You win some, you lose some
Alastair Campbell's study of what it takes to be successful is most revealing about himself
I've been trying to imagine how this book came about. Alastair Campbell's literary agent might have said: "So Ali, you've done diaries and novels, and that book on depression. What next? What are you passionate about?"
"Um, politics and sport."
"OK, good. We can work with that. I'm thinking non-fiction. Maybe something with a self-help feel to it. What do politics and sport have in common?"
"No, Ali, we've done depression. Something more upbeat this time. How about winning? Interview all the famous winners you know. Ask them about their tactics and their mindset and so on, throw in some interviews with business leaders, add some management jargon and - who knows? - we might find ourselves with… a winner!"
The idea from Tony Blair's former spin doctor is actually a good idea, in theory, but in practice it becomes apparent that comparing winners in sport with winners in politics is not comparing like with like. Sportsmen don't need the approval of voters; politicians don't need to spend quite as much time in the gym. Above all, politics matters in a way that sport plainly doesn't.
In trying to yoke the two fields together, Campbell makes some clunking gear changes: at one point he goes from discussing Tony Blair's response to 9/11 to former England rugby coach Clive Woodward's tactics on the rugby field. He moves from the leadership qualities of Churchill and Gorbachev to a long quotation from - who else? - that great political sage Arsène Wenger. The most wince-inducing tonal shift is the one that takes the reader from Nelson Mandela's fortitude in prison to David Beckham's reaction to being sent off against Argentina.
This is a pity because when Campbell is discussing winning strategies in politics he is as insightful as you would expect. As a spin doctor he did, after all, help steer Blair to three successive UK general election victories.
Consider this wonderful passage: "Other world leaders were sometimes shocked at the interplay between Tony and his staff, Jonathan Powell and me especially - we both used gentle mockery to keep his feet on the ground - but nine times out of 10 he welcomed it, partly because he had a sense of humour, partly because he had enough awareness of self and of history to realise power can do funny things to people's minds. I'm not sure Putin has anyone in his entourage who dares to suggest he is overdoing the macho image and should stop riding horses bareback and bare chested."
Campbell is intrigued by Putin and holds him up as a skilled exponent of OST (objective, strategy and tactics). Putin's objective is to rebuild Russian power, Campbell writes. His strategy is the assertion of his and Russian power. His tactics include the Olympic Games, land grabs and muzzling the media.
The big idea of Campbell's book is that what drives winners is not the love of winning but the hatred of losing. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is included in the book as a winner. Campbell worked with Ahern during the negotiations for the Good Friday Agreement.
On Australian cricketers, he suggests that what gives them their edge is a fear of failing. But is that right? When we refer to a "fear of failure" it is nearly always as an explanation for why some people don't want to risk trying.
I would have liked to hear his thoughts on mental illness and winning. There has, after all, been much research done lately on why psychopaths are often so successful in life.
Aren't a lot of winners dysfunctional and unpleasant? Look at Stalin. Look at cricketer Kevin Pietersen. But he takes it for granted that winning, at all costs, is all that matters, which tells us something about him.
You find yourself thinking that more is revealed about Campbell's mentality than those he analyses. You even begin to suspect that he has used this book as a form of therapy, like his running. He signed up for the London Marathon in 2003, he writes, but knowing he couldn't win, he decided he needed to win against himself, and break four hours. When he did it he "felt delirious and fulfilled".
He ends with what he clearly hopes will be a newsworthy bombshell. Despite being a republican, he writes, he considers the queen to be "one of the great enduring winners of our lifetime". But the man responsible for that toe-curling phrase "the people's princess" goes further in his description. "She is," he writes, "a very special, and very British, winner."
Imagine the queen's PR if she had Alastair Campbell as her director of communications. Actually we don't need to imagine, because in a rare expression of regret the author describes how he thinks he went too far with some of the PR stunts he arranged for Blair, such as inserting him in a storyline in Coronation Street and letting him feature in The Simpsons and a Catherine Tate sketch. "I wonder if we did not accelerate a trend to celebretise politics," he muses. You think?
Non-Fiction: Winners and How They Succeed, Alastair Campbell, Hutchinson, hdbk, 464 pages, £20
Available with free P&P on kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350