Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Celebrating one honest man in politics

Some years ago, on a train from Newcastle to Leeds, I found myself sitting across the gangway from then Health Secretary Alan Milburn and his officials, who were working on their plans to drag the NHS kicking and screaming into whichever century we were in at the time.

Their discussions were subject to occasional irreverent interjections from a balding, posh bloke in the seat behind me. He and the Secretary of State were clearly acquainted with each other, and I deduced that he was another Parliamentarian. The thing that puzzled me for the rest of the day was that I was completely sure there were no Tory MPs in the North East called Chris.

In London the next morning I shared the mystery with a friend much more engaged in the political process than I have ever been. He mused for a few seconds, then said “That will have been Chris Mullin”. And he was right.

I have to confess that I never gave Mr Mullin another thought until I picked up, for bank holiday reading, his published diaries, A View From the Foothills. What a marvellous book they make.

Candid, entertaining and wonderfully self-deprecating, they describe long hours of toil to achieve little of any value as “the Minister of Folding Deckchairs” within John Prescott’s mega-department, which Mr Mullin likens to “the court of Boris Yeltsin”. I have by no means finished the book, but so far our hero’s principal triumphs have been imposing a speed limit on Lake Windermere and making a small advance in the battle against the leylandii hedge.

He is proud of what Labour has done for his constituents in Sunderland South, but frustrated by their widespread failure to recognise this. Chiefly owing to what he memorably characterises as “Chronic Whinger Syndrome”.

I am not a supporter of the Labour Party, so it naturally gave me particular pleasure to read one of their own MPs describing the Millennium Dome as “a symbol of all that is wrong with New Labour: shallow, over-hyped, naff”. And the “useless” official draft of one of his own speeches as “Full of New Labour claptrap about strategies, visions, challenges and opportunities, which I was expected to stand and chant like a Mormon missionary.”

Like all honest political diarists of every party, Mr Mullin is prepared to acknowledge (at least in private) the issues on which the other side is right, and reveals the petty jealousies, selfish interests and inevitable compromises that lie behind all official decision making. How one longs to read an equally frank insider’s account of what really happened in the case of the Lockerbie bomber.

In its exhaustive coverage of MPs’ expenses, the Daily Telegraph could find no stickier dirt on Mr Mullin than the fact that he claims at his London flat for licensing a 30-year-old black-and-white TV, because he cannot bear the waste of throwing away something that still works. I am with him on that, as in his yearning for “a simple life. One where we take pleasure from our immediate surroundings. Produce only what we need. Eat what we grow. Travel slowly. And value friendship.”

Indeed, apart from a certain bias against farmers and foxhunters (of whom I imagine there are few in Sunderland South) I have found little so far on which I am not in wholehearted sympathy with Mr Mullin. Which makes it all the sadder that he has decided to retire at the next election. Parliament needs more openness and honesty by people who are prepared to speak their own minds rather than succumb to the control freakery of party spin machines, endlessly terrified of being skewered for a “gaffe”.

The electors of Sunderland South should cherish Mr Mullin while they can, and anyone who takes the slightest interest in current affairs should enjoy his addictively readable book.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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