— Tom Farmery, Charlotte Reid, and Shane Croucher contributed to this report.
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press secretary, was once an incredibly powerful man in British politics. Known to be fierce, strong-willed, and a master of the political dark arts, he was feared, loathed, and loved.
Campbell was an architect of New Labour, the party that has polarised British hearts and minds. He helped make the case for invading Iraq, a case based on false information which left hundreds of thousands dead. On top of this he had to help justify the party’s scary authoritarian streak that led the assault on civil liberties in the name of “anti-terrorism”.
He had to help sell to the electorate that the private finance initiative, which many believe has harmed British public services, would improve them. So what does he think are big problems in the modern British politics he had a hand in creating?
One is that people are entering politics with little or no real life experience, becoming career politicians without actually having a profession or ordinary career first.“There is a problem, I think, that more and more people are going into politics very, very young,” he said.
Another of his issues with the current state of affairs is that, in his opinion, politics is “so degenerated” that people who should be getting involved are being put off.
Since the expenses scandal, trust in politicians has been at an all time low. Campbell lays the blame firmly at the door of the media: “I think the expenses, to be absolutely frank, has been totally overblown and I think there’s a real danger that we give the public the impression that all politicians are in it for themselves, when they’re not.
“Life’s about balance, and a lot of good MPs got tarred with exactly the same brush as the bad ones. And a lot of good MPs left parliament because they just decided that this just isn’t worth the hassle.”
A route many young aspiring politicians take is to be special advisers to ministers. Despite having issues with the number of young people going straight into politics, Campbell praises the role of special advisers – even as some argue that they’re a waste of taxpayers’ money.
“It is absolutely essential to have strong political advice,” he said. “Civil Service is a very good job, but it can’t do politics, and government is a political business.
“If you go to Germany or America they just sort of say what is all the fuss about in Britain about a small number of special advisers who work for ministers? Because out there they’re all political.”
He blames the bad press special advisers have been receiving on the media being “ultra-negative about politics”.
“The media wants to be the only arbiter or what’s important, what’s the story, what’s not? What’s an argument, what’s not? Part of a political adviser’s job is to make sure that actually the political arguments get out there properly as well.”
The 2003 invasion of Iraq left a bitter taste lingering in the mouths of many and it is still a topic of fiery debate around the world. At the time of the invasion Campbell was Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy and helped to put forward the case for war – a case based on the false premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. To this day he continues to support the decision and does not regret the invasion – despite acknowledging the threat from Saddam Hussein was perceived, not a reality.
He said: “You know the reasons, you may not accept them, but you know them. It was all to do with the continued defiance of the United Nations over the years and the threat that Saddam was believed to pose to that region, therefore the world.”
Political compromise is essential within a political party. To avoid looking unstable to the public and to prevent a press onslaught, a party’s MPs must be seen to share the same views. You can’t please everyone, so inevitably people will have to give a little ground to meet somewhere in the middle. This can, obviously, lead to arguments. Campbell insists that though he had to compromise at times, he never felt uncomfortable in doing so.
“You do have to compromise in politics at times, but I think I’ve never felt that I was unable genuinely to do defend the things that we were trying to do. Now I may not have agreed with every line of policy or every aspect of the handling of the policy but the general direction I was always in broad support of.
“I think back to the early days probably in the way that we felt we had to get very close to some of the newspapers, that historically the Labour party has been very, very divorced from, not just the Murdoch group, but also the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and others.
“I’ll be honest, sometimes I had to sit around lunch and dinner tables and maybe wish I hadn’t had to listen to so much drivel and pretend that I didn’t think it was drivel,” Campbell said.
In spite of Tony Blair’s vast unpopularity, Campbell maintains that he will be seen as “one of the greatest prime ministers”. Blair is scarred by the invasion of Iraq, as well as his authoritarian anti-terror legislation.
“Never forget that the Labour party had never won two successive full terms. Tony won three general elections and the power he had pretty much brought peace to Northern Ireland,” he said.
Campbell also cites the introduction of the minimum wage, making the Bank of England independent, a decade of growth, and various schools and hospitals building projects, believing these mask the wrongs of New Labour.
“I just think people have to have a bigger historical perspective,” he said.