Campbell and Alex Ferguson talk tactics, 2010. Photo: PA
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Dodgy dossier: Alastair Campbell's brainwashing guide to success fails to impress

Winners: and How They Succeed claims to praise boldness - but often just praises bullshit.

Winners: and How They Succeed
Alastair Campbell
Hutchinson, 464pp, £20
 

Alastair Campbell is a problematic individual. No one should dispute that he has brains, talent, persistence and energy: four of the many qualities one needs to be a “winner”. But he has a reputation from his past life in politics that has bestowed upon him the sort of toxicity that normally requires an approach in one of the total-immersion suits worn by those heroically dealing with the ebola scare.

Campbell now makes a living by, among other things, advising businesses on their communications – after all, we live in a world where the quality of the product or service a company provides is secondary to its ability to talk about it. And he is now part of the machine that is attempting to secure Ed Miliband’s election on 7 May. Some people in the Labour Party are uneasy at that. Few things grieve Labour supporters more than Tony Blair; Tony Blair grieves them because of Iraq; Campbell had sufficient responsibility for various Iraq-related horrors such as the “dodgy dossier” and the affair surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly for him to be considered one of the great facilitators of Blair’s Iraq debacle. Whatever Campbell does now, he starts from there.

In his opening remarks to this peculiar book – I imagine one is given something similar to read if abducted by acolytes of the Rev Sun Myung Moon, or if one enlists in the army trying to build a caliphate and take much of the Islamic world back to the 8th century – Campbell reflects that his experience in working for Blair, his exposure to the corporate world and his obsession with competitive sport place him well to write an analysis of what makes a winner. He had thought of writing a “guide” for chief executives, head teachers or people who run charities, but felt it smacked of arrogance.

However, it soon becomes apparent that this is not simply analysis: it is, for want of a better word, a “guide” to how to succeed. So, the book begins with what Campbell calls “the holy trinity” – objective, strategy, tactics. He also defines what a winner is. He speaks of his experience in entering the London Marathon: he couldn’t hope to win it but he set himself the objective of completing it; he achieved his objective and so he won. The reality check recurs frequently in the book: have unrealistic expectations and you can’t win, so you are doomed to be a loser. This invites one to imagine what Campbell must say and do, in the context of expectation management, when he conditions Miliband for the trials to come.

Campbell is a complex character – he is open about the treatment he has received for depression and addiction – but in much of his talk about what he calls “teamship” there is too much of the amateur psychologist at work. For all the perception of him as arrogant, he shows a capacity for self-doubt that is refreshing; as in debating, even now, whether the “teamship” of the Blair government would have been improved by booting out Gordon Brown before the 2005 election. However, Campbell was too close to that government to be objective about it. From the outside it seemed to be a combination of narcissists and egomaniacs that would do brilliantly so long as the opposition was pitiful; which it was.

To that breed of tedious executive who uses sport as a means to validate himself – and it will usually be a man, because women appear to be less capable of such vacuous cynicism – this book will be easily understood. Campbell writes about football managers (the book carries an endorsement by Alex Ferguson, another charm-school graduate), rugger stars, cricketers. If you don’t have sport as a central part of your life you will find this all rather hard to relate to. And given how repulsive most politicians are, you won’t want to relate to them even if you understand them, so for many readers this book will lead straight into a cul-de-sac.

That said, there are a few interesting, albeit somewhat shallow, character studies. Campbell correctly identifies the stunning leadership qualities of Angela Merkel, who is probably the most serious politician in the world at the moment. He also has timely insights into the psychology of Vladimir Putin. But his chapter on the Queen – an essay in counterintuitiveness of which Campbell is plainly proud, given his lifelong republicanism – is less astute.

The Queen is a “winner” in the sense that the hereditary monarchy ought not to exist today yet does, and its foundations remain solid. During the period when Campbell was Blair’s right-hand man, the monarchy was undergoing its worst crisis in living memory, one from which it extricated itself not least because of (ahem!) the advice Her Majesty so wisely took from her prime minister and the brilliant strategist who accompanied him. The flag went to half-mast on Buckingham Palace; the Queen returned to London from Balmoral and wandered round the gormless crowds outside the palace to show she “cared”. Job done.

Some of us would regard what the Queen was asked to do then as a violation not of some code of monarchical behaviour but of her family life at a moment when her grandchildren needed her. It was a pandering to the worst sort of sentiment whipped up by a press that had, for the most part, taken leave of its senses, and fed upon by a government addicted to the manipulation of public opinion. The Queen has “won” in being popular even with hardened republicans such as Campbell, not because of Ferguson-style strategies, but because she has adhered to standards of probity and duty that few politicians could hope to match.

I reached the end of this book thinking that the brainwashing aspect of his theory of success – repeat the strategy over and over again until you are almost crying with boredom at the thought of it – is pretty downheartening. Where Campbell praises boldness he is often, in fact, praising bullshit; and given that the great exemplar of boldness he
cites is Richard Branson, the point is well made. His discussion of crisis management is exemplified by a quotation from Bill Clinton, that the only objective is survival – whatever that takes, and whether or not one deserves to survive.

Campbell has spent years dressing up mutton as lamb and constructing myth to obscure reality. Winners gives an interesting glimpse of his mindset and will be valuable to future biographers. It might also be useful to a teenager who wants to become a professional sportsman. But mainly it is just a collection of anecdotes from his life with the rich, famous and successful, and rather too many statements of the bleeding obvious.

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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Of course we could do more to stop terrorism – if we’re willing to live in a police state

 The only way to stop this sort of human monster completely is to become like them.

What are we prepared to sacrifice to keep children safe? On Monday night at Manchester arena, 22 people were senselessly slaughtered. Many of them were young girls, pouring out of a pop concert, giddy with excitement. Hours before the killer was identified or Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the attack, the political conversation had already turned to vengeance, and respected public thinkers were calling, in the name of those dead children, for further crackdowns on immigrants and perceived outsiders, for troops on the streets, for "internment camps'" with straight faces and the sincere implication that anyone who disagrees is weak-willed and possibly a terrorist sympathiser. A lot of little girls have been killed. What good are tolerance and human rights today?

Nobody can be expected to be instantly rational when dozens of kids have just been maimed and murdered. There are, however, individuals who seem more than prepared to exploit the occasion to further their own agendas. Yet again, we are told that the state is failing in its duty to protect "our" children, that pansy liberals won't let us raise the "obvious solutions" to this problem. Nobody can quite bring themselves to articulate exactly what those "obvious solutions" might be, hedging the issue instead with grave looks, raised eyebrows and stern allusions to the consequences of political correctness. The consensus is that we are living in a nation so paralysed by hand-flapping progressive talk-talkery that ordinary, right-thinking folks aren’t allowed to say what’s really on their minds. 

The truth is that nobody’s stopping anyone from saying what they think about any of this, and if you don’t believe me, take a brisk scroll through Twitter this afternoon, and keep some eyeball bleach on hand. In fact, the reason a lot of people are stopping short of saying what they think ought to be done is that they know full well that what they think ought to be done is unacceptable and shameful in any sane society. So shameful, indeed, that it takes a professional shit-stirrer to speak it aloud. 

Enter Katie Hopkins. It’s not just pro-trolls like her who have called for a "final solution" following the Manchester Arena bombing. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson declared that we should start putting "thousands" of people in "internment camps" in the name of protecting children. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill echoed the tone, blaming "multiculturalism" for mass murder, and implying that anyone advocating calm and tolerance in the face of terrorism does not feel sufficiently angry about the murder of 22 of their fellow citizens. “It is becoming clear,” insists O'Neill, “that the top-down promotion of a hollow ‘togetherness’ in response to terrorism is about cultivating passivity.”

In fact, Britain is far from passive in the face of extremist violence. Britain already has one of the most robust counter-terrorism programs on the planet. We are among the most surveilled societies in the Western world. We have a counter-extremism program, Prevent, that places a duty in schools, universities and other public bodies to report any suspected radical or "extremist" activity, and is so exacting that it has been condemned by experts and educators across the board as an infringement of the right to free speech and thought. The authorities responsible for heading off and hunting down these psychopaths and all who sail with them are hardly slacking on the job. The problem is that there's really no way to up the game from here without going full police state. The pundits condemning the relevant institutions as shirkers today know this full well, which is why a police state is exactly what they’re asking for, with the inference that anyone who disagrees is awfully relaxed about the violent death of young girls and their parents.

So let’s not mince words. Let's be absolutely clear what’s at stake here. Let us acknowledge that yes, we could do more to stop this, if we wanted. And then let's think about whether that's really, actually, what we want.

Yes, we could do more. We could allow the state to round up and lock away anyone even remotely suspected of violent, extremist tendencies; anyone who has ever accessed a suspicious website or attended a dubious lecture. We'd have to lock those people up for a very long time, of course, because if there's one thing that nudges people from a passing interest in anti-state violence into full on fanaticism, it's active state oppression. We could ban anyone who's ever been in any way associated with extremist ideology from entering the country, including those who are fleeing violence themselves. We could institute total surveillance of everyone’s online activity. We could build those internment camps. They’d be expensive, so it’s only fair that potential degenerates and their associates be obliged to work for their keep. Of course, you wouldn't want those internment camps spread out - you'd want the inmates concentrated in one place. What could we call such camps? I’m sure we’ll think of a name.

If we did all that, and more, then yes, there's a chance that we could stop atrocities like this from happening again. Even then, there's no guarantee. The most exacting neo-stasi infrastructure can’t always stop the rogue loner with a breadknife and a brain boiling with arcane violence. It would, however, significantly lower the odds.

The question is not whether it can be done. Of course it can be done. Paranoid, bloodless, hyper-vigilant police states have been instituted in European nations before, and if any country on earth has the infrastructure to make it work right now, it's Britain, a small island with an extensive surveillance architecture, a mostly urban population, a conservative government currently seeking re-election on a tough-love platform, and no pesky constitutional rights to free speech. We can do it if we want to. Sure we can. The question is whether we should. The question is whether it's worth it. Is it worth it, to prevent the loss of one more young life, the devastation of one more family?

Don’t answer that right now. Give it a few days, at least, because right now it makes a great deal of emotional sense to say yes, yes, it’s worth it. Anything to stop something like this happening again. To save one child. To keep hundreds more from being traumatised for life just because they went to a pop concert with their friends. I suspect that today, tucked away in the collective psyche of a great many otherwise tolerant and decent people, is a furious, frightened voice yelling - sure, let’s do it. Let’s shut the borders and build the camps. It might not be nice, it might not even be right, but these evil dickheads are killing kids, so frankly, fuck the Geneva convention.

That furious, frightened instinct needs to be named so we can deal with it like adults. The anger and the fear here are real and legitimate, even though a great many bad actors are exploiting them to further racist, xenophobic agendas. It’s alright to be frightened and furious. It’s not alright to let those emotions dictate public policy. Today, with the faces of murdered little girls all over the news, is not a day to ask anyone what they’re prepared to sacrifice to make sure this never happens again.

Because the truth is that the only way to stop this sort of human monster is to become like them. The only way to be sure that no swivel-eyed extremist who hates life, and liberty and raw youthful joy so much that he's prepared to blow up a pop concert full of teenagers can never do that again is to acquiesce to the sort of state apparatus that is anathema to joy and liberty and life, the sort of state apparatus that no child should grow up with.

This is why platitudes about 'unity', about 'not letting hate win', about keeping it together and trying not to let our worst instincts take over, are not, in fact, platitudes at all. They are not banal. They are not hollow. It takes enormous strength of character, at a time like this,  not to give in to fear and rage and the rationale of revenge. The people of Manchester are showing that strength in the wake of one of the most horrific mass murders this tense and divided nation has ever seen. We owe it to them, to the victims of this attack, and to their families not to sully their memories by surrendering to the logic of intolerance.

It is at moments like this when a community proves its character.  It is at times like this that it is more, not less essential to refuse racist and fascist ideas. Tolerance is not passivity. Kindness is not weakness. It is not cowardly to stay with our anger and our grief and refuse to let those emotions sway our commitment to human dignity, or to look dreadful vengeance in the face and refuse it. It is strength. It is strength more profound and more human than fundamentalists of any faction can comprehend, and if we hang on to that strength, they will never, ever win. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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