Chris Mullin

Diary - 6 October 2016

Plus: encounters with Trump supporters; a new job for Barack Obama; and the return of the political meeting

Diary - 6 October 2016
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Any day now, the government will make its long delayed announcement on whether a third runway should be built at Heathrow or Gatwick. Personally I am against both. During my 18 undistinguished months as an environment minister, I learned one thing about the aviation lobby: their appetite is voracious. They want more of everything. Runways, terminals, you name it. I also learned that in the end, often after initial resistance, governments always give way.

Although from time to time industry representatives hint that they would be prepared to make concessions on the handful of night flights that come in over central London each morning, disturbing the sleep of several million people, this is soon forgotten once they have got their way. On one occasion, when I suggested inviting industry representatives to meet the MPs whose constituencies were most affected by night flights, I was told by officials that they wouldn’t even turn up if the invitation came from one so far down the pecking order as I. When I eventually got them round a table, we were given a long list of reasons why nothing could be done about anything, the most ludicrous of which was ‘wind speeds over China’. I don’t buy the argument that indefinite airport expansion is essential for our economic future. The answer is to develop regional airports, making sure that they are accessible by public transport. As for Heathrow and Gatwick, demand management, rather than predict and provide, is the order of the day.

How are we to explain the Trump phenomenon? A good friend (well to the right of me) who lived in Houston for many years went back recently to look up old friends, all wealthy and successful. He was astonished to find that many of them seemed to think they were victims of oppression, living under some sort of tyranny. ‘They’re off their rockers,’ was his considered opinion. On a couple of recent occasions I have had a little glimpse of this. On a train from London to Edinburgh the other day, I overheard a conversation between two American tourists and an academic looking Scotsman. One of the Americans was calmly explaining why it was necessary to build a wall along the border with Mexico and the Scotsman was going quieter and quieter as he realised where the trail was leading. And on a plane to France three weeks ago, I came across a garrulous, widely travelled American who was an expert on bees. He, too, rapidly emerged as a Trumpista. My point is this. These people are among the 18 per cent of US citizens in possession of passports. They’ve met foreigners. They know about the world outside. And yet somehow they, too, have reached the conclusion that Donald Trump is the messiah. He may have bombed in the recent debate with Hillary Clinton, but we’re by no means out of the woods.

What is to become of Barack Obama when he retires from the US presidency at the age of 55? I have a suggestion. There is a vacancy on the US Supreme Court, which the Republican majority in Congress has blocked him from filling. Obama, a constitutional lawyer, is ideally qualified. And he might have more influence as a Supreme Court justice than he ever did as President.

Good to see that the Treasury is back under sensible management after the damaging deficit fetishism of the Osborne years, which has wreaked such destruction on local government. If the present regime of year on year cuts continues, I foresee the elimination of just about all non statutory services. Already more and more councils are hiving off responsibility for parks, libraries, museums and litter picking, while youth provision has been practically eliminated in many areas. There is going to be a lot of clearing up to do when this is over. Hopefully, too, we will hear from the lips of the Chancellor no more mendacious, divisive soundbites of the ‘Skivers versus Strivers’ variety.

One of the great joys of my life after politics has been the discovery that the political meeting is not dead; it has simply transferred to the literary festival. Since I retired from Parliament I have taken part in well over a hundred, from Lerwick in the Shetlands to Fowey in Cornwall and at most places in between. When I was an MP I don’t recall many people queuing to hear me speak, let alone paying £10 or £12 a head for the privilege. In retirement, however, I have attracted audiences of up to 750. Some 480 turned up to my event in Edinburgh the other day and almost 400 in Ilkley on Saturday. Yes, I know it won’t last for ever and I know that writers are sometimes exploited but, hey, this is what my old friend Tony Benn would have called ‘a blaze of autumn sunshine’. A pleasant change from addressing small gatherings of the converted in draughty halls.

Chris Mullin is a former Labour MP, and has just published a memoir, Hinterland.