Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - The Blair Years (2007)

Useful History?
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: September 2007
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 29: Autumn 2007 

The Blair Years by Alastair Campbell Hutchinson, 2007 ISBN 978-0091796297

One of the publishing events of the year is the publication of Alastair Campbell’s Diaries covering the period from the mid-1990s before Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 to the beginnings of the Iraq War in 2003 when Campbell resigned as his press officer.

The Diaries have been extensively reviewed and extracted from in the media; there is a website where we can view videos of Alastair and Tony and there was a series of TV programmes as well.

Previous memoirs by senior Labour figures from Barbara Castle to Dick Crossman and Tony Benn have not had quite as much publicity. But then again Campbell was a press officer, spin doctor in New Labour parlance, and perhaps the relevant comparison is with the memoirs of Harold Wilson’s press spokesman Joe Haines. Both men, of course, worked for the Daily Mirror.

A comparison of the most recent account by Haines of his time as Wilson’s press secretary and Campbell’s Diaries suggests that both men were seized by obsessions - in the case of Haines with Lady Falkender’s influence on Wilson, in the case of Campbell around the role of the BBC in the Kelly affair. This is political history of a sort but not one that is likely to detain historians for too long.

What research historians will be looking for in Campbell’s Diaries are clues to how the Blair Government worked that they are unlikely to get from official papers for many years. Indeed were it not for a challenge by the Sunday Times and Dick Crossman over his Diaries the British Secret State would still be banning the publication of such material.

So very broadly we can say that Campbell’s effort is better published than not. Of course Campbell is disdainful of the left, complaining about how much he dislikes George Galloway and belittling, but being compelled to write, a Diary entry for the great anti-war march of 15th February 2003, pictured above.

But few would imagine Campbell to be a left-wing socialist and in fact several reviewers have pointed out that the Diaries do suggest a distinctive political position, loyal to New Labour but leaning slightly not to Old Labour but to an earlier, perhaps Kinnockite, version of the modernisation project.

There remains the crucial matter of what Campbell has left out and this is central for historians. Steve Richards’ review of the Diaries in the Independent noted that the full text would be an invaluable resource for historians, but we have an abridged text. Campbell has made it clear that he (or his editor the late Richard Stott) has excised much material relating to relations between Blair and Brown. What he has not discussed is the lack of any reference to his spin doctoring activities, interventions behind the scenes and so on. For these we will have to await official papers, assuming they are not shredded or withheld.

However compared to historians of earlier generations we still in the modern era have a lot more material to go on to situate recent events historically than used to be the case.

No comments:

Post a comment