Why they hate this ‘modern Machiavelli’
The idea that Alastair Campbell is single-handedly responsible for the disaster of Iraq is politically bonkers.
They had come to see him buried. They had hoped against hope that this time, despite the Butler Inquiry, despite the Hutton Inquiry, surely he’d admit some wrongdoing, any wrongdoing.
Alastair Campbell – bane of journalists, the terror of dissenting ministers and the man many hold responsible for spinning the UK into the six years of bloody conflict – was up before the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war. And yet, after five hours of feather-dusting questions, Campbell, the ever lean, ever contemptuous former Labour director of communications under ex-prime minister Tony Blair, seemed completely at ease with the world.
‘Shameless, unrepentant and still lying’, bellows the front page of today’s Daily Mail. The newspaper of liberal nightmares was not alone in its frustration. At the Wall Street Journal another writer complained, ‘it is disappointing that those who drove such an important decision are not more insightful about what went wrong and right’. Campbell could have at least nibbled on some ‘humble pie’, or shown at least a glimpse of remorse, declared the Daily Mirror, his former employer. But he didn’t: ‘At no point, in no circumstances would he concede that he or Tony Blair could have been in any way wrong.’
After all, it is widely accepted that Campbell did plenty wrong, that this here was the man who’d given the infamous ‘dodgy dossier’ its prefix. Produced in February 2003, this document, Iraq: Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation, contained such half-baked statements as the claim that Iraq could launch WMDs within ‘45 minutes’ of an order to, and, in the foreword, that it was ‘beyond doubt’ that Saddam Hussein was continuing to produce chemical and biological weapons. All of which would have been harmlessly false save for the fact that this dossier was used to justify invading Iraq.
But Campbell conceded nothing to his questioners at yesterday’s inquiry. The 45-minute claim – referring to battlefield weapons, not weapons that could actually strike another country – could have been ‘clearer said’, but that was about as far as Campbell would go on that matter. When asked if he would say that the document misled parliament where it claimed it was ‘beyond doubt’ that Iraq was still producing chemical and biological weapons, Campbell was implacable: ‘No. No I wouldn’t.’
On and on this went. His inquisitors probed gently, Campbell responded forcefully. And with each dismissive, non-revelatory response, each trotting out of the New Labour line, the frustration of those critical of the Iraq war rose. But what did they expect? A mea culpa? The sight of Campbell, to quote an Independent columnist, saying finally, ‘it’s a fair cop, guv’nor, you’ve got me bang to rights’?
This demand, while futile, is nonetheless significant. It reflects the role Campbell plays for that social constituency disillusioned by New Labour. For this group of old and new Labourites, the Iraq war brought the troubled relationship with the Blair project to breaking point. And the man they blame most, aside from the increasingly manic-looking Blair, is his chief aide, his main man: Alastair Campbell.
Never can a man responsible for press work, even one as egotistical and domineering as Campbell, have assumed such world-historical importance. In the words of columnist Matthew Norman, Campbell is the ‘psychotic propagandist who did such incalculable damage to national life’. Likewise, Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian traces the ruination of public life to the deceit and mendacity of that period: ‘The Iraq poison will remain in the body politic until we have a true reckoning with that episode.’ Such is the impression of Campbell’s baleful influence, his incredible power, that last year the journalist Suzanne Moore was apoplectic over Campbell’s guest editorship of the New Statesman: ‘[This magazine] fiercely opposed the Iraq war and yet now hands over the reins to someone key in orchestrating that conflict.’
But was Campbell really that powerful? Did he really ‘orchestrate’ the war in Iraq? He undoubtedly helped Blair make the case for war. And he clearly finessed the dossier into dodginess. But he didn’t force 412 MPs to vote in favour of invading Iraq on 19 March 2003. And he didn’t reduce the main opposition argument to this attack on a sovereign nation to a question of the war’s ‘legality or illegality’ – as if the UN’s man-on-the-spot Hans Blix finding WMDs in Iraq could have ever ‘legitimised’ anything.
Campbell’s power is as exaggerated as his culpability. That a truculent director of communications has acquired this role of war-maker-in-chief owes as much to the weakness of the main case against the war as it does to Campbell’s strength. His critics want to believe that they were duped. They want to believe that they were lied to, that they were misled into a war by Campbell and Blair and their weasel words like ‘45 minutes’ and ‘beyond doubt’. But the extent to which they want to believe they were tricked, and consequently that Campbell ought to be strung up, testifies to the extent to which they lacked the political and moral judgement to oppose Blair’s case for war – Campbell is to atone for their sins. Irrespective of whether Iraq possessed WMDs or not, the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation cannot be justified.
Moreover, it’s not clear that Campbell and, more importantly, Blair simply lied. Something else happened. They wanted to believe. Blair’s problem was never his mendacity; it was his sincerity, his overweening sense of conviction, of moral mission. As Campbell himself put it: ‘[Blair] was somebody who fundamentally believed that unless the world confronted Saddam Hussein at that time — sadly, in that way, because the diplomatic route failed — then there would be a bigger day of reckoning later.’ This wasn’t a character quirk either. This belief, this focus on inner conviction came to fore as the traditional content of party politics emptied out. And this is why Campbell was so essential to the Blair project. Spin, PR, style-over-content: the pejoratives masquerading as explanations have been trotted out to the point of cliché. But they miss the point. The style, the surface was the content. The projection of personality, the expression of moral rectitude, made up for New Labour’s lack of big ideas.
It is in this context that the invasion of Iraq is to be understood. Like the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the invasion of Iraq was war as a moral mission – that is, a means through which isolated politicians in the West could demonstrate some purpose and moral authority by subjecting sovereign states to the shock and awe of the West’s ethical superiority. Campbell, as Blair’s go-to spin guy, was important here, not because he could present an alleged quest for oil as legitimate, but because such foreign ventures were always PR exercises. They provided the ideologically vacuous, such as Blair, with a semblance of moral authority. They allowed Clinton, Bush, Blair and so on to say: ‘We are against bad men like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. We are regime changers and peace bringers.’
Campbell’s role should not be underestimated. But he was not, as some are desperate to believe, the sinister Machiavelli with a potty mouth who helped to ruin New Labour. He was merely one of the party’s cynical products, a man whose job as communications chief became, in the absence a political vision, the party’s vocation: the propagation of an image.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Previously on spiked
Tim Black said we don’t need another Iraq inquiry. Mick Hume wondered why the shock and awe over Iraq came so late. Brendan O’Neill said the coalition’s war exposed a hole at the heart of the West, and left a hole in the heart of Iraq. Elsewhere, he examined David Kelly’s connections and said the cult of transparency is a threat to democracy. James Heartfield said the road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.
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