Chris Mullin

Diary - 17 August 2017

Also: why ‘Big Man’ politics is the curse of Kenya

Diary - 17 August 2017
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To the Business School at the University of Edinburgh to be interviewed on the theme of ‘Great Political Disasters’. Main criteria for inclusion: decisions, often taken for short-term reasons, whose unforeseen consequences have echoed down the ages. Everyone will have their own little list, but mine included the Balfour declaration, Partition, Suez, Wilson’s failure to devalue in 1964 (which haunted subsequent Labour governments), Denis Healey’s IMF loan in 1976 (which he later admitted had been unnecessary and which led to the Winter of Discontent and the election of Margaret Thatcher), the poll tax, Iraq and the Brexit referendum (yes, I realise that the jury is still out on that last one). Some (Suez, poll tax, Iraq) will for ever be associated with a single individual. In other cases responsibility is more diffuse. The big villains of Partition were Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his Muslim League, who insisted on the division of the sub-continent regardless of the likely consequences. Mountbatten, a man of staggering complacency, played his part. First, he brought the date forward by eight months, despite the evident lack of preparation. On violence, he had this to say: ‘At least on this question I shall give you a complete assurance. I shall see to it that there is no bloodshed and riot. I am a soldier and not a civilian. Once partition is accepted in principle I shall issue orders to see that there are no communal disturbances anywhere in the country. If there should be the slightest agitation, I shall adopt the sternest measures to nip trouble in the bud.’ The rest, as they say, is history.

When I was Africa minister at the Foreign Office, I travelled to Kisumu in western Kenya to open a new British Council library in the constituency of Raila Odinga, son of the country’s first vice-president, Oginga Odinga. He laid on a big reception. All day we raced around in a gleaming convoy of Land Cruisers, mobbed by cheering crowds. At the British Council there was a visitors’ book to sign. I scribbled my pathetic little signature across three lines. The Honourable Raila was not impressed. ‘You are a big man’, he said. ‘This is not how big men sign their names’. He then put his signature across the centre of a full page. I had to repeat the exercise several times before he was satisfied. Alas, ‘Big Man’ politics is the curse of Kenya. It is disappointing that more than 50 years after independence the two main presidential candidates in this week’s hotly contested elections are the sons of the previous generation of leaders: Kenyatta and Odinga, each backed by their respective tribes. This is their second head-to-head after Kenyatta won in 2013. As before, with wearying predictability, Odinga, the loser, has cried foul play. This despite a clean bill of health for the election from international observers. It remains to be seen whether mayhem follows. Kenya has mountains, deserts, rainforests, abundant wildlife, an equable climate and natural resources in abundance. But it could do with some better politicians. Come to think of it, couldn’t we all?

During my six years chairing the regional committee of the Heritage Lottery Fund I pursued a little campaign for the elimination of meaningless hyperbole. The paperwork with virtually every grant application contained words like ‘innovative’, ‘transformative’ and ‘amazing’. These days every corporate press release is also liberally sprinkled with amazings, incredibles and excitings. The other day an animal welfare charity invited me to ‘our exciting Extinction conference’. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t find extinction particularly exciting.

The author James Kelman was lately quoted saying that ‘writer’s block is an economic luxury’. How true. When I was lean and hungry back in the 1980s I could tap out a novel in 30 or 40 days. Now that I live comfortably, my attempt to produce a sequel to my 1982 novel A Very British Coup has run into the sand after a mere 15,000 words. There are many distractions. Not least the garden.

At the wonderful Borders book festival I met the Duke of Buccleuch, Britain’s greatest individual landowner and a most amiable man. He was carrying one copy of my memoirs and four copies of a book by gardening expert Carol Klein. ‘Why four?’ I inquired. ‘One for each of my head gardeners,’ he replied cheerfully.

Chris Mullin was MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010. His memoir, Hinterland, is out in paperback.