Is Alastair Campbell so all-powerful that he can dupe ministers and start wars?
According to Sunday Times columnist Minette Marin, he is the ‘Fuhrer of Fuddlement’, who launched a ‘relentless assault upon our memories’ and helped to ‘gang rape the truth’ (1).
Others say he is the ‘King of Spin’, whose ‘sexing up’ of a government dossier on Iraq made otherwise sceptical politicians support the war; some even claim that he pulled the prewar strings in Downing Street, playing the ‘dominating role’ in a ‘master/servant relationship’ with prime minister Tony Blair (2).
Alastair Campbell, the government’s spindoctor-in-chief, is seen as being responsible for (mis)leading Britain into war. BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan has accused him of ordering intelligence officials to ‘sex up’ the September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s weapons capabilities, by getting them to add a warning that Iraq could fire chemical and biological weapons at 45 minutes’ notice. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee looks set to clear Campbell’s name, but some still claim that he ‘misled ministers and voters’ (3).
Is Campbell really so influential that he can kickstart wars and ‘assault’ our memories? This view of Campbell as the puppet-master of British politics reveals more about New Labour politicians’ sense of impotence than it does about Campbell’s real role. At a time when politics is more about personality than ideology – when there is less a Labour Party collective than a collection of individuals out for themselves – MPs feel increasingly isolated from ‘the party’. It is this sense of things being beyond their influence that leads many to view Campbell as some kind of all-powerful supremo.
Labour MPs, even Labour ministers, feel increasingly disconnected from the Labour leadership. They feel themselves incapable of doing anything – from raising questions about tax to stopping the war on Iraq. As a result, many project their frustration on to Blair’s unelected coterie, who they imagine are secretly running the show. Clare Short, in her resignation rant after leaving the cabinet, pointed an accusing finger at the ‘increasingly small number of advisers who make decisions in private without proper discussion’ (4). The idea that Campbell and co control everything is a reflection of politicians’ own uncertainty rather than of spindoctors’ reality.
Yet rather than challenging what they perceive to be Campbell’s stranglehold over political life, many in the New Labour camp hide behind Big Bad Campbell as a cover for their own lack of backbone. Some Labour ministers already claimed that Britain’s dodgy evidence duped them into backing the war – as if the weak and plagiarised evidence could dupe anybody with an ounce of principle (5). Now, some point the finger at Campbell, unelected, ever-present, all-powerful Campbell, claiming that he single-handedly conned them into supporting the attack on Iraq. If it is politicians’ impotence that blows Campbell’s role out of proportion, it is their lack of principle that means he is blamed for everything.
If Campbell is really so powerful, why hasn’t he put a stop to the current mess (and erased the masses’ memories while he’s at it)? Instead, the government faces further embarrassment over its prewar evidence and ministers have become embroiled in a sad scrap with the BBC. The truth is that it is nonsense that Campbell runs the world – just as it is nonsense that adding a little white lie (allegedly) about Saddam’s 45-minute capacity to an already dodgy dossier could make antiwar politicians become pro-war overnight.
The Campbell affair indicates how much British politics itself has become a war of spin. In the absence of political conviction or principles, mainstream politics has become about personality and image, with blame-shifting taking the place of debate. As elected political leaders abdicate responsibility for the war in Iraq, the ‘debate’ about whether it was right or not has been reduced to an unsavoury spat between a spindoctor and a BBC journalist. The longer this drags on, Britain’s dodgy dossiers are exposed as the product of dodgy politics.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
(1) ‘The Fuhrer of Fuddlement wants to make you forget’, Minette Marin, The Sunday Times, 29 June 2003
(2) ‘When the man in the iron mask went off the New Labour rails’, Stuart Wavell, The Sunday Times, 29 June 2003-06-30
(3) Blair’s Labour trails in poll, adds to pressure for results, Bloomberg News, 27 June 2003
(4) Resignation speech heaps vitriol on ‘unaccountable’ Blair, Daily Telegraph, 13 May 2003
(5) See Hiding behind the weapons, by Brendan O’Neill
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