Diaries of a nobody

Issue: 140

John Newsinger

Chris Mullin, A WalkOn Part, 1994-1999 (Profile Books, 2012), A View From The Foothills 1999-2005 (Profile Books, 2010) and Decline and Fall, 2005-2010 (Profile Books, 2011), all £9.99

“Chris is so right wing now, and so loyal and so Blairite,” wrote Tony Benn in a 2003 diary entry.

Chris Mullin used to be somebody. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he was one of Benn’s lieutenants, a staunch uncompromising Bennite, editing two volumes of Benn’s speeches (Arguments for Socialism published in 1979 and Arguments for Democracy published in 1981), and in 1982 he became the Bennite editor of the Tribune newspaper. As Benn observed at the time, Mullin’s appointment as Tribune editor was “very important” because “the non-Trotskyist
left now has a paper”. At last Tribune would “have a cutting edge”.

In fact, Mullin’s tenure at Tribune was to be a bruising experience with him being accused by the Labour Party establishment of turning it into “a Trotskyist publication”. He concluded from this experience that the Labour leadership had “about as much difficulty in coming to terms with a free press as, say, Rupert Murdoch”. Mullin also has a number of left wing novels to his credit from this period, one of which, A Very British Coup, can claim to be a minor classic of socialist fiction. Most important, however, was his role in the campaign to free the Birmingham Six—Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker—framed by the police for the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. They were eventually released in March 1991, having collectively served 96 years for a crime they never committed. Mullin’s courageous efforts on behalf of these men deserve to be remembered and his own account, Error of Judgement, still repays reading. The campaign for justice for the Birmingham Six left him with a deep loathing for Rupert Murdoch whose newspapers predictably opposed the campaign with the journalistic methods that we have become accustomed to.

Given this impressive track record, what are we to make of his acclaimed three volumes of diaries of the Blair years? Many commentators have remarked on his waspish and sparkling wit and he has been celebrated as one of the great political diarists. David Cameron, no less, nominated A View from the Foothills as his Observer book of the year and praised the diaries as “irreverent and insightful”. Indeed, the diaries have even been put on the stage! All this, however, is very much an establishment view.

What struck this reader was the incessant whining that accompanies this former socialist’s transformation into an anti working class Blairite right winger. Many of his remarks about people on benefits could easily have served as evidence for Owen Jones’s study of the contemporary hatred of the working class, Chavs. But while Mullin’s anti working class and anti trade union prejudices are obviously deeply felt, even more disturbing was his willingness to support a foreign policy, including the horrors of Guantanamo, that he privately believed to be little short of criminal. He succeeds in giving the impression of being a desperate placeman, prepared to betray whatever principles he still believed in, in the hope of preferment. And, of course, he became obsessed with Tony Blair or “The Man”, as he is disconcertingly referred to throughout the diaries. For Mullin, the appalling Blair is “the most successful leader in Labour history”. The affection was not reciprocated and Mullin is, in the end, left exposed as that most abject and contemptible of specimens, the failed Labour careerist.

From the evidence of the diaries, Mullin was already moving to the right by the time Blair became Labour Party leader. He voted for Blair in the leadership election and in his diary endorses Blair’s criticism of those on the left who just want to “repeal all Tory trade union laws, throw out all the changes in the NHS without pausing to consider whether any of them has any merit”. As far as Mullin was concerned, socialism had failed and in this new political era he signalled his personal break with the left by supporting the abolition of Clause 4 of the Labour Party Constitution, which called for “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. The opponents of the change, he wrote, “are so deeply conservative and so obsessed with dogma at the expense of the big picture”. And, looking back some 14 years later, he still celebrated the scrapping of Clause 4 as “a master stroke” on Blair’s part. But while Mullin was moving to the right on domestic issues, he nevertheless remained scathing about New Labour’s pro-American stance. When Blair visited New York in April 1996 and met with Henry Kissinger, Mullin complained of his “rubbing shoulders with a clapped-out war criminal”. Kissinger, we now know, was one of Blair’s role models!

Even in the first volume of the diaries, A WalkOn Part, covering the years from 1994 to 1999, Mullin makes clear his hostility to the trade unions. As far as he was concerned, “public sector workers are the authors of their own misfortune”, and he is quite happy with the idea of New Labour breaking with the unions altogether (“I could live with a new relationship”). At this point in time, before Blair was even in power, he does admit to being a bit worried about New Labour’s “sucking up to big business”. And when Murdoch came out in support of Blair in the 1997 general election he recognised that: “He’s neutralised us.” What is interesting though is that New Labour’s subservience to the rich and the super-rich and to Rupert Murdoch in particular does not excite anything like the hostility that trade union militancy or people on benefits provoke. Mullin never makes any dramatic statement of conversion to neoliberalism, but rather drifts into it, almost unaware of where he is going or what he is becoming. There are times that he worries about selling out, but in the end the attraction of Blair and Blairism is too much.

With Blair in power, Mullin continues to be exercised about trade union militancy. He complains of “whingeing trade unionists” and insists that “wage militants can never be satisfied. They will ruin us if we let them. We must never surrender.” On one occasion he complains in the diary of the greed and laziness of the workers building the Jubilee Line in London. They were exactly “the kind of boneheaded trade unionists Murdoch took on at Wapping. I thought Thatcher had put an end to all this, but not so. They are alive and well and working—if that’s not too strong a word—on the Jubilee Line.” These are the only favourable references to Murdoch and Thatcher in all three volumes!

To encounter such hostility, indeed actual hatred, of trade unionists and trade unions from a Labour MP, let alone a former editor of Tribune, still takes one by surprise, but it was, in fact, one of the hallmarks of Blairism. There is absolutely no recognition on Mullin’s part of the fact that the weakening of the trade unions inevitably involves the aggrandisement of business. He seemed to regard the government’s courting of business as a question of political style rather than recognising it as the great strategic shift that was the cornerstone of New Labour. Another symptom of his defection to the establishment worth noticing is his response to the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. He was not sure that having an inquiry was “a good idea after all”, was worried that it would produce “a big bout of political correctness”, and even more incredibly that “it may give rise to a culture of permanent grievance” among black people.

Mullin’s move to the right was finally acknowledged by the New Labour establishment when he was appointed parliamentary under secretary at the Department of the Environment in July 1999. He was put in charge of privatising Air Traffic Control, something Labour had strongly opposed before the general election. Tony Benn thought he had been given this brief because Blair “wanted somebody who had once had a left wing reputation to carry that through”. By now though Mullin had embraced privatisation as the way forward. He had no objection to the privatisation of the prisons (we “have to start judging by results”). And as far as Air Traffic Control was concerned, he had “no principled objection to what is proposed”; indeed “the arguments are sound”. Predictably, union opposition was put down to the fact that their members would have to work harder in a privatised concern.

In January 2001 he was moved to the Department for International Development. Mullin was still opposed to New Labour’s subservience to the US, particularly once George W Bush was installed as president. He described Bush as “an intellectually and morally deficient serial killer”. When British and US planes bombed Iraq in February 2001 he complained that “Bush has wasted no time before getting down to some serious killing. Needless to say our spokesmen are on the airwaves within the hour, echoing the American line. It is so humiliating.” Resignation did not seriously cross his mind.

After the June 2001 general election Mullin was sacked and returned to the back benches. Here he remained a determined enemy of trade union militancy and the threat he believed it posed to the government. On 22 October 2002 he recorded his fear that John Prescott would not stand up to the firefighters, “when what is needed is an exemplary defeat”. He need not have worried. By 12 November he noted that the government was now embroiled in “a long and bitter dispute” but insisted that, whatever happens, “we must not give in”. Unless the government defeated the firefighters, it would face “years of nonsense from every part of the public sector… Before we know where we are every little Unison Trotskyist will be on the march.” His hostility to the FBU led to a clash with Tony Benn: “Needless to say he is supporting the firemen’s ludicrous pay claim. When I pressed him, he came out with all sorts of irrelevant Socialist Worker-type guff about boardroom greed.”

What of the Iraq War? While Mullin was completely opposed to New Labour’s support for the US, he desperately wanted a government job. Predictably, he did not take part in the Stop the War Coalition’s two million strong anti-war demonstration on 15 February 2003, the largest demonstration in British history. He had more pressing concerns! As it became clear that Blair was going to support the attack on Iraq, Mullin began searching for a way to vote for the government without looking like a pathetic, time-serving opportunist on the make. He chronicles his efforts in the diaries. He had, he feared, made too much of the need for a second UN resolution: “My difficulty is that for weeks I have been telling anyone who asked, on the basis of repeated assurances from the highest levels, that a second resolution was my bottom line. I cannot suddenly switch just because it is convenient.” Ah! The dilemmas that confront the would-be careerist.

Later that same day, he tells of how “I decided the time had come to try and dig myself out of the hole I’ve got myself into. Armed with a list of telephone numbers for the movers and shakers in the constituency I repaired to a phone booth.” He had come up with what he hoped would be a convincing excuse for selling out: that the vote was now a confidence issue because Blair would have to resign if the vote for war was lost. The constituency movers and shakers “were unimpressed”, with some of them making it clear that it was “not just Blair’s integrity that’s at stake; it’s yours too.” No one could have tried harder, but, much against his will, Mullin was forced to vote against war and for what he knew was right.

This was not held against him though. In June 2003 he was appointed a junior minister at the Foreign Office. He joined a government that was waging war in two occupied countries and, at the very least, was condoning torture. Arguably the most shameful episode that Mullin recounts in his diaries occurred on 16 June 2004 when he met a delegation of Guantanamo relatives. It was, he wrote, “a put-up job organised by Vanessa and Corin Redgrave”, although, he concedes, they were “accompanied by some good and serious people”, including the bishop of Oxford! Mullin was “given a Line to Take. The one we have been chanting for months. With every day that passes it sounds less credible.” The bishop said it was a moral issue and wanted to know why the government did not speak out. Privately, Mullin conceded the point: “If ever there was an issue where we need—for the sake of our credibility—to put some clear blue water between us and the Americans, this is it.” Interestingly, the government’s stance is seen as a problem for its credibility rather than its integrity or morality, but this is, after all, New Labour. He does score one point, however, when Vanessa Redgrave says she doesn’t believe a word the government says and he wittily ripostes that she has been saying that for the past 30 years. Some 20 years earlier he would have been part of the delegation. This is the moment that the last of Mullin’s backbone trickled down his trouser leg. The champion of the Birmingham Six had come full circle.

Is this unfair? Later, in March 2005, his diary makes it absolutely clear that he is aware the Americans are “outsourcing torture” via a Channel 4 documentary, of all things. On 2 March he raised Guantanamo with fellow Foreign Office minister Baroness Symons, insisting that “our position was morally indefensible”. He complained that “some sort of shadow gulag exists and we appear to be going along with it”. A reluctant Symons eventually conceded that “Guantanamo is outrageous. It’s outside the law and violates all the norms. But I’m not going to say that in public… At least not while I’m a minister.” And with New Labour’s assault on civil liberties fully under way, even John Major (they had a friendship of sorts based on a shared loathing of Rupert Murdoch) could ask Mullin how on earth he could support such “a reactionary government”. As early as July 2000 a fellow Labour MP, Bob Marshall-Andrews, had sarcastically asked him, “Is there anything you would resign over?” The answer seems to have been no.

One last point: on 21 November 2005 Mullin reports a prescient conversation with another Labour MP furious about the government’s education policy. He tells Mullin: “I think we will lose the next election. The Tories will come to some sort of understanding with the Lib Dems and we’ll find that we’ve opened the door to the market in health and education. And when we protest they will reply: ‘But this is your policy; you started it.’ We’ll be vulnerable for years. Our benches will be full of ex-ministers who won’t have the stomach for a fight.” The situation is, of course, even worse. The Labour benches are full of Blairite ex-ministers who privately agree with the Cameron government’s attacks.

This sad tale of someone who turned out to be just a political lightweight buffeted by forces beyond either his control or comprehension does have one consistent theme running through it, however. All three volumes provide testimony to Mullin’s dislike of people on benefits. As early as September 1996 he writes of young working class men who “are useless either as fathers or providers” and asks himself whether “we just have to write off a generation”. He complains that his constituency surgeries in Sunderland are full “of people locked into the benefit culture”. A particular recurring worry is the activities of “feral youths”. In April 2005 Mullin could write in the best traditions of the Daily Mail that “we are still manufacturing semi-literate, unemployable, useless youths, many of them second or third generation yob culture”. When the family cat goes missing, he is worried that it has been “kidnapped and tortured by a gang of feral youths”. As late as July 2009 he still complains of “the depressing world of benefit culture”. He writes of some “shameless examples”, taking particular exception to a father trying to secure benefits for an unemployed son. The idea that a Labour government should have some sort of commitment to full employment is, of course, a thing of the past, a relic of the era before the triumph of neoliberalism.

What makes all this particularly sickening is that all the time Mullin was whining about people trying to survive on benefits, he was also a member of a House of Commons filled with MPs from all parties busy fiddling thousands of pounds in expenses. Mullin, it has to be said, only had to pay back £899, one of the lowest amounts. Nevertheless, even those MPs who had not fiddled thousands stood by while others did, remained silent while every effort was made to prevent the truth getting out and only reluctantly took action to remedy abuses, many of which are already being reintroduced by the back door.

The Lib Dem MP David Laws, it is worth remembering, had to pay back £57,000 for which offence he was suspended from the Commons for a whole seven days. Not even a slap on the wrist. Laws is, of course, a millionaire and today is a member of a government engaged in unprecedented attacks on the welfare state. Even the current Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, the supposed custodian of MPs’ moral conduct, “voluntarily” paid back £6,508. In no other walk of life, except banking, would these people have kept their jobs. But, of course, there is no talk of “feral MPs” in the diaries.

Which leaves the question of why the diaries have been so widely celebrated. The attraction is that while Blair has been discredited as “a clapped-out war criminal”, a man whose desperation to accumulate wealth embarrasses even his admirers, Mullin’s diaries offer a partial rehabilitation of Blairism. What we have to remember, according to Mullin, is “how much Tony Blair got right” and, inevitably, included in the catalogue is “his determination to tackle the huge benefit culture”. Even with all the wars and the torture, with Mullin we have a decent Blairite, a man not obsessed with enriching himself, offering himself up for sale to any and every corporate interest. Mullin provides a comfortable message for the middle class Blairites who still inhabit the Labour Party: you could be Blairite and decent. A careful reading of the diaries tells another story. Mullin used to be somebody once, but he’s nobody now.