Saturday, 20 February 2010

"A View from the Foothills" by Chris Mullin

Of all the recently published political diaries, it may seem odd that the first yours truly chose to read were those of Chris Mullin. That is, until you discover that he is my local MP in Sunderland South, and has had various roles within government relating to rather memorable government policy.
“A View from the Foothills” covers the period between 1999 and 2005. From Mullin’s personally perceived demotion to the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, all the way through to Blair announcing the handover of power.
Mullin’s career during this time saw him move from the DETR to the Department for International Development, back to the Home Affairs Select Committee along with David Cameron, and finally to the Foreign Office.
As well as covering issues within national and international government, Mullin also talks about happenings in Sunderland. It felt strange to be reminded that Debenhams has been open nearly eleven years, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the only notable difference in the issue of dumping sewage into the River Thames and the River Wear: that in London they treated the sewage first.
He speaks of the city of Sunderland and its people with a warm, at times resigned affection, and is full of hope and optimism for the future of its development. There are many colourful and varied characters that inhabit his world, in Sunderland as well as Westminster, including one constituent who thought he had solved the problem of global warming with the help of a pigeon. A dead pigeon. That he thoughtfully brought along to the surgery with him.
What really struck me was the sense of powerlessness to help those who come to his surgeries. He notes that his best successes have been helping people get out of Sunderland; good people are forced to leave while the hooligans continue to terrorise and their landlords do nothing.
One particularly heart-rending case was that of a couple and their young facing deportation back to Ukraine via Spain. The small family had integrated themselves into the local church community, the little boy was flourishing at school; yet they were taken early in the morning and sent packing to London. When they finally got to Spain, despite the paperwork, letters and money forwarded to the Spanish authorities by Mullin, no one was expecting them.
After their disappearance was discovered by an Immigration officer, a family friend later found a letter written by the little boy, bequeathing his possessions to the pastor’s children. It read like a will.
All this just makes one wonder why it is impossible to help the steadfast citizens. Were I to run for Parliament tomorrow, I would base my policies on the experiences of people in this book. Why is this happening? How can it be stopped?
Yet amid all this, there are plenty amusing scenes that would be dismissed as too far-fetched even for "Yes, Minister", like hiding from the Queen Mother, Tony Benn nearly setting fire to the Mullin house, a mix-up of foreign ambassadors, a bumbled photo opportunity with Nelson Mandela, and the MP for Sunderland North leaving his bag in the toilet of a train the day after the Madrid train bombings. At one stage I was asked if I was reading a comedy book. I replied that I was reading my local MP’s political diaries, and 9/11 had just happened.
In the aftermath, although Blair tried to restrain Bush as Parliament focused on what could lie ahead for Afghanistan, it seemed inevitable that Britain would get drawn in with the Americans. Reports and opinions of Bush’s character were as contradictory, derisive and divisive as they come. These discussions and mentions of Bush almost put me in mind of Maris in "Frasier" in which all the foibles, fads and whims of the character are talked about, but the person is never actually seen…that is, until the 20th November 2003.
Even though I knew that the war would be declared on the 19th March 2003 (my birthday), the days leading up to the vote were incredibly tense. One cannot imagine what it must have been like within the corridors of Westminster, being harangued by government whips to vote with the Party policy.
Mullin’s decision to vote against the war was clearly one that caused him great anguish. Unwilling to vote for it unless there was a second UN resolution, which never came, unwilling to show disloyalty to Blair, yet unwilling to go against his principles and promises.
It is evident that Mullin has huge respect for Blair, and he shows us why. Blair is ever the professional, always ready to partake in meetings and give his attention to matters even after whistle stop trips to Washington or other long-haul destinations. I didn’t know whether to admire him or loathe him when he convinced Jean Corston to toe the Party line on the Iraq war in the final hours before the vote. She too had been privately agonising over what to do, but was more inclined to vote against.
Brown on the other hand, is another matter entirely. Mullin notes that all of Labour’s unwelcome or failed policies can be traced back to the then Chancellor. He comes across as a rather sinister, scheming, paranoid character; and relations between him and Blair grew so bad that there was even talk that it might have been better had Brown ran in 1994 and lost.
Even the blustering John Prescott is given a better reputation by Mullin. True, he could put his foot in his mouth and the department ran more smoothly in his absence, but he is portrayed as human with an “e” on the end.
As for Mullin, he is as I think of him: principled, honest, modest, much more focused on making a difference than power or luxuries. He even refuses the basic staple of a Ministerial car, preferring to take the bus. His integrity will be sorely missed when he stands down at the coming election.
He has hinted at publishing the diaries he kept either side of 1999 and 2005. I await them eagerly.

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