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Straining for effect

A saint of self-deprecation, Chris Mullin closed the first volume of his diaries A View from the Foothills ‘contemplating oblivion’ after his dismissal from ministerial office.

29 September 2010

12:00 AM

29 September 2010

12:00 AM

Decline & Fall Chris Mullin

Profile, pp.443, 20

A saint of self-deprecation, Chris Mullin closed the first volume of his diaries A View from the Foothills ‘contemplating oblivion’ after his dismissal from ministerial office.

A saint of self-deprecation, Chris Mullin closed the first volume of his diaries A View from the Foothills ‘contemplating oblivion’ after his dismissal from ministerial office. This was plainly not the case, as the 443 pages of his second volume, Decline & Fall, demonstrate. Whatever the fate of those he writes about with such sardonic charm, obscurity is unlikely to overtake the former Member for Sunderland South, though he will be better remembered for what he wrote than for what he did.

Politicians who thought they knew Mullin were surprised, shocked even, by his witty take on the shortcomings of life at Westminster. They reckoned without his ability to write, and his journalist’s eye for detail. What’s more, the former editor of Tribune has been inside his party’s skin for decades. Better than outsiders like Tom Bower or Andrew Rawlings, he has an instinctive feel for the denizens of the big Gothic shed by the river and never stoops to the Bennite drivel of writing about ‘ishoos’ rather than people. David Miliband is an ‘inhabitant of the stratosphere’ who doesn’t listen and whose eyes dart everywhere. Nick Clegg is ‘easily the biggest charlatan of the lot’. Tony Blair privately advised his ministers to lie. Frankness, I like.


Volume Two takes us from the general election of 2005 to Gordon Brown’s defeat in the polls only four months ago. This is an impressive piece of editing, second only to the publication record set by Milord Mandelson, who perhaps had more pressing motives for getting his retaliation in first. The Mandy memoirs were serialised in the Times, whereas Mullin was read as book of the week on Radio 4, an apt choice, since Decline & Fall feels very much like a daily personal narrative of events as they unfold.

And what events! While A View from the Foothills dealt with the tremendous upheaval of Tony Blair’s war against Iraq, this volume covers the civil war that finally tore the Labour government apart. Mullin was a sometimes reluctant fan of ‘The Man’, as he invariably calls Blair, and is impressed by Gordon Brown, but fearful that this man with ‘no light in his eyes’ will lead them all to destruction. While trenchantly observing everything about him, the former minister for rearranging deckchairs begins the new parliament believing he is on a ‘downward trajectory’ and (with characteristic self- disgust) still ‘moping over the loss of office’. The ‘beckoning void’ reappears, and Cameron’s victory in the Tory leadership campaign fills him with gloom.

Saved from despondency by appointment as Blair’s Africa envoy, Mullin takes to his not very onerous duties with relish. Married to a Vietnamese woman, and a fervent anti-colonialist when there were colonies, he might have been put on earth to save the Africans. At home, he is tempted to wield the dagger on Gordon Brown to prevent him from succeeding Blair, offering to his diary ‘I am ideally suited. A last service to the party before oblivion?’ But the dear old Labour party never bites the bullet, and nor does he, loyally following the desiccated calculating machine (a term first use by Nye Bevan of Hugh Gaitskell) to defeat.

There is some fun on the way, like the day in late November 2007 when a stranger comes up to him in the Central Lobby and shakes him by the hand. ‘Who do you think I am?’ inquiries Mullin. ‘Norman Tebbit,’ the man replies. A year later, the old CND hand discovers the existence of a secret nuclear bunker seven floors below the MoD. When the Blairs were shown round, Cherie objected to the décor, and it had to be redone. An ascetic who takes buses and famously had a black-and-white TV set, Mullin thought the Tory MPs’ expenses excesses ‘so much more elegant than ours’, while the Sunderland Echo honoured him with an editorial ‘remarking on my general saintliness’. How much of this sanctimonious guff is genuine, and how much for the amusement of the reader is hard to tell. All political diaries are written for effect, and after wowing a dinner of the Political Studies Association in Manchester Mullin muses: ‘Is this to be my future? A light entertainer.’ With these two volumes, and a third promised — a prequel of his early days, à la Alan Clark, alongside whom he plainly wishes to be recognised — he stakes out a claim to be the Stephen Fry of politics. We seem to have lost forever the indefatigable investigator who freed the Birmingham Six and was roundly condemned as a subversive communist by the judiciary for his pains. ‘Truly, I am a dinosaur,’ he mourns as Comet Cameron closes in. Possibly so, but the dinosaurs never got to tell their story quite so amusingly or self-indulgently.


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