|English: President George W. Bush applauds former Prime Minister Tony Blair after presenting him Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009, with the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom during ceremonies in the East Room of the White House. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
I came upon this surprising lacunae in my political education this week because, for want of something better to read, I undertook a 550 pager by Chris Mullins, who had been a minor political functionary in the Tony Blair-led New Labour government of Britain, a government that lasted for just over 10 years, from May 1997 to the end of June 2007.
The volume of Mullins’ diaries that I have read is called A View from the Foothills, and covers his political life from the end of July 1999, when he was given a job in government by Tony Blair, until May 2005, following the election of that year in which Labour was returned to office, but with a reduced majority.
Mullin was a Member of Parliament from 1987 until 2010, that is, 23 years, in a safe seat in Sunderland in the north of England. But for most of that time he was a backbencher. He apparently felt he had been a useful member while he was chairman of various committees, but when elevated to a lowly post in the Environment department he complained that his usefulness had come to an end. He was moved to another department, but after the following election he told the Prime Minister he wanted to leave the government because he had felt he was wasting his time. He made it clear he would accept in future only a ministerial position with real power, but when he was recalled by the Prime Minister a couple of years later, it was again to a lowly position, this time in the Foreign Office. In total he spent not much more than four of his 23 years in Parliament as a member of the government.
When Tony Blair won his third term in 2005, Mullins had for two years been an under-secretary in the Foreign Office, with responsibility for Africa, and he was so sure he would be reappointed that at quarter to four on the day he was sacked by the PM he had been on the phone to his opposite number in the US State Department discussing what to do about the Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor. Then came a call from the Prime Minister, whom he refers to as The Man throughout his book, and he records the conversation this way:
“The Man sounded remarkably cheerful. No hint of what was to come. We exchanged chit-chat about the result and then came the fatal words, ‘I’m sorry, Chris, I am going to have to let you go.’
“ ‘Tony, I’m devastated. Why?’ There followed some nonsense about how he had to make room for new faces and how this was no reflection on my performance, which is no doubt what he says to everyone. Then he was gone, leaving me to contemplate oblivion.”
The curious thing about this description is that Mullin has sworn throughout the book that he lived a useful life as a Parliamentarian until he was given a minor office in government, at which point he disappeared into the very oblivion that on the last page of the book he complains he had been condemned to by losing his under-secretary job..
Another curious thing about Mullins is that I discovered only after checking his career on the Internet that he had been a supporter of Tony Benn during his years as the leader of what the newspapers called The Loony Left, and later still had been editor of the left-wing newspaper Tribune, one of whose faithful readers I had been when in London during the 1950s and 1960s. In fact I had known the editor of the paper, Dick Clements, who preceded Mullins in its editorship.
But I read more than 500 pages of this man’s political diary, and not once had to occurred to me that he could ever have been a member of the Labour Party’s left wing. Strange. Passing strange….
As presented in his own diaries, he comes across as an earnest, well-intentioned person of humanist values, who had a wish to do things that make a difference. Apparently, before he entered Parliament, as a TV journalist he had been somewhat responsible for the righting of a miscarriage of justice towards some convicted Irish bombers, and after he became a minister he seemed to think his most valuable work was when he intervened in personal tragedies that had befallen various individuals who somehow had become stranded in England and were being subject to harsh decisions to remove them taken by faceless bureaucrats. He does come across in the book as a man of humour and perspective. He was the author of the novel A Very British Coup, which had been made into a sensationally effective piece of TV drama, and it was on this account, if truth be known, that I decided to read his diaries.
Whatever his political faith was he never makes a declaration of it anywhere in the book, but rather presents himself as a small cog in Tony Blair’s management team, which is presented as if it was more like a company management than a political party. He gives several dazzling portraits of Blair in action, leading the reader to believe that, like Obama after him, he was one of those leaders who could spellbind audiences, talk people around who were opposing him, and for whom there was a minor connection between what he professed and what he actually did.
I have to confess I have been a lifelong admirer of the British Labour Party, which was founded by the trades unions in 1905 in order to advance a political agenda based on improving the lives of British workers. That it quickly fell into the hands of the British private-school educated elite was, I suppose more or less inevitable, given the class basis of British society. But nevertheless it continued to struggle to represent the workers, pursued for most of its life a dogged policy of economic and democratic socialism, and always had in its ranks many superb, self-taught politicians who learned everything they knew in the union movement, at least until it was taken over and utterly transformed into a routine political machine by Blair.
I grew up under a working class government in New Zealand, whose ministers, elected in 1935, were almost all self-taught, self-educated politicians, and I have always felt more comfortable when a nation’s affairs are susceptible to such down-to-earth people than when it falls into the hands, as it usually does, of lawyers, journalists and the like.
The minutiae of daily life inside the British government as described in Mullins makes one wonder if this can possibly be, as is so often claimed for it, the best way to run a country. Compromise is the operative word, compromise that has to be struck every day between contending interests (which these days I suppose could be said to be the very definition of politics). And of course, the misuse of power is one lesson that emerged from the behaviour of Blair and his pal and ally Bush in the US.
Blair used to say if you have a weapon, you should use it. And so he became an avowed interventionist, ready for the great metropolitan power he represented to intervene in any part of the world to pursue what he perceived was the interests of his country, and the world. Unfortunately, his support for George Bush’s war in Iraq was given under a cover of monstrous lies, lies that resulted in the death of many thousands of people, that have destabilized and created semi-chaos throughout the Middle East, have not apparently achieved the aims hoped for, but rather something close to the opposite, and have disgraced the name of the British Labour Party.
In sum, I have to say that being exposed to the inner workings of government as it was practised during these successful years of the Blair regime has done nothing to change my overall view of politicians. Although I covered politics in several countries, off and on, for more than a quarter of a century, I can count the politicians I admired on the fingers of one hand, and even fewer are those to whom I would be bothered to write a letter on any particular subject. Almost all of those I admired were outside government, and a common theme among them was that the moment they agreed to join a government, they virtually disappeared from public life, just as Chris Mullin complains he did.Ah, well, so goes it, I guess.