Two Bullies, a Lie and War: Blair, Campbell and ‘In the Loop’
Open Democracy, April 21st 2009
It is a season of films about Britain, tapping a sense for nostalgia and who we are as the UK economy, our government and banks reel from crisis to crisis.
Thus, we have ‘The Boat that Rocked’, Richard Curtis’s limp slapstick about an Austin Powers like swinging sixties where life was one long party, and ‘The Damned United’, on Brian Clough, mercurial football manager, and showing us what men and the North were like in the 1970s rebelling against the stuffiness of the old establishment.
Lastly we have Armando Iannucci’s ‘In the Loop’ which has come from the BBC TV series ‘The Thick of It’ which showcases the degeneration of our politics in the Tony Blair-Alastair Campbell era in the run-up to the war with Iraq.
The British may remain fascinated with the myths of the partying 1960s and grim 1970s, but ‘In the Loop’ is both nostalgia and contemporary given New Labour are still in power, some of the people in office, and we are still at war.
This is a riveting, superb film, which accurately portrays on many levels the chaotic reality of politics and power. It is more compelling than comedy, more revealing and horrifying than open guff-haws of which there are quite a few.
The plot of the film centres on a government minister Simon Foster played by Tom Hollander who inadvertently says that Britain going to war is ‘unforeseeable’, only to be forced to eat his words publicly due to the Government spin machine. Foster thus ends up in Washington being fought over by the pro and anti-war factions in the State Department as America lurches to war.
‘In the Loop’ has a lot going for it. It gets the fragile masculinity, insecurity and sheer nastiness of the Alpha-Male testosterone Labour advisers and spin doctors right. It illustrates the frenetic way they rush around barking orders, making decisions on the hoof, and terrifying others inside and outside the loop, trying to bring sense to their disorganised world.
It shows the very profound, deep ‘chip on their shoulder’ that people like Alistair Campbell carry – always thinking they are lacking something in terms of confidence and smoothness, and perpetually angry about the fact that the Oxbridge establishment exists or more accurately that they are not part of it (despite the fact Campbell went to Oxford).
What is missing is any real understanding of what is the real motivation of the New Labour class. ‘In the Loop’ does not have an answer, beyond seeming to suggest that the reason Blair and Campbell took us to war was that they and their gang were just bowled over with the glamour of Washington and playing war games.
What is never touched on is political ideology. Blair and Campbell – along with Brown, Mandelson and Philip Gould – were the central players in the creation of New Labour which was nothing if not an ambitious project – setting out to remake Labour and politics. They completely transformed Labour, creating an ‘old Labour’ stereotype which ran from Keir Hardie to Neil Kinnock and a ‘new’ improved brand in opposition to it, and they decided that the media which had nearly destroyed Labour in the 1980s had to dealt with in a very different way – through a mixture of buying it off, charm and a constant war of aggression.
It was a very male outlook, one of command and control, and one which saw modern politics and decision making as similar to conflict and war. There was practically no recognition of the understanding and redemptive power of democracy, instead only an impatience and intolerance to get things done and to overcome others.
Despite these caveats this is an important film. Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker captures the menace of Alistair Campbell and has wonderfully annoyed and angered him. However, Tucker despite swearing all over the place does not capture the full horror and menace of Campbell; psychopaths and bullies like Campbell do not exert their power by shouting and threatening all the time, but use charm and humour, playing it softly as well as hard. Monsters such as Campbell sadly don’t always come easily identified as such.
A discussion on ‘Newsnight Review’ (1) with Ian Hislop and Michael Portillo threw light on why this film matters. Portillo, who has since 1997 reinvented himself as an erudite, socially conscious Conservative reverted to his former ‘bad’ self, with a mean, petulant display dismissing nearly everything about the film.
He particularly disliked the film portraying a world of six years ago while seeing itself as contemporary. Hislop to his credit articulated his incredulity at Portillo, stating that firstly, we were still at war in Iraq, and secondly, that Alistair Campbell was still stalking the corridors of power advising Brown et al.
Why would Portillo react so venomously to ‘In the Loop’? I think the answer is contained in the transformation of our politics this last decade by New Labour which began under Thatcherism. ‘In the Loop’ shows us where power lies in our political system; with the media, the spin doctors and army of unelected advisers. No longer is Parliament, political parties, elected politicians and the whips what matter.
‘In the Loop’ tells us a potent story about this transformation against the backdrop of the war, and ‘celebrity’ politicians like Portillo are part of this change: of the emergence of this post-democratic order of political, corporate and media elites, and that is why he reacted the way he did to dismiss it.
The New Labour part of this: the Blairites, the Brownites, Campbell and Gould, are still shamelessly in public life, running the Labour Party and the country. Campbell is in No. 10, while Gould has been trying to fix it for his 22-year-old daughter to get the nomination of a safe Labour seat. They are practically beyond satire, but not quite.
The Labour Party is beyond hope, given what it has allowed itself to be turned into, but we have to hope that our democracy and processes of government can be saved and taken back from these despicable people who have inflicted so much damage on our body politics and the world, contributing to two impossible to win wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
1. Newsnight Review, April 17th 2009, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/search/?q=newsnight%20review