More ‘out’ than ‘on’

Glen Newey

  • A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin by Chris Mullin
    Profile, 590 pp, £20.00, March 2009, ISBN 978 1 84668 223 0

I’m on research leave in Finland, which, like any well-ordered social democracy, but unlike the UK, maintains an air of strenuously contained bedlam. Public notices in Finnish look as if they were produced by pogoing on a typewriter. Bank staff, waitresses, children, even the drunks, have the air of Marks & Spencer management trainees. Matti Vanhanen, Finland’s cyborg-like teetotal prime minister, survived in office after ditching his mistress via text message – it’s hard to imagine Gordon Brown getting away with that. But now and again, one hears a keening strain from the old country. On the Alexanderinkatu recently a dress shop was enticing passers-by with ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, the D:Ream chantalong which Labour ran as its theme tune in the 1997 general election campaign. Apparently, the ditty is still good for shifting frocks, at least at 60°N. It’s a fair bet that Labour won’t revive it for the next election.

Before he was elected Labour MP for Sunderland South in 1987, Chris Mullin was prominent in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, as the editor of Tribune in the mid-1980s, and notably in the campaign to quash the Birmingham Six’s convictions. As he comments here – no doubt part joke and part apologia – the CLPD’s demand for mandatory reselection of sitting Labour MPs, though branded as a ‘loony left’ entryist stratagem at the time, was in fact New Labour avant la lettre. Mullin is well aware that taking the paymaster’s shilling means forsaking his independence. As a parliamentary life form, junior ministers are even more amoebic than backbench MPs, who can at least hope to leave their mark by sponsoring a private member’s bill, select committee membership, tenacious single-issue campaigning, or the odd rebellion in the division lobbies. Parliamentary under-secretaries get their mouths stuffed with gold, or at least with an extra £27,000 a year – as Mullin is reminded by the astoundingly mercenary Cherie Booth after leaving office. The price of accepting is to swell the payroll vote, and spout stultifying drivel.

In 1999, Blair calls to offer Mullin a post as a bottom-ranking minister. First he accepts. Next day he resigns. Blair gets back on the phone. He dangles the prospect of promotion to minister of state sooner rather than later. Mullin accepts again. He quits as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and joins what is baggily known as the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR): in effect, the Ministry for John Prescott, whose amour-propre demands a duly sprawling apanage. Mullin goes to Fenwick’s at his wife’s insistence, and buys three new suits. Early in 2001 he moves to International Development, only to get the heave-ho after Labour’s election win that June. He goes back to chairing the Home Affairs Select Committee, and sits on other parliamentary committees. In 2003, he returns to government, this time as Africa minister at the Foreign Office, where he remains for the rest of his ministerial life.

Most of the time, Mullin, though generally closer politically to the Blairites than the Brownites, seems sincerely bemused at New Labour’s short-termism and rhetorical flapdoodle. He is a bit like an Anglican vicar for whom the old doctrinal certainties have gone west, leaving only the remnants of liturgy, and ironic detachment at the absurdity of his situation. He comes across, on the whole, as a genial cove, certainly by comparison with the Tourettish protagonist of Alastair Campbell’s diaries. Not that everybody gets an equal ration of the milk of concord. Journalists – whether because they are seen as playing gamekeeper to MPs’ poachers, or conversely – excite Mullin’s contempt and loathing. Piers Morgan is ‘odious’, John Humphrys ‘smug’, Quentin Letts ‘a toe rag’; Jeremy Vine is ‘a cynical smart arse’. Generally, his sympathies wax inversely with people’s proximity to wealth and power. This extends, to some degree, to his perception of himself.

Admittedly, on Mullin’s testimony, power seldom looks alluring. The distended egos of New Labour grandees such as Peter Mandelson, and especially Prescott, float by from time to time, gas-filled blimps at risk of collision or spontaneous combustion. Mandy, prickly, imperious and unloved, falls, twice. Gordon Brown schemes to become leader, while his faction intrigues against Blair’s. At the DETR, Prescott blusters and bungles away, the Peter Principle made flesh. Other ministers – Alan Milburn, David Blunkett, Stephen Byers – briefly shoot skywards, flare and fizzle. Through the passing show Mullin is by turns wryly amused and appalled, but often just alienated, a Meursault of the red boxes.

Despite his Bennite past, the alienation is not mainly ideological. Mullin is sincerely disconcerted by the gilded pomp of ministerial life, especially at the FCO, where as Africa minister he has to endure the grandstanding of potentates like Yoweri Museveni and Olusegun Obasanjo, to say nothing of the diplomatic corps. When he arrives at International Development, an absurd spat brews with the permanent secretary, from which Mullin wisely withdraws, over who should bag the biggest office. He refuses a car from the ministerial pool and continues taking the bus to work from his flat in Brixton, as he often reminds us, including the route numbers. But his disaffection also stems from being given junior ministerial posts more fitting to ‘thirtysomethings’.

Indeed, Mullin’s unworldliness is shallower than it may seem. As the new millennium dawns, he laments that ‘I am entering a period of unprecedented obscurity’ but hopes that ‘my eclipse will be temporary.’ Eclipses often are. Mullin dreams of worldly glory despite recognising the limits on his abilities. While a junior minister at International Development, he sees that the secretary of state, Clare Short, has a far better grasp of policy than he, and when Blair needs Mullin to feed him the odd mot juste, as he’s greeting Museveni on a visit to Number 10, Mullin dries up (‘I am reduced to blubbering incoherence . . . He [Blair] cannot be impressed’). Still, the elusiveness of success prompts a grape-souring renunciation of worldly glories, and the resolve to make failure his project. There is no success like failure, and failure is no success at all. As ever, the moral vocabulary provides a handy fallback, tainting success with ambition or megalomania, and glossing failure as fidelity to principle.

Mullin’s departure from office in 2001 and subsequent re-election nem. con. to the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee results from just this mix-up of motives. On 9 June he rings the chief whip, Hilary Armstrong, to tell her that he wants ‘to move up or out’ of the government. When he learns that moving up is not an option, he quits. Twelve days later he sees Blair and repeats what he said to Armstrong. Except that he doesn’t, quite. Mullin tells Blair that he’d told her he wanted to move on or out – which would not rule out a sideways move to another department. Blair, understandably in the circumstances, replies: ‘The message I got was more “out” than “on”.’ Mullin is then aghast that Armstrong has mangled his message. He wins plaudits from the press for nobly favouring a return to the backbenches over ministerial preferment.

The reader gets the impression that exercising power is not in Mullin’s official script. In his 1982 bodice-ripper, A Very British Coup, landed interests, establishment panjandrums and the CIA connive to topple a Labour government voted in on a leftist manifesto not unlike the one with which the party lost the 1983 general election. By the time he becomes a minister, the aspiration to seize the commanding heights of the economy has ceded to more limited hopes for human betterment. But there is also an aversion to power itself, which for a politician is as occupationally maladapted as haemophobia in a surgeon.

Squeamishness, affected or otherwise, towards the lipid ooze of elected power is surprisingly common among democratic politicians. As Ken Livingstone’s 1987 memoir put it, If Voting Changed Anything They’d Abolish It. Livingstone was first elected to Parliament that year, having detected in ostentatious disdain for elected office a good wheeze for wringing out votes. In the 2000 London mayoral election, he was again able to exploit popular resentment, this time of political jobbery, after Millbank had chopper-dropped Frank Dobson in as the official Labour candidate. To his credit, Mullin recognises the tackiness of this fixing operation, and confronts Blair’s adviser Jonathan Powell, who blithely admits that ‘we fucked up . . . but we couldn’t allow a bozo like Livingstone to win.’

Less calculating politicians than the People’s Ken may feel more double-minded about power, turning their energies to policy areas which seem gratifyingly free of moral ambiguity. Perhaps this is why idiosyncratic, marginal obsessions sometimes befog Mullin’s judgment, as with fox-hunting. The pledge in the 1997 manifesto to ban it drags on unlegislated into Labour’s second term. Finally, in November 2004, the government uses the Parliament Act to force through legislation which bans hunting with dogs. Mullin exults: ‘We have taken on the mightiest vested interest in the land and one with infinite resources.’ It is no longer about saving a few thousand orange canids from the oafs in pink; rather, ‘it’s about who governs.’ No doubt when embarrassed daily by being in political hock to the bosses of News International or Associated Newspapers, any victory, however trivial, calls for celebration. Even here, Mullin remains nervous that the forces of reaction will strike back.

In similar vein, he wages a personal crusade against cupressus leylandii. Prescott is nervous about going to war with the conifer, as he has 16 of them in his back garden. Mullin finally gets to pitch his bid for a ban to Blair, who turns out to have given the matter his personal attention. The PM worries how the offensive will play in the suburban heartlands where, as a fast-growing screen against curtain-twitchers, the fuscous triffid is much prized. Blair frets, too, that the government will be branded dirigiste; it turns out that he has been primed by Anji Hunter. In common with Prezza, Mullin finds that the garden of his flat is infested. On New Year’s Day 2001, while trying to slash it back with a new electric hedge-trimmer, Mullin slices through the cable, ‘fortunately without fatal consequences’. Given his fixation, it is odd that Mullin fails to report the fruits of his campaign: Part 8 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, which gives local councils the power to order the downsizing of foliage. It seems a political accomplishment, of sorts, to have given councillors the right to slap Asbos on suburban hedges. But in the diaries it does not register a ripple. For Mullin, it seems, there is no failure like success.

At times he sounds as if he would like to dissolve the people and elect another. One of the incidental pleasures of the book is offered by the occasional unhappy encounter with disgruntled members of the Wearside proletariat, the general tenor of which is ‘What has the government ever done for us?’ (this long before Neo-Lab’s pitching into the Mesopotamian misadventure, the recession, the expenses rip-off, the Serbonian Bog of Afghanistan). Mullin is buttonholed by a vituperative anti-Labourite who bellows: ‘The Labour Party is full of traitors and poofs.’ He tells the man he suffers from ‘Chronic Whinger Syndrome, a disease all too common in these parts’. Another time, he has a telling exchange with a bus conductor, who complains that his fares are ‘a lot of sheep’. Mullin replies: ‘You hate your passengers, don’t you?’; the conductor cheerfully assents. Mullin looks round at the blank faces: ‘Maybe he was right.’ The sheep – the farmyard’s lumpen-proletariat – have failed. The best hope lies in the foxes: furry class warriors, voteless and mute.

Mullin is awed by power as well as alienated. The diaries display what might be called the Yahweh syndrome, the self-imposed embargo on calling the supreme being by name. In Alan Clark’s diaries, Margaret Thatcher was invariably ‘The Lady’. Mullin, who on this evidence harbours fewer illusions about high office than most ex-ministers, refers to Blair simply as ‘The Man’, ‘Himself’, or even, on one or two surreal occasions, as ‘The Presence’. Whether Blair’s kenning takes the form of the concrete universal or an ectoplasmic emanation, it is invariably capitalised; similarly ‘The Call’ to office. All this makes power seem more remote rather than less. The tic seems in Mullin’s case to display a characteristic roulade of humility and hubris. To go with ‘Tony’ would no doubt come across as faux intimate, but on the other hand, referring to the prime minister as ‘Blair’, or indeed ‘the prime minister’, wouldn’t have differentiated Mullin from the common run of people, for whom the PM was just a bloke on the telly. Wielders of great power, as seen by those on the fringes, come across like the supersized occupants of an Ames Room.

Occasionally the diaries throw an arresting light on subsequent events. The entry for Wednesday, 1 May 2002 reports a warning by the then Leader of the House, Robin Cook, at a meeting of the Labour Parliamentary Committee. The words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living. ‘We are in a jam. Few members have yet tumbled to the juggernaut heading their way.’ Mullin explains that ‘under the Freedom of Information Act, by January 2005 MPs’ expenses will be subject to public scrutiny, retrospectively. Goodness knows what mayhem that will cause . . . [Cook] said he had been advised that we could probably get away with publishing headline figures . . . It was agreed not to minute the discussion.’

Presumably this cover-up wouldn’t have seen the light of day had Mullin not recorded it. What leaps out for readers who followed the Telegraph revelations is that in 2002 it was already common knowledge that expenses were a scandal; and that well-regarded parliamentarians like Cook took it as read both that the public would be outraged and, just for that reason, shouldn’t find out the details. Later, Mullin reports a liaison committee meeting where fully 30 minutes are given over to discussing whether select committee members should continue to travel club class. One MP flaunts her deep-vein thrombosis. Nicholas Winterton worries that slumming it in economy is infra dig: ‘It’s not the food, it’s the sort of people.’ Another Tory, Michael Mates, spells it out: ‘He doesn’t want to meet his constituents.’

Coverage of Mullin during the expenses hoo-ha dwelt on his black-and-white telly, when other members were blagging plasma screens the size of Wales. Indeed, he voted last year with the minority to impose external auditing on MPs’ expenses. He seems pretty indifferent to the material spoils of office. As Africa minister he is alert to the pointlessness of much ministerial activity, and to the incongruous bombast attending the UK’s missions abroad. He half-heartedly progresses, like a latter-day governor general, through Sudan, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and other failed states we used to run, gamely pushing the official line about tying aid to good governance. He raises the 1980s Matabeleland massacres with the Zimbabwean envoy, only to be wigged back about Belmarsh (‘We don’t lock people up for years without trial, as you do’).

The diaries run from 1999 to 2005, though Mullin had kept a journal since John Smith’s death in 1994. His editor, Ruth Winstone, who also edited the Benn diaries, applies a touch of such gossamer lightness that the reader is repeatedly struck by its absence. Personal acquaintances, family and apparatchiks pop up in the narrative, sometimes referred to only by forename, leaving the reader to puzzle over who they might be. Precedents abound for diary editing which is informative but not heavy-handed, as in the edition by H.C.G. Matthew of Gladstone, or by Ion Trewin of Alan Clark. The diaries have been crunched down to 200,000 words from a holograph four times that length, though a certain amount of pooterism and triviality remains. We learn that Mullin usually eats beans on toast in the Commons cafeteria for breakfast, and that the Mullins played Cluedo on Christmas Eve 2003; he takes Ibuprofen for a headache.

The circumstances of composition influence the diaries’ form. Clark wrote his from scratch on the day. Benn’s are transcribed from contemporaneous recordings made around midnight each day, hence their often burbling character. Mullin noted and then typed up entries en bloc at the end of the week. There is at least one point at which the chronology must be wrong. The entry for Thursday, 28 March 2002 has Mullin switching on the radio at midnight to learn that the Queen Mother has died. This must have been some manner of premonition, since old Gin and Chiffon did not in fact croak until the following Saturday. I remember hearing the news on the radio at around 6 p.m. that evening, being, at the time, on the can in my mother’s house in Jersey. Such things lie heavy on the memory. Precognition aside, the confusion presumably arises from a conflation of Mullin’s entries for 28 and 30 March (the next published entry after 28 March is Sunday 31st).

Still, Mullin inspires trust: one seldom, if ever, feels that material has been wilfully suppressed or distorted to serve the author. He is straight, decent, in an old-fashioned way. When ministers like Jack Straw and Charlie Falconer, as well as Blair, cuss in the salons of power, he flags his discomfort (‘a chandelier swayed gently’). His decency overlays some of the double-mindedness. Mullin lauds the material improvements on Wearside under Labour while despising materialism. He pities dirt poor children in Eritrea but knows his government has sanctioned the killing of thousands in Iraq. He votes against the war but celebrates when Lord Hutton sandblasts the government’s slate clean. He is a diligent constituency MP but dislikes his constituents, at least en masse. They seem not to have registered that things have got better, as the song foretold.

After the 2005 election victory, he sits expectantly by the phone, wondering what awaits him in the reshuffle. Eventually The Presence rings through, libates over Mullin his usual extreme unction, and gives him the push (‘I’m sorry Chris, but I am going to have to let you go’). The reluctant minister blurts that he is ‘devastated’: the valediction of one who is mild-mannered, mildly paternalistic, mildly ambitious and, in his way, innocent.