What can politicians achieve? A Review of the Foothills

by Stephen Tall on April 13, 2009

Generally speaking political diaries are not best read cover to cover, and certainly not if they weigh in at 590 pages. They are for dipping into, browsing the index, and allowing your eyes to wonder to names, places and events that leap from the text. But (owing to a very long journey) I did consume Chris Mullin’s A View from the Foothills – touted as Labour’s answer to Alan Clark – in pretty much one sitting.

Like all political diaries, it both benefits and loses from its fixation with the moment; if you’re scribbling as and when you get the opportunity, there is scant opportunity for reflection or analysis. What you get instead is an unvarnished of-the-moment description (if the diarist is candid), and colourful and entertaining episodes (if the diarist is talented).

Thankfully, Chris is both candid and talented, enabling me to set to one side his overwheening self-deprecation and occasionally jarring piety (here’s his account of Christmas 2002, chez Mullin: “I did my best to look cheerful, but I find it a deeply depressing experience watching children who have everything piling up new possessions. Such a relief when it was over.” (page 340)).

There are illuminating insights a-plenty – just a handful which caught my eye were:

– an early assessment of David Cameron: “a young bright libertarian who can be relied upon to follow his own instincts rather than the party line” (p. 240). Back then, of course, Mr Cameron was happy to keep an open mind on the legalisation of drugs; nowadays he’s a captive of his right-wing party’s traditional Conservative knee-jerkism.

– a painful glimpse of Clare Short’s humiliating downfall in March 2003, when she was won over by Tony Blair and voted for the Iraq war: “I came across Clare Short in the Library Corridor, looking miserable and much the worse for wear, propped up by Dennis Turner.” (p. 388) It’s an image which poignantly captures her realisation that she had thrown away a credible, radical reputation built over a lifetime in return for a flimsy, meaningless pledge from the master of telling people what they wanted to hear.

– the exposure of Tony Blair’s utter management incompetence: quoting Ken Purchase, Robin Cook’s former parliamentary private secretary: “‘He’s hopeless. A fucking hopeless manager. He hasn’t a clue about managing people. If he was in the private sector, they wouldn’t spit on him’.” (p. 213)

– Lib Dems are pretty much absent, but Colchester MP Bob Russell will have done little to assuage the public’s fears that their parliamentarians are selfless servants with his request that the Home Affairs Committee go on the razzle: “Bob Russell said we ought to have a bit more fun. How about a foreign trip or two?” (p. 215)

– Though Labour-turned-Lib Dem MP Brian Sedgemore earns my admiration for his frank assessment of the virues of immigration: “‘Unless we are worried about the gene pool, what’s the problem? Most asylum seekers are dynamic, hard-working, educated people of the sort we badly need to refresh our ageing, lethargic population.’” (p. 292)

Yet the overwhelming impression from the book – and perhaps the reason this political memoir seems to have captured the zeitgeist – is the clear sense of futility Chris feels about his involvement in government.

Much of his ministerial life seems to be devoted to touring top-class hotels delivering mind-numbingly dull speeches to bored public sector employees at pointless conferences: “To a posh hotel in Mayfair to address 300 sceptical councillors and officials on the wonders of ‘Best Value’, the latest New Labour local government wheeze. The speech, one of Hilary Armstrong’s hand-me-downs, was abysmal … I was simply expected to stand and chant it like a Maoist slogan” (p. 69)

He set himself three priorities during his time at John Prescott’s short-lived environmental super-ministry: greater regulation of leylandii hedges, an end to night flights, and making the payment of housing benefit direct to landlords discretionary. On leaving his post after two years, he looks back on his contribution and concludes: “The only useful decision that was entirely mine was to ban speedboats on Windermere and that probably would have happened anyway.” (p. 161)

This, remember, is Chris Mullin: the man whose single-minded campaigning on behalf of the Birmingham Six exposed one of the great miscarriages of justice, author of the iconic 1980s’ book, A Very British Coup, and one of the most influential select committee chairs of the Blair years.

As he explains to Tony Blair, in 2001, when he chooses to return to the backbenches: “I wouldn’t want you to think I was unhappy with being a minister. I am perfectly capable of taking responsibility. It’s just that there wasn’t any at my level of government. In four months at DFID [International Development], I never saw a piece of paper marked ‘For Decision’. Not one.” (p. 209)

It would be wrong, though, to see Chris’s diaries simply as a testament to doomed government, or to view him entirely as its victim. For there is a streak of partisan tribalism revealed here which also contributes to today’s political malaise. In part we see this in the omnipresent references to Tony Blair as ‘The Man’, a title which I’m sure originated ironically, but does in fact capture the conflicted idolatry which burnishes within Chris.

There is, for example, a quite remarkably shocking sentence which seems to have passed largely unnoticed. Describing the vote to go to war with Iraq, Chris writes:

I am not in the least convinced by the arguments, but I might, out of loyalty, be persuaded to support The Man if I thought his survival was at stake.” (p.383)

Just think about the implications of this statement for a moment. Here is an MP admitting he would use his vote in the House of Commons to send British troops to war if he thought it would save his party leader’s neck. It is an absolutely stunning admission. But perhaps the reason few have commented on it is that it’s no more than we expect of our MPs; indeed it’s no more than most of Chris’s Labour colleagues actually did. At least Mr Blair and the Tories supported President Bush II’s Iraq crusade out of genuine belief in neo-conservatism.

Perhaps this is the real lesson of political diaries, and, to a lesser extent, autobiographies: they always reveal a little more truth than even the most candid of authors intends.