Hiding behind Hutton

Having abandoned democracy and debate, Blair's critics hope that a law lord will fight their battles for them.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

It was predictable that Alastair Campbell’s appearance at the Hutton Inquiry on 19 August would cause a storm in a courthouse. As Tony Blair’s director of communications, Campbell has long been the bogeyman of the left, seen as the ‘power behind the New Labour throne’. Sure enough, anti-war protesters chanted ‘We hate you’ as he arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice, while others had queued up since dawn to catch a glimpse of him getting grilled (1).

Beyond these infantile fantasies about the ruthless ruler of the world finally being brought to justice, the fuss surrounding Campbell and his evidence revealed much about the anti-political and anti-democratic trends underpinning the inquiry. For many, the most glorious thing about seeing Campbell in court was that he was finally ‘unspun’, stripped bare of the ‘cover of politics’ – and the fact that a law lord, untainted by politics, was doing the unspinning apparently made it all the better (2). You don’t have to be a fan of Campbell to be concerned about such sentiments.

The frenzy surrounding Campbell’s day in court confirmed that many on the left see him as a dark, all-powerful force who pulls the strings in modern Britain. Guardian columnist David Aaronovtich seemed both repelled and transfixed by Campbell, ‘the widow’s peak of his hair, the vertical of his forehead, the long downward sweep of the nose, the set of the jaw…as if some great didactic power was using him to illustrate advanced geometry’ (3). Other journalists attested to these mysterious, unearthly powers. ‘How did he get here?’ wondered one hack as Campbell took the stand. ‘He just materialised.’ (4)

Outside the court, anti-war groups screamed abuse and threw placards at Campbell. The personal nature of their chants – ‘We hate you’, ‘Damn your war’ – captured how many on the left hold Campbell responsible for single-handedly taking Britain into war with Iraq. Ironically, the man whom the protesters were implicitly rooting for in this clash of the unelected – Lord Hutton – played a central role in Britain’s war effort in Ireland in the 1970s and 80s. As Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice, Hutton was responsible for overseeing the non-jury Diplock courts that tried and imprisoned members of the IRA who opposed the British presence in Ireland.

The obsession with Campbell – his ‘unswerving’ political loyalty, his mannerisms, his ‘hooded eyes that gleamed with the stare of a buzzard’ (5) – reveals far more about the left than it does about Campbell’s role in the government, or any magic powers that he might have. The view of Campbell as the puppet-master of British politics, the shadowy figure who okays wars and dupes the masses, captures a sense of impotence among left-wingers and disgruntled members of the Labour Party. Feeling themselves increasingly isolated from the Labour Party machine and public debate, many project their frustration on to Blair’s unelected coterie who they imagine must secretly be running the show.

Politics today is more about personality than ideology, where a politician’s character and ability to resist ‘sleaze’ counts for more than his convictions or beliefs. The New Labour Party is less a collective of like-minded politicians, than a collection of individuals out for themselves. In this kind of climate, Labour members, MPs and even ministers – as well as left-wing groups that traditionally remained in Labour’s orbit – feel increasingly isolated from ‘the party’ and the decisions it takes. They feel themselves incapable of having much of an impact, on anything from schools policy to war. It is this sense of things being beyond their control that leads many to view Campbell and co as all-powerful supremos.

This was summed up perfectly, and rather pathetically, by the anti-war/anti-Campbell protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice. The demonstration was a sorry parody of what might have taken place in the past. Where left-wing groups like CND and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) sought to influence Labour policy or Labour members in years gone by – to put pressure on what they considered to be, for all their claims to independence, ‘their party’ – today they throw things and stamp their feet and shout at Alastair Campbell as he walks into court. This was less a political protest against war, than a frustrated tantrum born of the left’s own sense of exclusion.

Of course Campbell is influential; he has been Blair’s right-hand man for nearly 10 years, and he appears to have done much internally to justify the invasion of Iraq. But he is not the ‘overbearing power’ in Britain that some claim he is. If he was really a ‘British Richelieu’, as David Aaronvitch described him, in reference to the seventeenth-century French statesman who many claim was the ‘effective ruler of France’ under King Louis XIII, then why doesn’t he halt Hutton – an inquiry that has already forced him to make public his apparently unsexy diaries and to ‘become the story’? Maybe Campbell should click his fingers and simply ‘materialise’ somewhere else, like Barbados perhaps.

Far from a New Labour few exercising control-freakery over everything from internal memos to war in Iraq, the events leading up to the Hutton Inquiry demonstrate the government’s sense of being out of control. From the cobbled-together dossiers and the tortured debates about whether they were convincing, to conceding an inquiry to investigate who did and said what to David Kelly, to the opening up of diaries and email correspondence in recent days – it looks like Blair and Campbell’s inner circle have not so much been following a big bad secret plan, as lurching around for some ideas and authority.

The same sense of exclusion that makes Labourites and the left obsess over Campbell has also led them to support the Hutton Inquiry. They may despise Campbell for being unelected yet influential, but they have no problem with the unelected Hutton sitting in judgement on elected officials and ministers. At least Campbell wears his politics on his sleeve, and openly admits that his overriding loyalty is to Blair and New Labour. Hutton, by contrast, derives his authority over the current inquiry precisely from the fact that he is an outsider, with no ‘self-interest’, who has never been ‘tarred’ by the political brush. It seems to be these qualities of aloofness that many left and radical commentators admire most in Hutton.

According to the Guardian’s Hugo Young, the Iraq war, the WMD issue and the David Kelly affair have landed Britain’s political elite ‘in a state of crisis’ – and ‘what [such] questions need is examination and answer by an outsider…. There has to be a judge….an agent of untarnished credibility’ (6). ‘It takes a judge to cut through the fudge’, says another commentator, ‘to open up the murky areas of government which MPs have failed to penetrate’ (7).

For Socialist Worker, the weekly newspaper of the SWP, the Hutton Inquiry has done a decent service to British politics thus far, by showing that ‘the claims used by Blair to justify war on Iraq were so flimsy that his government lied and bullied at every turn to get its way’. But the SWP is concerned that the inquiry doesn’t go far enough, and will not thoroughly ‘address the lies behind the war’ (8).

Indeed, the SWP and other groups that make up the UK’s Stop the War Coalition see the Hutton Inquiry as a kind of precursor to their own People’s Assembly on 30 August. ‘The Hutton inquiry is starting to scratch the surface of the government’s lies’, says Stop the War’s Andrew Murray. ‘But Blair needs to be held to account for all the ways he manipulated the public and showed contempt for democracy in the run-up to war. The People’s Assembly is our chance to do that.’ (9) For one Labour MP, Hutton, similarly, is ‘our one chance to find out what happened, in the run-up to this war’.

It is clear than many on the left hope that the Hutton Inquiry will do what they have singularly failed to do themselves – challenge the government, and especially King Campbell. They are investing their political aspirations in Lord Hutton of Bresagh, a man with real authority, who just might give Blair, Campbell and the rest the bloody noses they deserve. This represents a spectacular abandonment of politics and open, democratic debate, in favour of getting a law lord to fight battles on their behalf. Just as CND tried to challenge the war on Iraq by taking the government to the High Court back in November 2002, so the left now hopes to hold the government to account via Hutton. This is an unholy marriage of political opportunism and moral cowardice.

Such an approach can only deepen public cynicism towards politics, by depicting it as something sinister and suspicious that needs to be cleaned up by an ‘outsider’; as ‘macho bullying’ and ‘finger-pointing’ (in the case of Campbell), which every now and then has to be reprimanded by a cool-headed judge like Hutton (10). And it will surely exacerbate anti-democratic trends, by calling for further investment of authority in those who have the least to do with mass politics, elections, trying to win over voters, and all of those other apparently vulgar activities. It will contribute to the deeply anti-democratic trend that has seen the rise of unelected actors in recent years, who are given authority over elected officials precisely because they don’t have to concern themselves with representing interests or people.

Alastair Campbell doesn’t need to be defended – nor does he particularly deserve it. But give me his open political agenda and ‘macho finger-pointing’ over the apparently unpolluted Hutton any day of the week.

Read on:

Hutton’s ‘transparency’ is a threat to democracy, by Mick Hume

Out-of-control freaks, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked issue: The Hutton Inquiry

Why should we trust leaders who believe in nothing?, by Mick Hume

(1) ‘Treachery and drama’, Trevor Kavanagh, Sun, 20 August 2003
(2) ‘Campbell unspun’, Daily Mail, 20 August 2003

(3) British Richelieu takes his place in history, David Aaronovitch, Guardian, 20 August 2003

(4) British Richelieu takes his place in history, David Aaronovitch, Guardian, 20 August 2003

(5) ‘His eyes gleamed with the stare of a buzzard’, Quentin Letts, Daily Mail, 20 August 2003

(6) If politicians want power, they must give some away, Hugo Young, Guardian, 22 July 2003

(7) It takes a judge to cut through the fudge, Anthony Sampson, Observer, 17 August 2003

(8) Lies return to haunt the warmonger, Socialist Worker, 16 August 2003

(9) ‘We will call him to account next week’, Socialist Worker, 23 August 2003

(10) Emails and memos tell true story, Mirror, Paul Routledge, 20 August 2003

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Topics Politics


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