Alastair Campbell’s life story could make a great film. It has the perfect ingredients for a political thriller. Aged just 28, while working as a journalist for the Daily Mirror, he suffered a nervous breakdown, brought on from stress and heavy drinking. Now 56, Campbell recalls today from his home in north London, that seminal moment as a turning point in his career.
“It was a full on psychotic breakdown,” he remembers. “I don’t know if you have ever had one of those, but they are not to be recommended. It’s like your mind is a glass window: you can see your hands inside your head, and you are trying to hold it together. And then it suddenly just explodes. I got arrested, was sent to hospital, and stopped drinking. Everybody needs yardsticks to judge how they feel, and that was my low point.”
In 1994, having spent over a decade working as a newspaper man, Campbell was approached by Tony Blair to come and work as press secretary for the Labour Party, who were then in opposition. Following a landslide victory in 1997, Blair put Northern Ireland as a priority on his to do list as soon as he entered government. This is the subject of Campbell’s latest book: The Irish Diaries (1994-2003).
Written with a pen and notebook, as these historical events were unfolding, the book recalls the numerous peaks and troughs of the peace process. Campbell explains — in his candid and no-nonsense manner — the delicate balancing act of bringing unionists and nationalists for the most significant agreement between Britain and Ireland since the Anglo-Irish-Treaty of 1921.
“People can go on about spin and all the rest of it, but the fact is that with something like the Good Friday Agreement, getting your message right in the media is very important.”
Campbell says Blair brought a level of respect and empathy to negotiations that previously hadn’t existed in British diplomatic circles.
“The first step was to assure the unionists that we were committed to the principle of consent, but also make it clear that we totally got the nationalists and republicans feelings about being hard done by. Once that framework was set, we never really moved off it.
“Tony was also really good at empathising with all of their positions. He said that we had to try and understand the [republicans’] opinion, not from an intellectual standpoint, but really try and understand how they feel. But I also remember when Ken Maginnis [a unionist] said, ‘I’m sitting in a room with people who have tried to kill members of my family’. That shows you just how far we had come, even to get unionists and nationalists in the same room.”
Amidst these famous historical moments, Campbell maintains that humour was never far from the negotiating table either. Well, from his perspective anyway: “One time I had done a briefing and there was a knock on the door and Jonathan Powell [then chief of staff for the British government] said, ‘Some of your friends are here to see you’. So I went out, and there was Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly, and Martin Ferris,” he explains with a mischievous grin.
“And I was thinking, ‘Fuck, what I have a done now?’!. It was something about the IRA coming out with a statement. But they weren’t happy. And McGuinness was saying [Campbell puts on his best Derry accent now and starts laughing], ‘We want clarification.’! But Sinn Féin were a solid, smooth operation, who worked as a team. They battered their position and they never stopped negotiating.”
Campbell also recalls the frustration that the then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlan, created by choosing to take decisions in her own hands, without consulting fellow members of her party. In January 1998 she went to the Maze prison to speak with loyalist prisoners, failing to notify Tony Blair. Her relationship with Ulster unionists throughout these negotiations was, according to Campbell, often dysfunctional.
He breaks into another fit of laughter when he speaks about her extremely informal approach to politics.
“Mo had a big galvanising effect. But I think the unionists had never seen anything quite like her. I mean, she could be extraordinary: she would sit down at a meeting and belch, and take off her wig, and say things like, ‘Anybody going to crack a fucking joke around here?’.”
If signing the Good Friday Agreement was the high point of Campbell’s career, the Iraq war was another low ebb: and the beginning of the end for his tenure at the Labour Party.
In May 2003 both he and Blair were accused from a story that broke on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 by Andrew Gilligan of misleading the British parliament, and the public, over evidence for so-called weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam Hussein supposedly held at his disposal.
In the weeks that followed, it became apparent that Gilligan’s source for the story was the weapons inspector, Dr David Kelly, who was then asked to give evidence before the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee. A week later Kelly took his own life.
The raconteur tone has now subsided, and Campbell looks a little sombre as he recalls that moment in July 2003 that still haunts him.
“When David Kelly died, it was one of the worst days of my life, without a shadow of doubt. But it’s odd to have somebody who is defined as being an important part of my life, and yet, I have no impression of him and had never met him. People say to me if only you could admit that [his death] was partly your fault. But I don’t want to say things that I don’t feel.”
Campbell appeared before the Hutton Inquiry that same year, and he also gave evidence at the Chilcot Inquiry in 2010. However, he still denies accusations that he inserted any false intelligence into a dossier he drafted, which essentially gave the green light for Britain to invade Iraq. Moreover, he still stands by his decision to back Blair to go to war. “If you look at how it has panned out since, I can see why people say that was the wrong thing to do. But Tony Blair had to take a decision. And you can analyse that any way you want, but what you cannot do is base it on hindsight. You can certainly make the case that mistakes were made.
“Look, I’m not pretending Iraq is now perfect. But Western opinion says: ‘This is Bush’s and Blair’s fault’. That is what I don’t accept. You don’t do government in hindsight. Decisions are based upon what you are looking at there and then.”
If Campbell had once been the golden boy who helped transform Labour from a bunch of out of touch Marxists to a party who clung to the centre ground, where winning elections became a possibility, by 2003 he had become a toxic liability within the party, and he finally stepped down.
It’s interesting he says: “I was the guy who was part of shaping Tony Blair’s relationship with the media, but then my own relationship with the media became poisonous and nasty.”
Britain’s most famous spin-doctor has built a career that is full of contradictions and paradoxes. He courted controversy because he knew he could make a living out of being controversial.
But everyone has their limits, especially when it comes to taking a hiding from the British press. And, as a former tabloid journalist, Campbell understands this more than most. Still, he doesn’t look back. And he definitely has no regrets.
“There is no point in complaining. Let’s be honest, one of the reasons I have such a good life now, and why I do lots of interesting things is partly because I have reached a level of recognition, and notoriety, that actually, very few of the politicians have. And that is just the way the world has worked out. I am fine about it.”
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