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Artillery Row Books

A bad man writes a worse book

Alastair Campbell’s new book is beneath the level of the bargain bin

Alastair Campbell Talks Politics, Alastair Campbell, Red Shed, £7.99

Alastair Campbell is a cult.  Ever since this former Downing Street bully was fingered for sexing up the “dodgy dossier” much of the British public have known him as a shameless self-publicist of questionable morality who has managed to reinvent himself as a self-appointed authority on all things political. The baffling popularity of The Rest is Politics podcast (accurately described by Ben Sixsmith as “a suffocating exercise in managerialist onanism”) seems to have reached its apogee with the announcement that Campbell and his ex-Tory MP sidekick Rory Stewart are going to be live in the O2 for The Rest is Politics Tour. No doubt it will sell out. Strange days indeed.

The people who will voluntarily hand over money to listen to these two politicians of debatable pedigree exchange ideas about why they are right (and everyone else is wrong) are presumably the same sort who will buy Campbell’s execrable new book for children: Alastair Campbell Talks Politics.  This book is for teenagers, and is the first of two. The second, Why Politics Matters, is aimed at 6-9 year olds and we can only hope that it will be buried under the political ordure (much of it coming from Campbell himself) that will descend on us all when it is published on the same day as the General Election. 

Campbell begins …Talks Politics by comparing himself to Martin Luther King.  Read that sentence again and take a minute to absorb it. He claims that although he “didn’t have the same experiences as King”, his famous “I have a dream” speech inspired Campbell to make the world a better place (he admits he can’t remember much more of King’s speech beyond those three words). I wonder if the widows of the many British servicemen who died in Iraq have a view on whether he has succeeded in that particular aspiration. 

Campbell’s own dream is that “one day in the future the person who is then Prime Minister of the UK posts a photo of a dog-eared copy of this book…with the comment ‘This is the book that inspired me to get into politics’”. His dream, our nightmare. Because it isn’t just the lack of imagination, insight, originality, knowledge, balance, or nuance that characterises this book, and marks it out as one that all nascent Prime Ministers should avoid, but it is the startling lack of self-awareness that borders on the self-delusional. For instance, Campbell gives useful advice to aspiring politicians, such as them needing a “thick skin” because since the advent of social media “abuse in politics can be really unpleasant”. Now, when you think of Campbell, do you associate him with someone who has coarsened public debate, or elevated it? Spend a few microseconds on Google and you will soon find accusations of bullying, threatening, and even physically intimidating behaviour by him. 

The book is shot through with his own preoccupations and biases, although he does manage to wait until page 17 before he mentions Eton and Jacob Rees-Mogg. In fact he spends as long on private schools (one page) as he does on whether or not there is a perfect political system (shock news: turns out there isn’t). And that is part of the problem with books like this: publishers (and the authors they pay to write them) think that a young audience don’t want detail, or nuance.  The result is that genuinely interesting areas — such as the distribution of power in the Middle East — are skimmed over.  Campbell asks himself questions that he can be barely bothered to answer, such as “are there any monarchs with political power today?” Answer: “Yes, quite a few”. And on he goes, barrelling away, talking about the time he worked with the late Queen, the time he worked with Tony Blair…his role in getting peace in Ireland.  

Much of it is dull (“What does a minister do?”), or predictable (an interview with Keir Starmer unearths that the future Prime Minister’s father was a toolmaker and his mother was a nurse).  But running through all of it is Campbell’s own views: when he asks which department his young reader would create he suggests “a department for sorting out Brexit” and inserts a plaintive “sob” afterwards; he claims that the Leave campaign “told lots of lies”, and that “some of the richest people” in the country employ “clever lawyers and accountants” to avoid paying taxes. We also learn that both the NHS and the arts need more money.

One of the most depressing developments of recent times is the politicisation of everything, whether it is literary festivals, the countryside, or outer space, we are constantly told to view every human activity through the lens of activism.  For people like Campbell, childhood is an area for experience, not innocence, for dismal “engagement” and campaigning. It is not a place of play, of dreaming, of making friends, and reading poetry.  No, it is another place to be colonised by “progressive” politics.  Such books are almost inevitably both boring and patronising: each page is filled with reductive, biased statements written in a gratingly upbeat voice, and all designed in a way that middle class publishers think younger readers will find so much ‘accessible’ that boring old sentences and paragraphs. So, we get lots of different fonts, zany arrows, and a surfeit of exclamation marks and capitalised sentences. 

It would, of course, be impossible to imagine a publisher commissioning a book from someone on the other end of the political spectrum: there will be no Guide to Politics for Children by Suella Braverman, no Michael Gove’s Introduction to Levelling Up for Toddlers.  What we have instead is a depressing book, filled with dull information that can be found elsewhere, page after page of left-wing views expressed as common sense, and an authorial voice that should, in any sane, mature democracy, have been silenced by shame a long time ago. Only buy this book for someone you have nothing but contempt for. 

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