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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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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