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19 March 2015

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.

By Simon Heffer

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.

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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

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