Topical or what? The Group was discussing the diaries of a participant in the New Labour project a week before the Election, and Gordon Brown had just called Gillian Duffy a bigot.
Introducing “A View from the Foothills – the diaries of Chris Mullin” (2009), the proposer said that he had chosen it as it was a book he had been unable to put down. He was aware this might be because he had a particular interest in politics, but he hoped that the book might have proved to be of wider interest.
He felt the book worked at several different levels:
– there was the story of Mullin as an individual, his hopes and fears, from the beginning to the end of his Ministerial career. He had an attractive personality – honest, modest, self-deprecating, sharp but also naïve – not like a politician at all;
– it was an unvarnished account of New Labour in power;
– there was a record of the tedium and futility (as perceived by Mullin) of life as a junior Minister, although he seemed to fare much better once he moved to the Foreign Office.
Mullin wrote particularly well, being – like Alan Clark – a writer who became a politician rather than vice versa.
The best political diaries (such as those of Chips Channon and Alan Clark) were those – like Mullin’s – written by a minor participant, who was not distorting events to justify themselves to posterity. Mullin was like Rosencrantz or Guilderstern, helplessly playing a bit part while Blair’s Hamlet took the big decisions.
The diary format gave a contemporary record of the Blair years, with all its foibles, which could be quite different from views formed in hindsight, for example in relation to the Iraq War, where Mullin gave a fascinating account of the build-up to the vote in Parliament and the pressures put on him to vote with the Government. However, it had to be borne in mind that editing had taken place – both the self-editing that took place when writing down the diaries initially, and then the extensive editing down that took place before publication. This as a minimum was likely to leave in those references that were judged particularly topical or prescient for the concerns of 2009.
Mullin was born in December 1947, and studied law at Hull. He started life as a journalist, working for ITV’s “World in Action”, and played the key role in securing the release of the Birmingham Six, victims of a shocking miscarriage of justice. His work led to the setting up of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. He was associated with the Bennite wing of the Labour Party, and edited Tribune from 1982 to 1984. An interesting facet of the book was how Mullin had moved from this hard-left position to come under the spell of Blair’s charisma, although his loyalty had been sorely tested in the period of the diaries. His books included the prescient novel “A Very British Coup”, and “Error of Judgement” about the Birmingham Six. He had been MP for Sunderland since 1987, and was standing down at this Election. Bizarrely his application to become a member of the Criminal Cases Review Commission had been rejected on the grounds that they were looking for someone who could take the body forward in a new direction!
So did the book prove of wider interest? There was no consensus whatsoever within the group. There were three distinct strands of opinion:
– those who like the proposer had a government or political background and were fascinated by the book. One, indeed, had enjoyably crossed swords with Mullin as Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee – and had a high opinion of Mullin – but was relieved not to be featuring in the diaries. They felt the book was always engaging, perceptive, and written with none of the ego one expects from politicians. It was full of fresh insights, and written by a man – like Pepys – who was determined to be completely honest about what he saw and what he felt. He was also a model of conscientiousness in his constituency work;
– secondly, those with no particular interest in politics who found the book mildly, but not very, interesting. “Easy to pick up, and easy to put down”. It could have usefully have been edited down more rigorously. For them the diaries of a major participant might have been more interesting;
– third, those with no particular background in politics but who were shocked to the core by the revelations of ambition, deceit and inefficiency at the heart of New Labour and our system of government. Nor did they thank Mullin for revealing this – they felt he too revealed far too much ego and ambition. And they felt his diaries were always written with an eye on posterity and publication – for example any criticism of anyone was always offset by a compliment shortly afterwards (although Gordon Brown did come out particularly badly).
So a stalemate? Yes, completely, but it did not stop the Group setting a record for the length of a meeting. Most of the discussion – perhaps inevitably – was of the political issues raised by the book rather than the book itself. Members shamelessly usurped your correspondent’s catch phrase of “Getting back to the book” as they heatedly thumped the table to make another point, DELETE or make the same point again.
You do not have time, Reader, for the unexpurgated Hansard version, so here are a few extracts from the condensed version.
“Ego and ambition?” Well, it all depended on your standard of comparison. For those used to working with politicians Mullin seemed positively self-effacing, and always ambivalent about whether he wanted a Ministerial career.
“What’s the point of all these junior Ministers doing nothing? And how can it take ten years to do something about Leylandii?”
“Well, many junior Minters are in posts that are really training posts, or posts invented to keep MPs happy. The problem with Leylandii was not that the system is necessarily slow but that that the P.M. did not want to do anything.”
“Where did it all go wrong?” The focus on media image rather than the substance of policy began to emerge in the Thatcher era but became a major corruption of the process of government with the arrival of Messrs Campbell and Mandelson in power.
“It’s just outrageous! Go for the French Revolution solution! And why not just hand the government over to Murdoch!”
“What about checks and balances on the government?” Almost gone in the UK system, with the House of Lords lacking authority, and MPs cowed into not rebelling. The decision to invade Iraq was taken under Crown prerogative, and indeed civil servants were still servants of the Crown, but these days the role of the sovereign in Government was almost entirely honorific.
One of the few points of consensus was to applaud Mullin’s analysis of managerialism as a central tenet of New Labour, and the associated growth of targets, new bureaucracy and despondency throughout the public sector.
“Are there any politicians of principle left?” Yes indeed, (and for some of us Mullin was clearly one) but they become less numerous the longer a party has been in power, as the principled resign or become corrupted by power, and as the careerists bludgeon their way to the top. And politicians lacking principle is not a new phenomenon.
At this point I noticed one of our participants had a large wound on his forehead. “From the hustings?” “No …..unfamiliar hotel room.” “Drink involved?” “Errr…yes”.
Another rare point of agreement was that Mullin could be very funny and indiscreet, for example in his descriptions of John Prescott (“He did most of the talking, much of it in stream of consciousness mode, but there were occasional moments of lucidity”) and reports of a colleague on Gordon Brown (“Mad, quite mad, obsessive, paranoid, secretive and lacking in personal skills…”). And he had a fund of good anecdotes, such as the Queen Mother advising Neil Kinnock not to trust the Germans, and the one-star American General – told by a Brit not to end his sentence with a preposition – repeating his sentence with “asshole” added at the end.
“So are political diaries better than political biographies?” Maybe better for giving the feel of the times, and better written by a minor figure, while the analytical biography would be better for the major figures, was the consensus.
Then we had a brief skirmish over the subject of war, with the anti-Iraq War forces threatening to overwhelm the Blair defenders, until taken in enfilade on one wing by the Falklands-was-all-Thatcher’s-fault machine-gunners, with the no-it-certainly-wasn’t artillery lobbing howitzers into the warring armies. But there was a fair degree of consensus that it was very worrying that Britain could be taken into a major war essentially because of the views of one man only, a Presidential Prime Minister.
“Mullin didn’t think much of the Civil Service, did he?” Well, no, but they in turn criticized him for never mastering a brief. He didn’t have a policy mind, as he admits in the diaries – he was really a crusader… “Or worse…. A JOURNALIST!”
“Go for the French Revolution solution! And just hand the government over to Murdoch! And PUT THAT IN THE BLOG!”
“Got the message!” said yours truly, who by 10. 50 had perhaps been detected showing more attention to the grape than the group.
Hmmm, maybe politics is a bit dangerous for a Book Group I reflected as we broke up – that’s enough of politics!
And went to turn on the recording of the three would-be Prime Ministers peddling their snake-oil