Campbell’s compelling nuclear secret

Hidden away in the diaries of Blair's right-hand man is a revealing admission a key components of th

As a journalist, Alastair Campbell never knowingly broke a news story. As he would freely admit, even when working for the Daily Mirror, he acted as a propagandist, not a reporter. As such, it should come as little surprise that nearly 800 pages of his diaries have produced little new other than the odd piece of tittle-tattle - Tony Blair saving Gordon Brown from a locked toilet, Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey showing up at McDonald's in Blackpool, Campbell flirting with Princess Di - all very diverting, but not so much as a peep of a real revelation. Or was there?

Look again at Campbell's diary entry for 19 September 2002. It is on page 638. This was an intense time for Blair's sofa government, which was then feverishly preparing a dossier for public consumption on the status of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. As the diaries state, most of Campbell's work during this period was on the dossier. You would need to be an obsessive student of the details of this document to spot it, but there is a single phrase that leaps out. Reflecting on his satisfaction that the dossier is finally coming together, he writes: "Nuclear timelines just about sorted."

To the untrained eye, it may seem a harmless enough statement. After all, adapting intelligence assessments for public consumption was fraught with difficulty. The diaries capture well the frustration as Campbell and his team struggled to render the nuances of the spooks' official language into easily digestible English. At the beginning of the process, he had said that the dossier would have to be "revelatory". When the intelligence people had done their work, he knew the dossier would demand a "media-friendly editorial job". The nuclear issue proved particularly tricky.

As the NS reported in May, the claim that Saddam could develop a nuclear weapon in "a year or two", which appeared in the final dossier presented to parliament and the public, was not borne out by the intelligence. It was a piece of spin. The Campbell diaries confirm how tirelessly Blair's chief spin doctor worked towards this outcome.

Throughout September, Campbell pressurised John Scarlett, then head of the Joint Intelligence Committee and now head of MI6, to improve an insufficiently worrying assessment of Saddam's alleged nuclear programme. Campbell's admitted "bombardment" of Scarlett, which was backed by Blair, resulted in the tentative assessment of the intelligence services being replaced with a more compelling one.

The assessment of the JIC, the body that acts as the bridge between ministers and the intelligence services, was clear. We know what it said because it appeared in a draft of the dossier produced on 16 September 2002 and later disclosed to the Hutton inquiry. This draft contained the claim that Saddam could produce a nuclear device in "a year or two". But it also included a paragraph, numbered 18, setting out the JIC's view, which did not mention this alarming timescale: "If sanctions continued, Iraq would not be able indigenously to produce a nuclear weapon. If they were removed or became ineffective, it would take Iraq at least five years to produce a weapon. This timescale would shorten if Iraq succeeded in obtaining fissile material from abroad."

The JIC had insisted that the dossier should cite its standing assessments separately, so that readers could judge for themselves the interpretations put on them by the government. But the nuclear assessment was just not frightening enough. The publication of the assessment would also show that the one-to-two-year timescale did not come from the JIC. So Campbell wrote to Scarlett on 17 September passing on Blair's comments on the draft: "He like me was worried about the way you have expressed the nuclear issue particularly in paragraph 18."

Initially Scarlett stood his ground, writing on 18 September: "I have retained paragraph 18, which factually summarises the JIC position." But a factual summary of the JIC position was the last thing Blair and Campbell wanted. Campbell sent Scarlett "another dossier memo" and told him he had given someone in his office the latest draft and the nuclear section had left her "thinking there's nothing much to worry about". He wrote: "Sorry to bombard on this point."

The next morning Campbell bombarded Scarlett some more. He asked him to "delete par 18" and for a single paragraph to combine a new account of the JIC assessment, with the one-to-two-year timescale suddenly attributed to the JIC. Campbell provided a proposed text, in which the JIC's post-sanctions timescale was "up to" rather than "at least" five years. It was then stated that "the JIC assessed in early 2002 that [with fissile material from overseas] they could produce nuclear weapons in between one and two years".

Under this pressure, Scarlett agreed to delete paragraph 18 and combined the JIC timescale and Campbell's version in a single paragraph, so that it was no longer clear where one ended and the other began. This rewrite took place on 19 September. As Campbell wrote in his diary: "Nuclear timelines just about sorted." His influence on Scarlett, at Blair's insti gation, had achieved the required effect. The reference to the nuclear threat was now "nothing to worry about".

At the Hutton inquiry into the death of the weapons scientist Dr David Kelly, the essence of the BBC's allegations was described by the government's own counsel in the following terms: "that the government was guilty of political interference with the presentation of intelligence in the dossier, that it had presented as the advice of the intelligence services material which did not in fact reflect that advice".

In the case of the nuclear threat from Saddam, this now seems incontrovertible and Campbell's own diaries help prove it.

John Kampfner reviews the Campbell diaries, Books, page 56

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis