(Hutchinson: London, 2007), pp. 794, incl. index. ISBN 9780091796297
Until his resignation amid huge controversy in August 2003, Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair’s official spokesman and director of communications and strategy – ace spin doctor, closest confidante, and constant travelling companion. His diaries have probably been mined chiefly for their astonishing revelations about the internal machinations of his government and the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, they should also be read for the sharp and often amusing light they throw on certain aspects of diplomacy.
First among these is summitry. Here, what emerges in general is the risk of ‘getting hooked on the international stuff’ (p. 585) despite the exhaustion it generates, the danger of neglecting the domestic agenda to which it can lead, and the unpleasant surprises it may contain. In the last regard, I knew about Blair’s ‘total banjaxing’ by President Assad in Damascus in October 2001 during his campaign to wind up the pressure on Iraq, despite ‘having been promised the guy was going to be supportive’ (p. 585) but not about what happened in Moscow in April 2003, although it was evidently reported at the time. According to Campbell, Vladimir Putin had invited Tony Blair to visit him and ‘we thought we’d agreed lines’. Unfortunately, ‘unbeknown to us Putin was gearing up for a direct big whack on WMD and plenty else besides’. At the press conference ‘he let rip in the opening statement … TB was doing his best to look unfazed’ but it was a ‘diplo-disaster’ (p. 693). Nor was the British prime minister able to do his summiteering in any great style. To the Anglo-French summit at Le Touquet in February 2003 he flew on ‘a tiny plane that Chirac wouldn’t be seen dead in’ (p. 661) and usually had to take scheduled flights with all of their risks of delays: ‘He is effectively vice-president of the free world’, Campbell reports Jack Straw, foreign secretary, observing, ‘and has to travel around like a cost-cutting tourist’ (p. 670). For diary entries dealing with summitry, use the index: Bush, George W., Jnr; Chirac; Clinton; G8 summits; NATO [summits]; Putin; Schroeder. For the EU summit in Nice (not indexed), see pp. 482-3, and for the P5 meeting in New York in September 2000 (not indexed), p. 468.
Tony Blair spent a great deal of time on the telephone to other world leaders, especially to Bill Clinton and then George Bush the Younger. These calls are not indexed in the book, so look particularly at pp. 319, 333-4 (‘In all TB had eight calls with Clinton over an 18-hour period up to Sunday 4.30am, when he finally went to bed’), 393, 399, 413, 485, 566, and 671. The telephone was vital to Blair’s diplomacy but he was well aware that it was no substitute for personal contact. After one call with George Bush shortly after 9/11 in 2001, when he felt that he had failed to make the US president understand the importance of rallying other major states behind America, Campbell records that ‘TB was quite troubled afterwards, said we had to think of a way of getting to the US for a face-to-face meeting. He said he needed to see him in a room, and look in his eyes, not do all this on phone calls with 15 people listening in’ (p. 566).
As for the presentation of British policy to the world, there is a great deal on this for the very good reason that this was Campbell’s great talent and a large part of his formal responsibility. What strikes me, however, is that he put no rubbish in his diary about the allegedly new ‘public diplomacy’, although this idea was already fashionable during the years he served Tony Blair. Campbell is too hard-headed and intelligent to have had any truck with this sort of nonsense. What he recorded instead were problems to do with ‘communications’, ‘presentation’, ‘PR’, ‘media management’, ‘spin’, and – above all – ‘propaganda’ (on the last, see pp. 278, 344, 555, 572, 659, 686). Other than in mentioning the appointment of Charlotte Beers as US ‘under-secretary for public diplomacy’ (p. 583), and reporting its apparent use by someone else (p. 664), Campbell never once uses the term ‘public diplomacy’ himself.
I also found the diaries very useful on the negotiations over Northern Ireland, and there is an interesting description of the diplomacy at the funeral of King Hussein of Jordan in February 1999 (pp. 365-7). This is a primary source of first class importance and is readily available at very low prices on the internet through abebooks.