If A socialist prime minister was ever elected the establishment would do everything it could to prevent any real change. That was the sensible premise of A Very British Coup, the novel by Sunderland Labour MP Chris Mullin.
It reflected what much of the left in the Labour Party thought about the world in the 1980s. They were pro-peace, pro-ordinary people and suspicious of the security services and the press.
But it also contained the conviction that things had to be done for, not by ordinary people.
The novel ends with the prime minister resigning after a set up tabloid scandal. As it turned out, no such “coup” was ever needed. The left’s desire to “make a difference” by being in power meant that eventually they went along with, and indeed promoted, the things they previously despised.
And “making a difference” – or, more precisely, failing to but telling yourself that the latest shoddy comprise is OK – is the central thread of Chris Mullin’s recently published diaries, A View from the Foothills.
Mullin once wrote a guide on how to deselect your MP. Now he has written a lengthy book showing why you would want to.
He is by no means the worst of them and the diaries are informative and funny.
The usual gossip is there and much of it is entertaining. For instance, the Queen Mother leaning over to Neil Kinnock at a state banquet, saying, “May I say something in absolute confidence?” and whispering, “Don’t trust the Germans.”
But the politics are infuriating. Mullin’s half-hearted worries, but non-rebellion, over the anti-terror laws are simply saddening to read – particularly from the author of An Error Of Judgement, a book that was central to the release of the Birmingham Six, jailed for 15 years after being wrongly convicted for an IRA bombing.
As a former editor of the Labour magazine Tribune, when what it said still mattered, and a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, he is left cold by “New Labour claptrap about strategies, visions, challenges and opportunities”.
Forced to attend an event called “Listening to Old People,” he writes it off as “a classic New Labour wheeze designed to create the illusion of consultation,” and sits “quietly at the back, praying no one would spot me”.
Blair is annoyingly referred to throughout as “The Man”, occasionally as “Our Great Leader”. Mullin both admires and sees through him.
When Mullin is out of favour, he wants to be in, and when he is in, he wants to be out. He becomes what he calls “under-secretary for folding deckchairs” in John Prescott’s department of the environment.
With a predictable turn, the civil servants are unhelpful and the MPs behave as if they are in a public school dormitory – which is, of course, where most of them, including Mullin, were educated.
He recalls his job as involving little more than having to laugh at John Prescott’s jokes – but in fact Mullin was responsible for privatising air traffic control.
Blair later makes him Africa minister. Mullin says he realised, “that there are many good men in Africa. It is a question of giving them a helping hand.” Bless.
Despite his irritation with New Labour, much of his diary is in reality New Labour guff. “There are so many good things happening in Sunderland,” he writes. “A new shopping complex. A state of the art bus station. The metro on its way.”
Unfortunately, many of his constituents don’t seem to appreciate just how much “better” things are under Labour.
His surgeries provide him with misery as the damaged and the distraught come to him for help.
He is upset for the worthy asylum seeker he can do absolutely nothing to help, while at the same time backing more draconian attacks on immigrants.
Mullin is saddened that factories are closing in Sunderland but can do nothing to save them. And he hates the firefighters’ strike with vitriol because they might encourage others to make demands on the government.
To his credit he was an opponent of the war in Iraq – just – and he did vote against it.
But the moral equivalence and the wringing of hands are painful. Describing Blair’s defence of the invasion, he writes, “The Man’s performance was flawless. He made his case calmly and without exaggeration. He met every argument head on and treated his critics with respect.”
Adding, “I want The Man to be right. In the end that would be best for all of us.”
His belief that only with influence can something be done – but that next to nothing can actually be done – is not a matter for rage but for a resigned smugness.
There is one exception. Mullin takes leylandii – a type of fast growing hedge that he wants banned – very seriously.
By the end of the book I’d become in favour of planting leylandii in every garden in the land.
Mullin ultimately achieved his victory with the imposition of height restrictions on the hedges as a successful amendment to the anti-social behaviour bill.
Ah, so he did make a difference after all.
A View From The Foothills
by Chris Mullin
Profile Books, £20
Go to Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
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