Mulling it Over
Review of Hinterland by Chris Mullin, Profile Books, 2017,
ISBN 978 1 78125 606 0, reviewed by Monty Skew
Some political memoirs are dull. Not so A View from the Foothills, a frank and self-deprecating diary (the first of three) of Chris Mullin’s time in Parliament. Mullin is unusual: a leftwing party loyalist but a fiercely independent MP who worked hard for his constituents. His latest book could have been called From the Sunny Uplands but it is sensibly entitled Hinterland. Continuing in the same vein as the aforementioned diary, he charts his disillusion with the left and with politics generally, content to leave it all behind. This is probably his final set of memoirs and is told with searing honesty and realism.
Mullin describes his childhood and his early years in left wing politics. Vauxhall was once a plum Labour seat. George Strauss ran it like a personal fiefdom. He personally owned the Labour party building and paid the secretary himself. He also restricted the local membership. The shameful role of John Silkin, another lawyer, who controlled a rotten borough in Deptford, is also well told. Silkin spent much of his time fighting the Left. Like many Labour MPs of the time, Strauss and Silkin could have belonged to any party. These were the rotten boroughs dominated by right-wing Labourites and trade unions, often in a corrupt embrace.
This fact was identified by left-wingers who targeted such seats. Reg Prentice in Newham North East was the first to be deselected and he defected to the Conservatives after being staunchly defended by Labour leaders. He then announced that he had always been a Conservative! Both before and during his parliamentary stint, Mullin helped to democratise the Labour party and install reselection of MPs as a positive process. He knew something about this for as soon as he became MP, there were organised attempts to unseat him.
The fratricidal left is well described. The left, like the right, enjoy infighting. Even Michael Meacher, once a darling of the left, turned against the Tribune group. And Kinnock talked left but operated ruthlessly against fellow left wingers. After appointing Mullin as editor of Tribune, Kinnock then tried to remove him. Control of Tribune was vital because in spite of its tiny circulation, it was read by almost all party activists; its influence, accordingly, was enormous.
Mullin was one of the circle around Tony Benn and if Benn had actually won the leadership and then achieved power, he (Mullin) would surely have come into high office. After Benn’s Bristol South East constituency was abolished prior to the 1983 General Election and he then failed to be selected for the new seat of Bristol South, a post-mortem was held in the garden of Mullin’s second home in Brixton. Benn, Livingstone and Corbyn were all in attendance.
His greatest achievement was the release of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. Reporter Peter Chippendale, author of the excellent Stick it up your Punter, wanted to downsize and so turned over his files on the convicted ‘IRA bombers’. The verdicts in question were a stain on British justice and their subsequent release should be welcomed by all who care about justice and the rule of law. The arrest, detention, investigation, trial and conviction were all subject to serious violations of due process. Even some right-wing Tories were disturbed by this and may have given behind the scenes support which led to the quashing of their convictions. It is the role of the Lord Chancellor to uphold the law. Lord Hailsham demeaned his office by declaring that the G4 were not ‘necessarily innocent’.
MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010, Mullin writes positively of the revival of Sunderland under New Labour. He maintains that although the trade union reforms under Mrs Thatcher were right, she also helped to create a benefit-dependent underclass for whom work became pointless. (New Labour arguably compounded this problem by raising benefits). Mullin did his best for the constituents of this once proud but battered city, one of the places where Brexit was eventually decided. Because Sunderland South is the first to declare a result every four years, Mullin was for about half an hour the only MP in the country.
Mullin gradually turned against the left and he speaks warmly of Tony Blair who sat for the adjoining seat. The feeling was evidently mutual. This may explain why there is no proper examination by Mullin of how TB secured the safe seat of Sedgefield. When Brown first met Blair in the office they were to share he asked him “How the hell did you get that seat?”
Mullin will be remembered for the TV adaptation of the excellent A Very British Coup in which the establishment plots to undermine a left Labour leader and stop him from coming into office. Both provocative and prophetic, it could have been a bestseller but the publishing process was bungled. A sequel, The Friends of Harry Perkins, has just appeared.
Unlike many of his peers, Mullin is now critical of Labour and the left he once belonged to. He does not consider Corbyn a realistic choice for leader. [Editorial note, but see ‘Corbyn should be given a chance’, in which Mullin is interviewed by BBC’s Daily Politics, on 15 December 2015].Refreshingly, his memoirs are not self- serving as he no longer has any political goals or ambitions.
One of the footnotes that could have been expanded on is the little-known fact that perhaps Dennis Healey did not have had to go to the IMF in 1976. He had not been properly briefed by his civil servants and historians need to probe this further, as this episode led to Labour’s defeat in 1979. And as Mullin also remarks, there was a point at which Labour could have won an election but Callaghan bottled it.
Mullin’s descriptions of his troubles with the Speaker’s office expose the sham of many parliamentary debates and the way they are stitched-up in advance by the whips. Basically, a troublesome MP is prevented from making any significant contribution. This should be of concern to genuine democrats. Now in retirement, Mullin retains some leftist sympathies. However, although he originally supported extending settlement rights (his wife is Vietnamese), he eventually turned against mass migration, claiming “What mugs we are.” He realizes that there are serious limits to what an MP can achieve. A riveting read.
Monty Skew is the nom de plume of a former member of the Labour Party