Bulk over substance: the Campbell Diaries Volume 7

Adam Somerset reviews Alastair Campbell’s ‘Diaries Volume 7, 2007-2010’

Alastair Campbell

Diaries Volume 7, 2007-2010

Biteback Publishing

765 pp


Wales does not feature highly, or at all, in Alastair Campbell’s baggy monster of a book. However, a Welshman of high distinction does appear early on, his subject the issue of ethics. “Emyr Jones Parry”, runs a sentence on page 24, “had a go at me on the betrayal of conversations.” Parry is right. Government cannot function if members of its inner circle are little able to respect the confidences that public service entail.


But then of course, against the loyalty of the lifetime civil servant, those who are present are able to disclose the deficiencies of government. Cabinet government sagged at the end of the last century. The ruinous, collapsed NHS database was kicked off by a voice from a sofa saying “let’s go for it” and we are the better off for its revelation.


There is in this latest volume of diaries records of private conversations, but none from government for the good reason that Campbell and government have by this time parted company. The severance from government has taken place but not that from party. The nearer the election of 2010 grows so too does the engagement with party. But the bulk of encounter is at a social level. 24th November 2008: “We raced to Philip and Gail’s party. [Gould/ Rebuck]. “Rebekah Brooks said we all knew GB was dreadful and he couldn’t do the job, and they had supported him long enough, and we had had plenty of chances to get rid of him but didn’t and it was all our fault.”


Diaries offer the reader the pleasure of superior hindsight. 30th May 2008: “He said it was important that I didn’t go OTT with GB as he was pretty fragile.”  The offerer of this advice is the Leader-to-be of the Labour Party 2010-2015. As the vultures circle around the leadership one Miliband is the favourite. On 15th November 2009 Campbell and Mandelson are in conversation: “I felt a process in which he stayed while a new leader, hopefully David, was elected, was the best thing that could happen.” But a week later, 22nd November, Campbell hears “Ed was being told by some that he should go for it too.”


But these conversational snippets are few. It is a book of bulk aimed at a Christmas market but the politically engaged reader will find it thin fare. The author in this period is a jobbing novelist promoting his book. He is also admirably engaged in raising awareness of mental health issues. These activities are contained within a hectic social and media life. The best diaries of our time are those of Chris Mullin. Mullin moves close to government but he also reports from daily life as played out in Sunderland.


This book lacks any equivalent sharpness and breadth of observation. Campbell is more likely to spot Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin at a nearby restaurant table.  Campbell’s diaries are more akin to those of Chips Cannon, albeit rubbing shoulders with a different kind of top dog. 1st December 2009:  “Piers Morgan dinner at the Mandarin Oriental. The celeb aristocracy. Simon Cowell, Alan Sugar, Jordan, Amanda Holden, Freddie Flintoff and later Sarah Brown.” 13th February 2010: “James Corden was the presenter, seemed OK but a nasty streak there.”


The book gathers impetus in the last months of Labour in government. 16th March: “PG [Gould] was adamant there was no way we were going to win.” But Campbell is as much an onlooker as any. 5th May: “Clegg was all process too. I tweeted loads on the rolled up sleeves bollocks and also how Miriam (Gonzalez) looked bored.”


When historians look to this book one aspect will fascinate. Its absorption in Labour of its period gives not a hint of Labour in 2018 – not even a whisper of a hint. Scan the sizeable index and not a member of the opposition front bench appears. It feels now as remote as reading about Cripps and Bevin or Clynes and Lansbury. Its era has gone. Being on-message was mocked widely but the party spoke to its people with a single voice. In this winter of 2018 three contenders vie for the leadership of Wales. On the central issue as to who holds ultimate sovereignty over the nature of the severance from Europe, only one of the three endorses the view of the leadership in London. This did not occur in the days of this diary.


As for knowing what is come, all futurology is wrong, the only question being how wrong. “I said the idea of Boris as mayor was a joke”, Campbell writes. The date ironically is April 1st 2008. “Ken had to fight harder to stop it” he adds. The entry ends sagely: “But I worried.”


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Adam Somerset is a Welsh Critic

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