Monday, 16 January 2012

A View from the Foothills, Chris Mullin

This is one of the volumes of the acclaimed political diaries of Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP.  It already appears to have become one of the standard inside accounts of the Blair years.

The story begins with Mullin's appointment to a very junior ministerial position at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in 1999.  Mullin had previously been a substantial and respected figure on the British political scene.  He had played a leading role in freeing the Birmingham Six.  At the time we see him entering the government, he holds two important parliamentary positions, including the chairmanship of the influential Home Affairs Select Committee, and a third-tier ministerial job represents a significant step down.  He initially refuses the appointment, and then, having accepted it, repeatedly complains about it.  At 51, he has none of the deference of an ambitious thirtysomething desperate to get into the Cabinet, and he is not shy about arguing with his officials and refusing to conform with ministerial protocol.

John Prescott's DETR is not a hospitable place for Mullin.  He has an environmentalist streak, dislikes the prevalence of modern car and air travel, and thinks that the government is too close to the airline industry.  He refuses to use an official car.  He lobbies for the introduction of restrictions on the growth of leylandii, only to find the idea squashed by Number Ten on the grounds that it is too nanny-stateish.  He works very hard, despite being told by his civil servants that his predecessor worked harder.

By 2001, he has had enough and returns to the backbenches and the Home Affairs Committee, where he talent-spots a younger David Cameron and helps to produce a report on drugs that so annoys the American Republicans that three Congressmen come to London to remonstrate with him about it.  Within a couple of years, he is ready to return to government.  Tony Blair plans to make him Secretary of State for International Development shortly after the Iraq War, but a duplicitous chief whip shafts him by reminding Blair that he had rebelled over the conflict.  His position was that the invasion of Iraq should not go ahead without explicit UN authorisation (the famous "second resolution"), although he appeared to weaken briefly just before the big vote.

Instead, he ends up as the junior Africa minister at the Foreign Office, in which position he meets various charming and likeable African dictators who speak fluently the language of democracy and human rights while repressing and impoverishing their peoples.  He is sacked by Blair after the 2005 election, for no very obvious reason.

Prescott emerges as an incompetent, insecure and intrusive boss, though Mullin does warm to him somewhat over time.  He seems to like Clare Short, and Jack Straw also comes out well.  Gordon Brown emerges as a powerful figure: he is depicted as obsessive, wilful, paranoid, conspiratorial and quite weird.  He has a habit of disappearing when blame is to be shared out.

Mullin started out on the Bennite left, and his political convictions are clearly on the left of centre.  He is not an identikit Old Labour man, however.  For example, while he thought that the part-privatisation of the air traffic control system was pointless and politically damaging, he had no ideological objection to it and was convinced that the unions' safety concerns were baseless.  He shows respect and admiration for Tony Blair, together with cynicism, and quotes the great man as giving the following advice to a newly elected David Miliband: "Go around smiling at everyone and get other people to shoot them".  Various entries provide a salutary reminder that the New Labour governments were never universally popular even during the high noon of Blairism - indeed, they were seriously unpopular in a number of quarters.  Mullin is on good terms with Tony Benn and remains a paid-up member of CND.

Mullin himself comes across as a likeable character, sensitive, serious and somewhat ironic, though not without his own flaws.  The picture of the government bureaucracy which he paints, with its office politics, scheming ministers and officials, pointless paperwork and badly written speeches, will be familiar to viewers of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, and indeed to anyone who has ever worked for a large organisation.