Chris Mullin is one of an ever-growing number of figures in British politics who, by minutely recording an often turbulent or even failed career, have given themselves a fresh lease of public life. Mullin’s achievement is arguably greater than that of most, as he was never a major player at Westminster in the first place. His compelling diaries take advantage of his “being there” during most of the main political dramas of the past three decades or more. The success of these personal day-to-day records has secured him a later-life career treading the boards at literary festivals – the political meeting places of today’s middle classes.
Hinterland, a series of roughly chronological essays, is just as enjoyable as Mullin’s diaries but perhaps more serious in tone. He chooses to open this memoir with a chapter on his involvement, as a then left-leaning MP and journalist, in Labour’s struggles in the 1980s. As he was a Bennite who later became a Blairite, his nuanced and fair-handed account should be required reading for all those today who bandy about tired clichés about this period in Labour’s history.
Here is a convincing portrait of party members – “the poor bloody infantry” – sidelined for decades by Labour’s leaders, complacent trade union bosses and the many MPs who behaved as if they had a seat for life. Mullin is equally clear-eyed about the hysteria and machinations of those who opposed reform, including some on the centre left (who emerge from this account very badly), the security services and the press, who worked in covert concert to smear the principal figures on the left.
The author concludes, “Although the campaign [for democracy inside the Labour Party] was widely portrayed as some sort of Trotskyite conspiracy, it was in reality a popular uprising, a reaction to the disappointments of Labour governments . . . Intolerance was by no means the exclusive preserve of the left.” In a typical Mullin footnote, he still delights in correcting those who accuse him of writing a pamphlet called How to Deselect Your MP. Wrong. He was the author of the carefully worded How to Select or Reselect Your MP, and he is no doubt currently negotiating the film rights to this “generally responsible” publication.
But what of his “hinterland”? Mullin has had an extraordinarily varied life beyond Westminster and here he drops his usual wryly detached style, especially when writing about his lifelong love for south-east Asia. He exudes authentic outrage about the tragedy and waste of the Vietnam War, but also shares an unashamedly tender description of how he met, wooed and wedded his Vietnamese wife, Ngoc.
There are many sharp and funny passages on his life as a novelist (his best-known book, A Very British Coup, is still in print) and on his time as a laid-back junior minister and then as a seemingly more engaged member – later chair – of the home affairs select committee. A chapter titled “Loony MP Backs Bomb Gang”, about his fight to free the Birmingham Six, wrongly convicted in 1975 for two pub explosions that killed 21 people, has a noirish quality, as Mullin is led to meetings with the self-confessed real bomber at a remote location in Ireland.
He attractively underplays his heroism while being comically candid about his many failings. Asked to take a walk-on part as a vicar in a film adaptation of one of his own books (a good bit of casting), he agonises over his lines, only to find most of his performance discarded on the cutting-room floor. We can’t help but wince at his account of being summoned to support Tony Blair at the despatch box in 2003 after a joint visit to a Commonwealth conference in Nigeria. Mullin was too busy “soaking up the atmosphere” in the chamber to realise that Blair had asked him there specifically to provide help with MPs’ questions; he is ruefully honest about how his failure to do so almost certainly marked the beginning of the end of his ministerial career.
Offering his verdict on Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise victory in 2015, he adopts the same mild tone as in his writing about the 1980s. Electing Corbyn was always going to be a “high-risk strategy” but, Mullin argues, his decisive majority should have secured him at least two years’ grace from his critics. He also gives backing to the increasingly fashionable idea that Labour should enter into an electoral pact with the Greens and the Liberal Democrats if the party is ever to come to power again.
For all its range and revelation, Hinterland does little to lessen the enigma of Mullin the human being: that baffling but engaging mixture of acuity and self-deprecation, application and apparent insouciance. The chapters on his family and school life offer no conclusive explanation for the unusual confidence of this “sickly child” who failed his eleven-plus exam – “a seminal event” in his life, from which he was saved only by his family’s ability to pay for him to go to a Catholic boarding school. In a rare resort to cliché, he ascribes most of his achievements in life to good luck.
The end of Hinterland assumes an elegiac air, with Mullin preparing for retirement from the public stage to tend his beloved walled garden in Northumberland. Don’t believe a word of it. You can’t keep a good politician down, especially not one who writes as well as this.
Melissa Benn’s books include “School Wars: the Battle for Britain’s Education” (Verso)
Chris Mullin appears at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 27 November. See details and order tickets here.
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge