Like anyone, I like a good rant. We all do. About things that annoy us, enrage us and drive us to tears and despair.
My rant for the past couple of years has been that we are too controlled. And that we are increasingly being enclosed and controlled, by an economy that thinks we only exist if we are buying things, and by its willing enforcers who think that being unusual, and not buying so much, is simply wrong. A version of this rant is in my blog post called ‘Wild’.
Well, I rejoice in being able to have this rant because, for all its faults and don’t get me started, this is still basically a free country. Where we are free to say what we think. And to disagree with each other. Democratically.
Mind you, democracy’s been having a hard time in this country for the past thirty years or so. We’ve had a sequence of leaders, and particular mentions must go to Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, who’ve been happy enough to be elected, but have then proceeded to govern with as little involvement of the elected Members of Parliament as possible. Even members of their own Cabinet teams have felt excluded from their decisions, with everybody being bossed around by party ‘Whips’ and ordered to stay ‘on’ a message they had no role in creating.
In such circumstances we should therefore be very grateful for the likes of Chris Mullin.
I’ve been aware of Chris Mullin since around about 1980. I knew of him as a friend of Tony Benn, and knew they’d done some work together.
And I’d stayed vaguely aware of him over the years. I knew he’d become an M.P. – and I occasionally wondered why he’d never risen to prominence during all the bewildering government reshuffles of the New Labour years.
Well, I know a lot more about him now. Because I’ve spent a good deal of the last two weeks reading the three volumes of his diaries. Fifteen hundred rivetingly interesting pages about doing that democracy thing.
And as it happens, I’ve read them in the order they were published:
‘A View from the Foothills’. Covering 1999 to 2005, the apparent peak of the New Labour/Tony Blair years. Except for the disastrous decision to align us with George W. Bush, through the ‘umbilical link to the worst American president of my lifetime’ and invade Iraq.
‘Decline & Fall’. ‘And make no mistake, it was a fall’. Covering 2005 to 2010, the lingering around too long end of the Blair era. And the continuing unravelling of the New Labour dream under Gordon Browne.
‘A Walk-On Part’. And finally back to 1994 to 1999, covering the death of John Smith and the rise of New Labour. Its spin and insincerity and getting away with things because they seemed likeable, all in evidence from the start.
And through the whole period, we walk with Chris Mullin. Chairing House committees, but never rising to be more than the most junior of ministers. Asking awkward questions, in the face of continued evasiveness. Travelling backwards and forwards from Sunderland, where we see him with his wife Ngoc and their daughters, and supporting his constituents. And, back in London, keeping a very close eye on ‘The Man’. This is what he calls Tony Blair. A man he likes, thinks could be one of ‘the greats’ – and watches in anguished sorrow as he is guilelessly sucked in to the circle of scoundrels and killers around Bush. Chris Mullin votes against the Iraq War.
And he takes us to Africa, many times. And we talk with corrupt leaders and desperate refugees. We get a clear idea of what real ‘crises’ look and feel and smell like. Not the made up to sell newspapers crises of the UK press mob.
He has his eye on Rupert Murdoch from the start. Urging Tony Blair to limit him to ‘one daily paper and one weekend title’ in the week after they win the 1997 landslide election. He is ignored. Over and over again.
But nothing stops him asking awkward questions. Week in, week out. In public, at Prime Ministers Question Time. And in private, quiet words in corridors between sessions.
And The Man likes Chris Mullin. Even after Iraq, he gives him the Africa job, for a while. But modern politics is a hard place for the likes of Chris Mullins to be.
Because he persists in thinking he’s been democratically elected to take part in governing the country. And The Man, and Gordon after him, don’t agree. They think he’s there to deliver their vision. Whatever that vision might happen to be today. And no matter how ludicrous the catch phrases that must be chanted to deliver it:
‘ONE NATION, YOUNG COUNTRY, STAKEHOLDER ECONOMY, NEW LABOUR, NEW BRITAIN!’
And along the way we are reminded of the blizzard of ‘new initiatives’ that were rolled out relentlessly so everything was always ‘new’. ‘Beacon schools’ – remember that one?
Well Chris Mullin remembers it all, because he’s kept his diary of it all. And in the diary we find that all is not lost for democracy. Because all over our Parliament, in all parties, there are decent, intelligent, principled, democratic, hard-working men and women, doing what we sent them there to do. Work together on the running of the country.
And it’s sometimes a hard job they have.
Sometimes through their own mistakes. From early in the diaries Chris is campaigning against MPs paying themselves too much.
Sometimes it’s our fault. As a people we are endlessly greedy, always want to avoid taxes, and feign to have no memory of things getting better, even when they obviously have.
And very often it’s the beyond our shores, anti-democratic, global capitalist banking system.
This last of which, through Chris observing it all, made me realise, that trying to govern our own country is local politics now. In the diaries for 2008 and 2009 we see the global banking collapse, ‘the financial tsunami that came from America’ nearly taking our whole economy down, but for the decisive actions of Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling in stabilising the UK banks. Elsewhere, notes Chris Mullin, they are recognised and celebrated for this. Here, the leaders of the incoming Conservative and Liberal Democrat administration try pretending that ‘Labour’s spent all the money’.
Well that’s what the headlines from the party leaders and the gutter press-mob say. Meanwhile, if these lovely diaries are anything to go by, there will be men and women all over Parliament, getting on with the quiet but sacred business of running the country. And, for the most part, getting on with each other too. Doing that democracy thing.
Protecting my right, and your right, to rant.
And next May, or any May you choose, whatever the election is, Sarah and I will take our voting cards to the local polling station. And before we go in we will pause, and I will say what Sarah has come to expect me to say, our own little democracy ritual:
‘All over the world, even recently, people have died for the right to do what we are about to do now’.
And then we vote.
I’ve deliberately not quoted extensively from the diaries here so you can be surprised by what Chris Mullin says about particular situations and people. (Though, clue, he doesn’t think much of Nick Clegg, or Peter Mandelson either, come to think of it.)
If you’d like to read them, my copy of ‘A View from the Foothills’ will be going back to Smithdown Road Oxfam any day now. And the other two volumes will be returned to Allerton Road public library.