‘The quiet questioner who knows his subject’

Adam Somerset reviews Chris Mullins’ ‘Hinterland’.

Chris Mullin



256 pp

“What has gone wrong in Sunderland? First Sunderland has an MP who is a boil on the arse of the Labour Party. Now they have gone and selected a certifiable lunatic.” This is the opening to Chris Mullin’s lean and nimble memoir. Not for the first time a Leader believes that he is sounding off in private but in fact his words are being kept for history’s perusal. In this case it is Neil Kinnock in Middlesbrough’s Dragonara Hotel.

The public service of Chris Mullin, the Member for Sunderland South from 1987-2010, has been considerable and various. But he began and he ends his working life as a writer. The three volumes of his published diaries are indispensable reading for an understanding of power and politics in our times. A surprise minister he proved in the view of an insider to be much better at the role than his wry self-describing would suggest.  “Hinterland” has overlap with the “Diaries” but also fills in the gaps. In his career Mullin has had political and institutional antagonists but he has no simmering grudges or scores to settle. He closes in a vein of contentment, near to serenity, in a Northumbrian home and garden with challenge for years to come. “Hinterland” is written with the crispness and compactness of the professional journalist.

Although the life is cumulatively covered in full the fifteen chapters are each shaped around a specific episode. Thus “A Little Local Difficulty” covers the editorship of “Tribune”. “Nobody in their right mind would have wanted to be editor…in May 1982” runs the characteristic first sentence. The intra-party battling and machinations would strain credibility had not the path been paved in chapter two “the Deep North.” This brief chapter must be the most lethal account of a one-party constituency. With electoral canvassing near to non-existent turn-out in loyal former pit villages never exceeded thirty percent. In city estates it was a third of that. Procedural blockages against the Essex-born arriviste MP are discovered by the score. “Much of my first two years in Parliament” writes Mullin “were spent looking over my shoulder.”

The first career is journalism. In 1970 the precocious Richard Branson has a magazine  called “Student” and Mullin has an interview with the Prime Minister lasting forty minutes. Turning down a job with Mirror Group he pays £81 for a one-way ticket to South-east Asia. Laos by then was the most bombed country in the world. The engagement with the region is deep and constant. His finding of a partner for life resolves a bitty emotional life.

As the “Dairies” attest Mullin must be the Police Federation’s least favourite parliamentarian. The chapter title on overturning the verdicts in notorious cases of injustice is borrowed from a tabloid headline “Loony MP Backs Bomb Gang.” His private research is assiduous and remarkable. He writes drily “I began with some basic detective work of the sort one might have commended to the West Midlands Police had they been interested in this line of enquiry.” With vindication for the Birmingham Six Mullin is surprised to discover he has become respectable. “Law Lords, cardinals, Tory Home Secretaries- even the odd Labour frontbencher- were happy to be seen in my company.” It is platform for the Home Affairs Select Committee and eventually its Chair.

As for the years of government Mullin writes from observation On the years of  the North-east’s deindustrialisation his language is plain. The nineteen-eighties “spawned a vast yob culture” with “second generation unemployment. Young people were growing up who would not have been capable of work even if, by some  miracle, it had become available.” He uses savage and unfashionable language in seeing a “benefit culture” describing it as “one of Margaret Thatcher’s most enduring legacies.”

But then of his own party he observes “it has become fashionable in some quarters to allege that the thirteen years of Labour government were largely wasted. This is nonsense.” Training, Surestart, the minimum wage worked. He sees Sandhill View school where less than ten percent achieved five GCSEs. Under his party in power the school is rebuilt, its library and sports facilities made open to all, and that modest hurdle of five GCSEs attained by eighty percent. Political parties are there for power.      

But then Mullin closes with some reflections from the view of a not-quite-septuagenarian. He writes “that anyone who claims to have discovered a perfect formula for happiness is deluded.” He is wrong there; the anatomy is happiness is well known. But he is on surer ground with “the art of good governance is the ability to compromise (and the key to success  in many other professions) is the ability to compromise, although not necessarily at the lowest common denominator.” As for “no religion, ideology or political party has a monopoly of wisdom” that is pure Isaiah Berlin, But Berlin is the last  philosopher to haunt the commanding heights of the Opposition of 2016.     

Mullin’s relationship with Labour’s all-conquering Leader retraces some of the material already in the “Diaries.” “The prime minister has a high regard for Chris Mullin” remarks Chief Whip Derek Foster to Peter Mandelson. “To which the Great Ingratiator responded in that patrician drawl of his “Yaaas, extraordinary, isn’t it?” From his experience in government Mullin captures its full flavour, not least the bewildering degree of volatility. Labour in office has thirteen ministers for Europe, nine for Africa. Eight secretaries of state lead Work and Pensions. John Reid holds nine posts in ten years. A Permanent Secretary gives his new minister sound advice “You are not going to be here long. Don’t try to change the world. Just pick two or three issues where you may be able to make a difference and leave the rest.”           

Some aspects of civic life are constant. North Devon in 1970 is an area void of immigration when the twenty-two year old contests the seat against Jeremy Thorpe. The majority of the electorate is pro-hanging, anti-foreigner and hostile to the Common Market. As for the Party he cites Margaret Beckett- “later to become one of New Labour’s most impressive ministers” in the Mullin view- on the crucial 1981 election “I thought I was soft left but not so soft that I can’t tell the difference between Dennis Healey and Tony Benn”.

But if ever a parliamentarian received the right accolade it is the one here,  appropriately from the other side of the Chamber. From Douglas Hurd: “A minister answering parliamentary questions learns which backbenchers to fear…real danger comes from  the quiet questioner who knows his subject. Such a one was Chris Mullin.” “Hinterland” is a slim, modest book  from an author with small cause for modesty.    

Adam Somerset is a Welsh Critic.

2 thoughts on “‘The quiet questioner who knows his subject’

  1. I agree that Chris Mullin is an excellent writer/observer of political scene and have read all his books and HINTERLAND will follow in next few weeks. He also has a very good ‘sense of humour’ which seems to be missing from majority of politicians in this serious ‘world’. It is interesting that Mrs. Thatcher is always ‘available’ for a good kicking as though she was responsible for unemployment in the 1980’s,whereas the reality is the British economy was so structurally weak in 1970’s that the IMF visited and had to bankroll us,and keep the welfare state alive and well.If you read Lord Donoghues books about Wilson/Callaghan eras the inefficiencies/trade union ‘madness’ in both state and private enterprises was well known by Labour unwilling to ‘sort out’and therefore left it to Mrs. Thatcher to destroy the ‘wreckers’ like Red Robbo et al.

  2. I’m sure the book is a good read and that Mullin is one of the few consistently honourable figures in and around the Westminster establishment in recent decades, but – one passing reference to the wretch Kinnock aside – what relevance does this piece have to, y’know, Wales? I mean, it’s not as if we don’t have a lot to talk about with regard to our own country, is it?

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