Review: A View from the Foothills by Chris Mullin

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Britain’s Labour government is the amount of conformity it requires of its acolytes. It’s rare that I can watch a government minister or most Labour MPs without shouting at the television, “Say what you really think, for God’s sake!”

Anecdotal evidence confirms this impression; I once met a prospective Labour candidate for Parliament and found out that there is a rather strict party line in terms of what they could or could not say, particularly on television.

I said, “If you said what you think, people would respect you more.”

The reply I got was a shrug and smile. I suppose that this is the price that is demanded of anyone who wants to be an MP. Leave intellect at the door, leave passion to one side, sweep your scruples and ethics under the carpet, the good of the party is all that matters.

There are rare individuals who refuse to toe the line, and the results are generally magnificent. Parliament would lose much of its lustre and its colour without Dennis Skinner, MP for Bolsover, and his sharp quips. Frank Field, MP for Birkenhead, thinks deep thoughts about the pension and benefit systems, and often has very interesting things to say. Tony Benn, when he was in Parliament as MP for Chesterfield, was the consistent voice of Left’s conscience, jamming rhetorical needles into those who had sold out their principles for power.

Chris Mullin, MP for Sunderland South, is a nominal member of this “awkward squad”. He has opposed the government on a number of issues, including detention of terrorist suspects; however, he also has served as a junior minister on several occasions. This record suggests a man who has struggled to find a path between his conscience and what he considers to be his duty. This impression is confirmed by his recently published diaries, “A View from the Foothills”.

The title is apt. Mr. Mullin makes no claim that his book will describe what it is like to be at the summit of power, rather his perspective is informed from being at a rather lower altitude. However, this diary, whether Mr. Mullin likes it or not (I suspect the former), is perhaps the most informative book presently available on the personalities which drive the British Government.

However, a health warning: Mr. Mullin is not precisely what one would call modest. A substantial ego is probably necessary in order to stand for office in the first place. There is a fair amount of navel gazing, as one might expect from a diary, and some touches of self-righteousness. That said, Mr. Mullin does have a sense of humour, which leavens the mixture, and transforms him from a politician into a likeable human being.

If one ever wondered what it would be like to see a blog in book format, “A View from the Foothills” is as good example as any: the entries are generally short and terse, and offer sketches of a particular situation. However Mr. Mullin is also a published novelist, and this skill tells, mostly when he is describing the people around him, including his superiors.

These insights are fascinating, if not altogether surprising. Mr. Mullin’s first ministerial job was with the Department of the Environment, which was then run by John Prescott. I’ve often thought of Prescott as being a very insecure man: I recall an incident during a political awards programme, during which he and his wife Pauline were given a prize for producing a television series. The man dominated the podium, almost literally shoving his wife aside. However, this did not appear to be an assertion of strength to me, rather, it looked like a gesture of fear that somehow his wife would outshine him.

Mr. Mullin confirmed this diagnosis for me. He describes Prescott as being intelligent, capable of great warmth and insight, but simultaneously full of bluster and mishaps, as if he was trying to cover up a deep sense of personal inadequacy. This made his time with the Department of the Environment quite turgid and unpleasant.

Other characters are sketched just as forthrightly. We are introduced to the real Clare Short: warm, funny, intelligent, demanding, and yet also sometimes possessed of a tin ear. Robin Cook comes across as extremely clever but disliked.

But perhaps the most convincing insights that Mr. Mullin has to offer are in regards to the past and present Prime Ministers.

I have to admit I was little dismayed by constant references to Tony Blair as “The Man”, though given what Blair had achieved for the Labour Party, perhaps this admiration is understandable. Blair comes across as charismatic, sometimes willing to take a stand, yet also ruthless: in Mr. Mullin’s case, one gets the impression Blair was trying to co-opt him in order to silence a dissenting voice. It also looks like Blair got his way on the War in Iraq through sheer force of personality, which is not a particularly good way of making decisions of this magnitude. Mr. Mullin’s entries for this period are suitably full of disquiet and discord.

The impressions of Gordon Brown are more difficult to pin down, but perhaps this is testament to the accuracy of the diarist. He comes across all at once as secretive, distrusting and obsessive, yet at the same time he has a set of loyal acolytes. The former qualities should, in theory, prevent him from gaining the latter. There is no doubting Brown’s ambitions, however; it is clear from an early stage that he wants “The Man’s” job. What is slightly mystifying is the ease with which he obtained it, given the unease he inspired in others. One is left with the unhappy thought that he should not have become Prime Minister, and if the Labour Party had committed itself to a fully open and honest leadership election process, he would not have done so.

Mr. Mullin also provides hints as to the attitude which is presently killing the Labour Government: he does express frustration at times that his constituents aren’t sufficiently grateful for what Labour is doing for them. It appears that he forgot his Karl Marx, who stated that without the dynamic of criticism, no society can progress. Constituents are supposed to complain, not be satisfied, this is what drives politicians to achieve more.

Mr. Mullin is standing down at the next election: he has served as an MP since 1987, and in my opinion, a pleasant retirement is well deserved. It is a regret, however, that politics will be losing his wit, his libertarian instincts, and his keen observations. For now, however, we can use his tome, which I highly recommend, as a looking glass onto the past and to see how the seeds of Labour’s forthcoming removal from office were planted long so very long ago.

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