continue to fire both at our opponents, but sometimes at TB and at each other. Gordon Brown brilliant but also impossible. John Prescott insecure but fundamentally decent and loyal. Robin Cook ‘diddling’ a lot but on his day superb. Whilst ‘Big Beasts’ have always had their role in politics, and always will, as a result of the power they wielded and used and as a result of our attempts to manage that as best we could, it probably meant that talent in departments did not develop as it should, and that had an impact in later years.
In all this, politics is not that different to other walks of life. The difference is the scrutiny, the intensity and the scope and importance of decisions being made. I think politics and government have always been a mix of ideals and ambition, service and self, policy and personality. America’s greatest President was Abraham Lincoln, and my favourite book about politics is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals which chronicles how he became President and how he governed. It was a very different era, but I sometimes wonder how he and his rivals would have fared had they had the 24 hour media chronicling and analysing their every move and every word.
Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan once wrote that being President is like painting a portrait made up of thousands of tiny actions and decisions that collectively make up the final picture. This diary is part of that story so far as it relates to a British Prime Minister. I think history will be kinder to TB than the judgement much of the media passes on him now. Even when the whole thing is published, it will still only be telling part of the story. But I am confident this is as close as it gets to recording what life was like close to Tony Blair during a pretty remarkable period in British history. I’m not sure a diary can do much more than that. It is hopefully a contribution to history, but can never be a full account of it.
- Power and the People, volume 2 of Alastair Campbell’s diaries, 1997-1999, is published in hardback by Hutchinson, priced £25.