A Walk-On Part: Diaries (1994-99)

A Walk-On Part: Diaries (1994-99)
Chris Mullin
Profile Books, 496pp, £25

Politicians have kept diaries for various reasons. Some, like Alan Clark, wished to show how important they were; others, as in the case of Woodrow Wyatt, wished to prove that they had substantial influence over decision-takers such as Margaret Thatcher. Others are now preparing material for their memoirs. A few whose memoirs appeared years ago - among them myself - continue to scribble night by night after cleaning our teeth without any clear motive other than habit.

Then there are the likes of Chris Mullin, who want to give an honest account of the profession of politics as they know it. Mullin's experience is bizarre in its ordinariness. During the period described in this volume, his main ambition was to chair the home affairs select committee of the House of Commons. He ends on an almost apologetic note. In July 1999, after years of asserting that, above all, he did not want to become a junior minister, he accepted the position of parliamentary under-secretary at the then department of the environment, transport and the regions.

The life of a Labour backbencher before 1997, when the party was in opposition, can hardly be said in the modern jargon to have been "vibrant". Mullin's editor Ruth Winstone can be congratulated on her honesty in selecting and discarding from the material presented to her. There is no attempt to deck the unglamorous with glamour. This is what it was like to represent Sunderland South in parliament between 1994 and 1999.

Mullin describes himself as an agoniser, but there is no proper agony in these pages. He is happily married to a Vietnamese woman by whom he has two daughters, whose conversation adds considerably to the enjoyment of the book. His other love is his constituency, but it is a love without illusion. Sunderland South has a smart section: "1930s houses and bungalows full of daffodils, tulips and purple aubrietia; new and almost-new cars in the drives . . . two Tory votes in every house, or at least there would have been five years ago". Yet the next day he is canvassing a very different street,

where the social fabric has collapsed.
What nonsense to talk of a north-south divide. I have only to walk a mile across the constituency to pass from one world to another. Three or four houses were burnt out, a dozen abandoned and unsaleable. Pavements strewn with rubble, litter
and dog dirt . . . Every so often one comes
to net curtains and dried flowers in the
front window, a house where decent people unable to escape are clinging on by their fingertips, and they are only a couple of hundred yards from where we live. How close we are to the abyss.

It was the discovery of this world that led David Cameron to coin the phrase "a broken society" and helped to bring about a change in the outlook of Iain Duncan Smith.

Mullin is realistic about how much a local MP can do to rescue such people. He was punctilious in holding surgeries, but is also clear that he neither created nor rescued jobs through his constituency work. Nevertheless, he claims that the 13 years of Labour government after 1997 made a significant difference to the lives of his least prosperous constituents, though he hardly proves the point.

As chairman of the home affairs committee, he led his colleagues to visit prisons and his conclusions are sensible: "It is hard to believe that much good can come from warehousing human beings like this." Interestingly, he does not join the chorus of criticism against the private running of prisons. He was impressed by the quality of some private management and favours a pragmatic rather than a doctrinal approach to the problem.

But in the background to the book there lurks a fundamental suspicion of what he calls "the power system". By this he means all established institutions, from the courts to the police and intelligence services. Mullin's criticism of New Labour is that it did not tackle in­equality in Britain seriously. Like many backbenchers, he takes up a cause - in his case, it is suspicion of the Freemasons, and allows it to become an obsession that warps his judgement.

He proved the sort of backbencher of whom a minister answering questions should beware. The queries it's easy to answer are those that match the obvious party points - but someone like Mullin will have done his homework, and is likely to produce in his supplementary question some nugget of fact or opinion that is slightly out of the ordinary, and therefore dangerous.

The author is anxious not to wear a label. After 1997, he refers to Tony Blair as "the Man", but the underlying tone is one of reluctant admiration. He is impressed by "how much TB got right", arguing strangely that Blair followed a strategy of "promising little and delivering more". He is very critical of Gordon Brown in the early chapters of the book, blaming him for the lack of a credible economic policy, but he comes round to a more favourable view as the book progresses. Members of the Countryside Alliance, however, will be baffled to read that they rep­resent "mighty vested interests and unlimited resources".

At the end, Mullin sets a test for his own book: will it be read in 20 or 30 years' time, like the work of some of his contemporaries? I would not count on it. His main contribution to political life has been in the field of miscarriages of justice. He added a quiet but persuasive voice to the arguments that led me as home secretary to refer the convicted Birmingham bombers to the Court of Appeal in 1987. The court rejected the appeal until the guilty verdict was overwhelmed by fresh facts. Mullin has already written a book explaining how he handled the case, and the present volume adds nothing to that account.

Douglas Hurd, a Conservative peer, served as home secretary from 1985-89 and foreign secretary from 1989-95

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?