The Alastair Campbell diaries: the Blair years / FRFI 198 Aug / Sept 2007

FRFI 198 August / September 2007

The Alastair Campbell diaries: the Blair years

‘Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.’

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

As Brian, an occupant of the Big Brother house and therefore expert on celebrity in 21st century Britain, pointed out, ‘Politics is fame for ugly people’. Substitute ‘unpleasant’ for ‘ugly’ and Alastair Campbell and his diaries, or rather extracts from diaries, fit the bill. The ‘extracts’ are not political, they are at a rather low level. There is precious little attempt to express or analyse the political standpoint that gave birth to New Labour or drove it forward for the nine years that the diaries cover (1994-2003). In 1994 Blair announced to the Labour Party that principles without power were useless. Campbell treats us to an unedifying account of how he helped Blair and New Labour to shed all principles in favour of power.

‘By now, he had also let me know, and sworn me to secrecy, that he was minded to have a review of the constitution and scrap Clause 4. I have never felt any great ideological attachment to Clause 4 one way or the other... Here was a new leader telling me he was thinking of doing it in his first conference speech as a leader. I said I hope you do, because it’s bold.’ (On Blair’s proposal to drop Clause 4 commitment to common ownership from Labour’s constitution.)

‘Again we were getting credit for being big and bold and ballsy.’ (On Northern Ireland, May 1997.)

Throughout Campbell is concerned only with appearance. The question for each day and each issue is ‘How can we get away with this?’ From the start Blair had surrounded himself with people of his own ilk (including Philip Gould and Alastair Campbell as media advisers). They were all middle-class professionals keen to re-frame Labour politics to serve their own interests: they equated the needs of what they called middle class ‘hard-working’ families with the needs of the working class ‘hard-working’ families. Inevitably the working class was ditched. One of Blair’s first projects was to rid the Labour leadership of the influence of the trade union movement. Having announced that the employers would in future have as much influence on Labour as the unions, Blair flew off to visit Murdoch in Australia and the union leaders found themselves out in the cold.

‘"These people are stupid and they are malevolent...I have no option but to go up there and blow them out of the water". "I’m finished with these people", he said, "absolutely finished with them".’ (Blair on Transport & General Workers Union Conference, Blackpool, July 1995.)

Campbell was not at all perturbed by any of this, except for the need to keep John Prescott on board in Blair’s inner circle to smoothe relations with the party’s membership and any rump of the trade union movement deemed important enough (very few). Constantly in the background of every event over the next nine years are the quarrels, tensions, agreements, exchanges of abuse, fisticuffs and covering-up of corruption amongst Blair’s inner circle: Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Robin Cook, Peter Mandelson, Geoffrey Robinson et al.

The only issue which bites into Campbell’s consciousness is education. From the start he is beset by a succession of ministers, not least the Blairs themselves, sending their children off to selective, grammar or private schools. One suspects this is a sensitive point for even a man with no principles like Campbell because his wife (Fiona Millar) promotes the need for good state education for all. His various attempts to dissuade the Blairs and Harriet Harman from private education or its equivalent come to nothing. He signs off on the subject by quoting Blair: ‘He said whatever you do, make sure Rory and Calum [Campbell’s sons] get a good senior school, because if bright kids are not stretched they go off the rails.’ What Blair thinks should happen to working class children, bright or otherwise, who cannot afford the ‘good schools’ is not a consideration.

Throughout the Diaries a special level of abuse is reserved for the women Campbell and his fellow lads loathe:

‘Philip [Gould] called from a focus group in Edgware to say "Shagger Cook is a hero and they think she (wife) is fucking ghastly".’ January 1999

‘Milburn took me aside at the end of Cabinet, said people were getting really fed up with TB[Blair]’s tolerance of Clare [Short] in Cabinet. He said it was like having a bag lady in there just speaking out on everything.’ January 2003

‘She [Clare Short] was a totally ridiculous figure. Today had been like listening to someone on a bus...’

‘Queen’s Speech day, and Ken fucking Livingstone was leading the news. I think what I hated as much as anything was that we looked so incompetent. It was like something out of the eighties. Cherie’s clothes was still running as a problem.’

There is page upon page of this outpouring of contempt for anyone considered on the left-wing of the party. Yet blatant corruption by Mandelson, Robertson and others is covered up, and the ‘foibles’ of a succession of Tory ex-ministers who are Campbell’s friends are recounted with affection. Campbell is especially alarmed by real opposition, as any middle-class ‘hard worker’ would be:

‘The news was totally dominated by the so called ‘anti-capitalist’ riots in SW1. Both Churchill’s statue and the Cenotaph were defaced. I put out strong words from TB, but was alarmed later watching the softly-softly policing in the street where people were tearing up the lawns and wrecking anything they could find. It was unbelievably depressing.’

Perhaps any prospective reader of the Diaries would expect the high point of Campbell’s account to concern the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, and especially the production of dodgy dossiers on weapons of mass destruction and the death of Dr David Kelly, in which Campbell was centrally involved. You will be disappointed. There are shockingly few moments of revelation. First, an indication of the lines of government thinking: ‘It was also clear that there were likely to be would-be terrorists here as asylum seekers’ (September 2001, full intelligence report following the attack on the World Trade Centre). Second the only mention of torture camps and rendition: ‘Guantanamo was running big and bad, and we were not in shape to deal with it’ (January 2002).

There is supreme irony in one of his few moments of introspection:

‘As during Kosovo, I was getting annoyed at the sense of moral equivalence between what we said, in systems of democracy founded on the duty of politicians to tell the truth, and regimes like Milosevic and the Taliban who felt no such obligations, and yet whose word, even when proven to be false, was often given exactly the same weight.’

Campbell has no insight into his own position as hired liar to the British Prime Minister. This book isn’t worth much.

Carol Brickley

The Blair years. Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries, Edited by Alastair Campbell and Richard Stott, Hutchinson, 794pp, £25. November 1999

The Poverty of 'Fantasy Island' / FRFI 199 Oct / Nov 2007

FRFI 199 October / November 2007

Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson
Fantasy Island: waking up to the incredible economic, political and social illusions of the Blair legacy
Constable, London, 2007, 260pp, £7.99 pbk

‘The financial services industry... is, and will always be, of vital importance to this country…We are world leaders and we want to keep it that way’ Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Labour Party Conference, 23 September 2007 [1]

Britain can be seen as ‘one big offshore hedge fund churning speculators’ money while asset-strippers draw up plans for the few remaining factories to be turned into industrial theme parks’, say the authors of a new book exposing the illusions of the Blair legacy (p74).2 They also believe that nothing essential will change under Gordon Brown. He is unlikely to curb the activities of the global financial markets because the UK has actually done rather well out of them, at least in the short term, a point reinforced by the new Chancellor at the recent Labour Party conference. The result of this could well be an almighty financial crash and a ‘backlash against the excesses of the financial markets of a kind not seen for 75 years [since the Great Depression]’. While such a backlash, the authors say, would lead to demands to regulate the financial markets, ‘the only pity is that [such reforms] now could avoid the crash’ (pp230-1). Elliott and Atkinson (E&A) have written this book to warn us of the perils ahead, as a wake up call to take action before the real world goes up in smoke (p238).

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Private health care: poor pay with their lives - Sicko Michael Moore, 2007, US / FRFI 200 Dec 2007 / Jan 2008

FRFI 200 December 2007/January 2008

    Private health care:  poor pay with their lives

    Sicko Michael Moore, 2007, US

    Sicko is the latest film by US documentary maker Michael Moore, acclaimed for his films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. The film is an indictment of the US health service, targeting the parasitic insurance companies which run the industry. Sicko starts with a scene of a man stitching up his own leg – quite simply because he was too poor to afford medical insurance. Moore then interviews an uninsured man who cut off two of his fingers in an accident. He had to choose between paying $72,000 to have both fingers sewn back on, $60,000 to have just the main digit sewn back on or $12,000 for the smaller finger. But Moore says the focus of the film is not so much about the 47 million people in the US who are living without medical insurance but those lucky ones with it.

    In the US if you want health cover you have to pay for it. According to USA Today the average cost for a family health insurance policy topped $10,000 in 2005. Yet, as Moore’s film highlights, even paying those huge fees does not guarantee that you receive treatment if you are ill. With the aid of former insurance workers and doctors, the film demonstrates that in the cold pursuit of profit the insurance industries adopt all means at their disposal not to honour a claim. One of the film’s most cruel examples was that of a poor black woman who had managed to scrape together enough money to pay for health cover for herself and her daughter. When her daughter became ill in the middle of the night she took her to the nearest hospital. However, her insurance company refused to cover her at this hospital and forced her to take her sick daughter to another instead. She died on arrival. This is just one case out of many shown in the film highlighting the human suffering that this unjust system inflicts.

    This state of affairs exists in the US because health care is a commodity like any other. If you can’t pay you go without. If you pay a bit you may get treated – depending on conditions x, y and z. There is no intention of providing a quality service to all. Excessive premiums and super-inflated medication are the results of this profit-driven system. The insurance corporations and pharmaceutical giants, like the oil and arms companies, have huge political clout. Sicko illustrates that successive US administrations have been financially backed by the ‘health’ sector including the current Bush administration and Hilary Clinton, Democratic nominee favourite for the next presidency. As a result legislation has always favoured those running the industry. From the McCarthy era of the 1950s up to the 1970s, a climate of anti-communism and right-wing fervour was prevalent in the US. ‘Socialisation of health care’ was presented as a dangerous move towards communism by the US ruling class. This reactionary sentiment culminated with Nixon’s decision to fully expose to the market what limited health care provision existed and set in place the trend which exists to this day.

    This film is aimed at a US audience to whom Moore hopes to demonstrate the insanity of their system of health care while showing that there are alternatives. He does this by visiting Canada, Britain, France and Cuba and compares these countries’ socialised health care systems to the US model. The contrast is remarkable. State-controlled systems are clearly shown as providing better care and paid for through taxation (and directly by the state in the case of Cuba). When he asks a woman from the US living in Paris why the French have better health provision she replies it is because the French people have a history of protest and demand security and welfare: ‘In France the government is afraid of the people, in the US the people are afraid of the government.’

    The only real weakness in Sicko is that Moore over-praises the NHS and paints it as a utopian example of health provision. There is little mention of the long waiting lists and moves towards privatisation that have and are continuing to erode such provision. The existence of a two-tier system, where the rich can receive quicker treatment, is not mentioned. As a US film maker educating others in the US about their system Moore can be forgiven for this oversight. British viewers, though, should take heed and realise that privatisation of the NHS will lead to the same inequalities and insecurities as those existing in the US.

    In response to the issues dealt with by the film Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York and now Republican nominee for the US presidency said: ‘I had prostate cancer, five, six years ago. My chance of surviving prostate cancer, and thank God I was cured of it, in the United States, 82 percent. My chances of surviving prostate cancer in England? Only 44 percent under socialised medicine.’ The percentages he gives are questionable, but there is no doubting that he received excellent health care provision. The US system can be the best in the world provided you are a member of the ruling class and have got the huge financial means to buy into that system. But for the majority there is no such privilege and comfort, just anxiety and insecurity.

    The true political strength of the film comes out when Moore takes some sick 9/11 firefighters to Cuba for treatment. In a hilarious scene in which queues form to board a boat from Miami to Cuba, Moore turns on their head prevailing US stereotypes about Cuba being a backward and dangerous enemy. The firefighters, heralded in the US media as heroes just after 9/11 had been left to rot by the US ruling class. Suffering from chronic lung disorders after inhaling the ash from the towers the firefighters were given treatment in a Havana hospital – treatment no better, no worse, than the average Cuban would get. For the first time in years they had a full medical check, a diagnosis of their condition, surgery, medication and full dental care to boot. One woman was in tears because she found it so difficult to believe that in a third world country she was shown such compassion and support yet in her country, the world’s richest, she was left to fend for herself. Intentionally or not the film demonstrates that only a planned socialist economy can provide, and most importantly guarantee to provide (unlike in the case of Britain, France and Canada) full and top quality health provision for all.

    Political, comical, timely, informative, thought-provoking, terrifying – Sicko is documentary film-making at its very best. A must see.

    Andrew Alexander

    Apologies to readers of FRFI 200: This review was printed with spell-check errors which were not the fault of the author. These have been corrected in this website version of the review.

Review: Health, human rights and the United Nations / FRFI 202 Apr / May 2008

FRFI 202 April / May 2008

Health, human rights and the United Nations

Theodore H MacDonald, Health, human rights and the United Nations – inconsistent aims and inherent contradictions? Radcliff Publishing Ltd 2008 ISBN 13: 078 1 84619 241 8, 196 pages

This book follows Health, trade and human rights (ISBN 1-84619-050-9) 2006, and The global human right to health – dream or possibility? (ISBN 978-1-84619-201-2), 2007. Forthcoming is Sacrificing the WHO to the highest bidder. This publication rate is in keeping with Theodore MacDonald’s over 200 research papers and over 40 books (from which he draws no financial gain) reflecting his life-long commitment to human rights and immense contribution to health promotion and public health, emphasising that without primary health care for all, nothing else is achievable.

Imperialism’s barbaric practices are meticulously documented, using easily accessible examples. MacDonald ensures that revolutionary Cuba is prominent in the discussion of alternative ways of organising society in the interests of the people and that socialism is on the agenda.

Health, human rights and the United Nations gives the history of the establishment of the UN, its initial declarations, aims and objectives, the other organisations that have come under its umbrella and the political and economic forces at play that stop the objectives’ achievement. This is set in the context of the most basic levels of health access for the world’s population, which are as far away as ever from attainment.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the establishment of the UN and the setting up of the World Health Organisation (WHO) aimed to promote and defend global access to primary health care as a basis for all other human rights and personal dignity. The 1978 Alma Ata Declaration recognised that the barriers to adequate health are economic and political rather than clinical.

The WHO was developed to ensure that the UN’s basic declarations could be safeguarded, enable access to primary health care for all, eradicate diseases and promote public health; similar agencies were UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and UNESCO (United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organisation).
Other agencies came under the umbrella of the UN: the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). MacDonald shows how these prevent UN goals from being achieved.

The WB’s and IMF’s Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) force oppressed nations to cut back on publicly funded services such as health and education as a condition for loans. This has slowed progress towards achieving the 1973 Health For All campaign’s 38 targets by 2000. Former UN general secretary Kofi Annan introduced the Millennium Developmental Goals in 2000 to try and prevent the WHO being undermined.

The WTO has controlled global trade through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Trade is organised against the poorer nations through protectionist tariffs and these have a direct impact on health. The effect of TRIPS, ‘a radical re-interpretation of patent law’, is illustrated by the pharmaceutical companies who produce anti-retroviral drugs for those with HIV/AIDS too expensive for the majority of affected countries to buy. However, when India and Brazil produced a generic version at 5% of the cost, TRIPS restricted the sale.

MacDonald details human rights abuses: child soldiers, sexual abuse by UN personnel, human trafficking, and shows how the failure of the UN to protect human rights has led to its undermining, and the encouragement of NGOs.

A chapter deals with Britain’s appalling record on human rights. The arms trade promoting more effective ways of killing; the treatment of asylum seekers; Britain’s involvement in people trafficking and the Labour government’s contempt for the Human Rights Act when it did not fit its military and political objectives. A UNICEF 2007 report found that ‘the human rights of British children were more seriously violated than any of the other 21 developed nations studied’ with unacceptable levels of poverty and low aspirations for their future, deprived in affection, education, materially and socially;

Despite the WHO’s achievements, 17 million people still die every year from infectious diseases. MacDonald asks whether the structure of the UN will allow the WHO to fulfill the Health For All mandate and concludes that reforming or replacing the UN will not solve the problems of manipulation and domination of corporate interests. What is needed is a ‘socially responsive philosophy, essentially egalitarian and socialist in its world view’.

Hannah Caller

Review: BBC Two’s ‘White Season’ FRFI 202 Apr 2008/ May 2008

FRFI 202 April 2008 / May 2008

    BBC Two’s ‘White Season’

    What exactly did BBC Two intend to do in its ‘White Season’? Why did they organise a survey, not randomly as claimed, but aimed at white people with a very specific question about being ‘voiceless’ and unrepresented. Was it to manipulate the message that people in Britain feel that ‘nobody speaks for them’ and that they are ‘becoming invisible’ in order to serve the purpose of a race and not a class agenda? The ‘White Season’ was launched by a discussion based on a small telephone poll of 1,012 white British adults aged 18+ which showed that 58% of white working class people felt nobody speaks for people like them and 46% of white middle class people felt the same. Newsnight guest speaker Bob Crow of the RMT energetically agreed that the Labour government and the media do not represent the interests of, and in fact attack, the working class but, he asserted, this is entirely a matter of class, not of race.

    BBC2, however, clearly had an agenda to view the white British working class as particular victims of neglect and dispossession by the Labour government. This is the political stance of not only the British National Party but of an increasing section of the media and professional class who have historically played exactly this role of encouraging and justifying the racism of others.

    The series kicked off with a documentary about Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech against immigration from the British Commonwealth in which he predicted that ‘in 15 or 20 years the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ and ‘rivers of blood would be shed’. Then, as now, racists protest that they are not allowed to say what they think and Powell was congratulated 40 years ago for ‘daring to speak out’. The BBC ‘White Season’ was promoted on this idea of fearless ‘speaking out’. The series was anchored by a much repeated trailer which shows a shaven-headed man’s face being blacked up with writing by brown hands over the words, ‘Is the white working class in Britain becoming invisible?’ What emerged from the series of documentaries is that the white working class are, some of them, old and grumpily retired in Wibsey’s Working Men’s Club; young and unemployed in Peterborough where equally white eastern European casual, seasonal workers do the unwanted agri-business jobs of harvesting and packing; hardly present in the multicultural primary school in Birmingham which has never had more than 10 white children on its register at a time; dysfunctional in Moving On where a young girl embraces the Islam of her school friends as a sanctuary from a chaotic world; and neighbourly in All White in Barking where an English and an African couple become friendly and even the BNP activist has an Anglo/Nigerian grandchild. Then there is the Jewish social club of 50 years standing whose members have mixed views about old Monty and his live-in carer/girlfriend Betty from Uganda. ‘Invisible’ does not even rate in this.

    The most opportunistic racist game of all was to call a documentary on Easington in County Durham, The Whitest Place in Britain. White had nothing to do with it. This ex-mining village could have been named as the most shamefully abandoned and de-populated working class community in Britain. The fate of Easington represents an attack on whole sections of the British working class who are alienated as a result of the closure of entire industries, the rundown of manufacturing and council housing, the assault on trade unions and the deregulation of the labour market. Instead of showing what results from the British ruling class homage to big business and privatisation, the BBC provides a running commentary on the racial composition of a defeated community.

    Michael Moore, the director of Sicko and Bowling for Columbine, among other films, published a best seller in 2002 called Stupid White Men. His targets were the neo-conservatives, Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and their associates whose politics are dominated by militarism, greed and power. He happily included both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in the Stupid White Men class of person. The BBC Two’s ‘White Season’ could have targeted the parallel folk and institutions in Britain dominated by the equally stupid white ruling class which would include the judiciary, the armed forces, the civil service and indeed the BBC itself. It still remains a puzzle why the ‘White Season’ flirted with the provocative suggestion that Enoch Powell represents the ideals of ‘free speech’. Are they stupid?
 Susan Davidson