Chris Mullin: Servant of the people

His bestselling diaries are a must-read for any political animal, yet Chris Mullin has never played the Westminster game. As he prepares to step down as an MP, Andy McSmith meets a parliamentarian who's been content to campaign from the foothills – and doesn't complain about his pay
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Indy Politics

Just as Chris Mullin is in danger of becoming a fashionable politician, he is off. He is the Labour MP who has had the meaningless distinction at successive general elections of being the first winner announced on the night. In Sunderland South, they run a quick efficient count, the turnout is never very high, the result is never close enough to be challenged, and all is done and dusted in 45 minutes.

But this year, Mullin will be at home watching the results on television – and not necessarily a colour television – while somebody else enjoys the brief distinction of being the UK’s only elected MP. After nearly 23 years in Parliament, he has decided to quit.

He has been out of step with the times for most of those years. While other Labour MPs were tripping over each other for a place in Tony Blair’s government 10 years ago, he turned down the first job he was offered. He accepted a second offer, but walked away when he felt he could make better use of his time.

One of the perks of being a minister is travelling everywhere in chauffeur-driven cars. For some, it was what makes being in politics worthwhile. Mullin thought it a waste of money, and battled for the right not to be driven hither and thither, greatly discombobulating the people in charge of the government car service.

The most unfashionable thing of all about Chris Mullin was his television set. He is one of the 0.5 per cent of the British population who still watches television in black and white, bought many years ago. When other MPs were slapping in expenses claims for the very latest in widescreen plasma TVs, plus the £142.50 annual cost of a colour television licence, Mullin hung on to the old telly that has served him well for decades, and claimed £48 for his black and white licence.

It was one of those little details from the great expenses scandal that has stuck in the public mind, like Jacqui Smith’s 88p bath plug. While her claims looked shoddy, the idea of an MP saving public money by denying himself something as common as a colour TV was rather endearing.

There is something else out of step with the times about Chris Mullin. Other ex-ministers big up their period in office. They will tell you what a privilege it was to serve the nation and how much they achieved, but Mullin’s description of his first stint in office could have been subtitled: “How I reluctantly became a minister, made a bog of it, and quit.”

On the day he returned to work after a summer holiday he wrote gloomily in his diary: “Back to the department where a mountain of tedium awaits.”

His second term, as a foreign office minister, was more successful and rewarding and he was ultimately sorry to leave. Both periods are covered in the first volume of his diaries, A View from the Foothills, which is out in paperback this week.

“Some of those who have reviewed the diary tended to use it to support their view that all ministerial activity is a waste of time, nothing works – the cynicism agenda. I don’t think that my diaries support that at all,” he said.

“What I have tried to do is provide a snapshot of the age in which we live. It’s not just politics. There is a bit of family, a bit of travel. It’s quite true that I had a not terribly worthwhile time while I was Under Secretary at the Environment department, but for the last third I was the Africa minister in the Foreign Office, which I greatly enjoyed and found thoroughly worthwhile.”

This volume is scheduled to be the middle part of a series of three, with a sequel coming out in the autumn, followed by a prequel, all products of assiduous note taking. For 15 years, Mullin had carried a notebook everywhere he went, to scribble down observations and conversation virtually as they happened.

The current volume covers the years when he was closest to power, from 1999 to 2005. The next volume to appear – as yet untitled – will cover from 2005 until this year’s general election, when he progressed from being a has-been to one of the quiet heroes of the great expenses scandal. Finally, there will be a volume entitled A Walk-on Part,covering the years 1994 to 1999. “I started on the night (the former Labour leader) John Smith died, on 12 May 1994, and will finish at the election, and so cover the entire New Labour era, from beginning to end,” he added. In that remark, you note, there is the clear assumption that Labour is heading for electoral defeat, and that defeat will kill off the project known as New Labour.

Neither prospect appears to cause him great anguish. He worries more about the future of Parliament, undermined by the expenses scandal and the growing practise by ministers of announcing government policy in the media rather than in the Commons, or the “cynicism agenda” infecting political journalism, than about the Labour Party, which he thinks will live on after New Labour.

This is not because he is one of those disgruntled souls who loathed New Labour from the start. He was among the first to back Tony Blair in the Labour leadership election in 1994, and though his diaries record his shock at some of Blair’s actions in government – particularly the Iraq war, which Mullin opposed – he could still write that “I like the guy and I don’t want to |fall out with him”.

On the other hand, he is sufficiently detached from the Blair project to be able to record a fellow MP’s privately expressed view that Blair was so “hopeless” at managing people that “if he was in the private sector, they wouldn’t spit on him”. On another page of his diary, you can read what someone high up in the Blair circle (probably either Alan Milburn or Stephen Byers) thinks of Gordon Brown: “Gordon is obsessive, paranoid, secretive and lacking in personal skills.”

The reason Mullin can speak of Labour’s decline with some detachment is that he has been there before. Anyone who has been involved in the Labour Party for, say, 15 years has never experienced losing a general election, and naturally fears what the future holds. But Mullin has been around twice that long. He played a prominent role in the internal upheavals that followed Labour’s defeat in 1979, and – by his own admission – had a lot of fun helping to make the party “unelectable”, before doing what he could to make it electable again.

He attracted attention in the late 1970s as the author of a handbook that explained to party members in Labour seats how a change in party rules allowed them to call their MPs to account, and sack them if they wanted to. The pamphlet was seen then as evidence of a conspiracy to take over the Labour Party by supplanting long-serving MPs. Mullin was also one of the main organisers of Tony Benn’s attempt to capture the deputy leadership of the party in 1981, with a political programme that included unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EU, and a huge programme of nationalisation.

In our conversation – which took place, by the way, in the incongruous setting of the “family room” in the House of Commons, sitting next to a dreary collection of cuddly toys: it was a cold day, and this was the warmest empty room we could find – Mullin seemed just a touch defensive about this phase in his career.

“Although I was on the left of the party my primary motivation for was to introduce a little basic democracy into the Labour Party,” he said. “I felt, as many did in the Seventies, that a divide had grown up between the leaders and the led and that instead of getting a stiff neck looking up at the fountains of power, MPs needed to be looking over their shoulders more to those who had put them there, in their local parties.

“I was always in favour of getting rid of nuclear weapons, but I was never signed up to this idea that we had to nationalise the top – was it 40 or 50 or 200? – monopolies. I never bought any of that nonsense. You could say I was New Labour before my time,” he claimed.

Out of this experience came a novel, A Very British Coup, imagining what might happen if a left-wing politician like Benn were to become prime minister. It was the first of three novels he wrote, and he does not regard it as his best, but it was the one that had the biggest impact, because it was seen in 1982 as an insight into the mindset of the radical left. Later, just as left-wing radicalism was fading from public memory, the novel, which has been through six reprints, was turned into a highly acclaimed television drama, scripted by Alan Plater.

The other campaign which brought him to public attention was his lonely quest to prove the innocence of six Irishmen who had been jailed for life for mass murder, after IRA bombs went off in two crowded Birmingham pubs in 1974.

Many years later, the authorities admitted that all six were indeed innocent, but when Mullin set out to exonerate them, most people believed they were mass murderers who should never be allowed out of prison. When he claimed to have tracked down the real bombers, he was predictably challenged to name names, which he refused to do.

“I went down some very dark alleyways,” he said. “I interviewed about 17 people who had been in that line of business and I knew that in due course I would come to the actual bombers, which I did. It wasn’t an easy task. It was a bit nerve-racking, because when you knocked on a door six storeys up in a council estate in, say, Dublin, and said, ‘Hello, I have come to talk to you about your role in the Birmingham pub bombing,’ you couldn’t always be sure of the reception you were going to receive.

“I had many conversations, not merely with the guilty but with many innocent intermediaries, and that was always on the basis that whatever I was told would remain confidential. I didn’t feel that I could suddenly renege on those undertakings once it became convenient to do so.

“The police had a pretty good idea anyway who did it, but what they don’t have, and neither do I, is evidence that would stand up in court.”

Despite his status as a well-known author and political activist, and despite being right about the Birmingham Six, in that period before he entered Parliament in 1987, there were not many people willing to employ him. This worked to his advantage later, because when he was elected to Parliament, his salary was like a king’s ransom compared with what he had been earning before. He never felt he was underpaid – as so many MPs do – and was not tempted to augment his salary by milking the expenses system.

He also had a lucky break when a friend who had gone into the travel agency business started organising the first holiday tours to post-war Vietnam. Mullin had been there as a journalist, and was hired to make several more trips as a tour guide to Vietnam, and to Tibet. That provided material for his second and third novels. His favourite, which was also the least successful commercially, is The Year of the Fire Monkey, about a CIA plot to send an agent into China, via Tibet, to kill Mao Tse-tung.

His fellow courier was Nguyen Thi Ngoc, who was born in a refugee camp near where her family still lives, in Vietnam’s central highlands, 600 miles north of Saigon. The area was controlled by communist guerrillas when she was a girl. They married, and have two daughters, the older of whom is now studying at Oxford University.

Now, you might think, Mullin at last has a chance to be in tune with the times. At 62, he is younger than some of the MPs who are planning to stay on. The expenses scandal has left the public crying out for MPs who are demonstrably not in it for the money, who think there is more point to politics than crawling up the ladder towards ministerial office.

And as defeat stares Labour in the face, here is a veteran who can offer first-hand advice on what not to do during your first years in opposition, should you want your party to be electable.

“I have very mixed feelings over whether I made the right decision or not,” he said. “In a year’s time, I may look back and say it was the best thing I ever did, or I may look back and say it was the biggest mistake of my life. I shall miss it, I do know that.

“I could have managed another term, but I thought it preferable to go when people are still asking ‘why?’ rather than ‘when?’.”