Known as the spin doctor of New Labour, Alastair Campbell has a reputation that seems to divide opinion. Campbell certainly is a proud man, and after having achieved so much in his life, he has the right to be-doesn’t he? Political editor of the Mirror, overcoming a nervous breakdown, helping Labour win its landslide victory in 1997; and can now add becoming a successful novelist to his list of achievements. However, his legacy will always be plagued by the Iraq war and the death of Dr David Kelly.
We are seated at a table at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, London, before an awards ceremony where he was due to give a speech. Prior to sitting down, I felt as if Campbell was analysing me as we met and shook hands. I wasn’t surprised though-in fact, I expected it as many of Campbell’s books including- ‘Diaries Volume One: Prelude to Power 1994-1997’ prove him to be very perceptive character.
The discussion begins with a bit of banter. And it was Campbell’s beloved football team Burnley that was the topic. “Do you think I should be the new manager?” he asks in jest.
A lot of people go into journalism because they want to ‘change the world’, ‘expose corruption’ and some because it sounds like an interesting career. Not Campbell. “This is going to sound bad, but… I can’t remember why I chose Journalism” he says half ashamed and half buoyantly. Then slightly digressing (as he did for most of the interview), began talking about how he applied for a Journalism scheme when he was a teenager; there were 1000 applicants but only 12 places. Needless to say, Campbell was offered a place. He then tells me the key to his success: “I’ve always thought I was better than the next person up.”
Before Campbell worked as Tony Blair’s press secretary he was the political editor of the Mirror. But things have changed since he was in Journalism- which is now over 15 years ago. “Journalism is in a pretty bad way. I think things will change and evolve, and I think eventually return to a higher standard.” Who is he, some may ask, to talk about “higher standards” when he himself, made a career out of spin?
One fact remains unassailable though. It was the government- of which Campbell was an influential member – that decided to invade Iraq and as a result lead to many deaths. I ask him if he regrets anything in his career? “I can justify what we did and when we did it.” This remark was surely a reference to the decision made to invade Iraq. But hold on… I didn’t mention Iraq. Neither did I have any intention of bringing the topic up. Campbell, however, equated my question on ‘regret’ in his life, to the war on Iraq. “Regret is the wrong word” he continues “but it is whether you can see things in a slightly different way when you put things in perspective. The top level of government is full of really difficult decisions.” Some conspiracy theorists may even deduce, perhaps, nuances referring to Dr David Kelly.
Upon elaborating about his role in government, his phone rings-he didn’t hesitate to answer it. After the brief call, he carries on where he left off: “I feel incredibly privileged to be part of it [Labour’s success]. I feel very proud of the role I played in getting us organised and into power.” He even slips in the fact that his new book is due out soon.
I was starting to feel very comfortable around Campbell and was taking a keen interest in what he had to say, and although my time with him was almost up- I had to ask one more question. His views on Ed Miliband. “I didn’t vote for him, I voted for David. I think David would have been the right guy. I think he [Ed] has got into the position because of the way he was elected.” Campbell has been, and always will be, a vehement supporter of TB, and his unremitting defence of Gordon Brown during the 2010 elections cannot be argued. But for some reason, he doesn’t seem as enthusiastic about Ed.
“I quite like the way he is not doing crazy stuff and is cool about the whole situation. Ed made a lot in the campaign about how we have to learn from the lessons of what went wrong. But let us not forget about what went right. What went right is that we understood through New Labour that most people live their lives not in the two extremes, but kind of in the mainstream. I don’t think Ed is departing from that in terms of policy, but you’ve got to be careful of how you allow others to position you and I think others have so far positioned him in a place he doesn’t want to be.”
It is this sort of fighting talk that Alastair Campbell may use to help repress any bad memories he may have. And the things that “went right” in New Labour, it seems, Campbell attributes a large proportion to himself.
by Omar Shahid
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*Picture from Alastair Campbell blog