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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt