Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading in parallel Tony Blair’s political memoire ( A Journey ) and Chris Mullin’s diaries of life as a Labour MP / junior Minister from 1999-2010 ( A View from the Foothills and Decline and Fall ), all the while going back over my own journey through the bleak Thatcher years, the new dawn of 1997 and the disappointments of Iraq. The books are quite different. Blair should have been more ruthless in its editing and adopts a ‘matey’ tone which sits ill with the important insights he provides into government in general and his achievements and failures in particular. He led a government which did a great many good things – peace in Ireland, freedom of information, minimum wage, new deal for Africa, a tax credit system that helped many to get into work, better access/training for adults, new hospitals and schools (I have good reason to know about that) – part of a legacy of renewal of the UK, which at times in the 1980s had seemed an impossible task as so much of Britain’s essential social and economic infrastructure creaked and collapsed under the speedy changes wrought by free market economic policies.
Yet his book is overshadowed by two major political mistakes – the decision not to have an election for the leadership in 1994. This allowed the ‘GB folk’, as he calls them, to brief against him and to undermine the government from the inside, justifying this by a claim that he had reneged on the ‘deal ‘ (that he would step aside in order to let Brown become PM). This internal pressure clearly, from both Blair’s and Mullin’s accounts, massively weakened the party. The second major mistake was over Iraq – I was not persuaded by his at times self-serving justification of his disastrous use of his power and influence to persuade most of his colleagues, against their better judgement, to go in with the Americans in 2003. The internal stakes were that he risked splitting the Labour party, like Ramsay McDonald before him, but reckoned that his colleagues would buckle under his force of will – and the pressures and blandishments of the whips. Not only did they buckle, but they lost a bit of their souls in the process. It is just possible to believe (though hard to understand) that Blair really believed in what he was doing. However there is no such excuse for most of his colleagues. They opposed the war and the wider relationship with the Bush/Cheney agenda, for good reasons, but voted against their beliefs. The cost of that was obvious for all to see in the hollowed-out tired shell of the 2010 party, bereft of its natural moral force, led by a tired and tragic leader into the defeat of 2010. Brown was so desparate to get the job, so rudderless in it and so incompetent in its media arts, at the mercy of today’s latest headline.
Both Blair and Mullin are very good on the media and its malign influence on public perceptions of politics. This is not just about the News of the World but stretches right across all media, up to and including the BBC, which has come such a long way from its ‘Reith-ian’ mission to educate and inform, home to the self-satisfied sneering cynicism of Paxman and Humphries and a hundred lesser clones. The spinning and control-freakery of Blair’s No.10 were a perfectly understandable response to the damaging antics of the media, for whom playing with politicians has become a game of cat and mouse.
Mullin’s prose, unlike Blair’s, is well edited and consequently easier to read – crisp, direct, balanced. It’s a strange thing to say about political diaries, but ‘I couldn’t put it down’ and found myself reading on at 1 in the morning. In among the politics, Mullins allows himself a balanced selection of entries about his family life, his constituency Sunderland and all through peppers the story with wry, insightful and amusing observations about people and places. He struggled with ‘office’ as a junior minister: he was determined not to take a ministerial car; he refused to use a pager (remember them!); he didn’t take ministerial boxes home at the weekend; he worked at Overseas Development but hated being away from home. However when, briefly, he finds his niche as Foreign Officer Minister for Africa, he is happy and desparately disappointed after the 2005 election when his vote against the Iraq War catches up with him and he is returned to the backbenches.
Mullin is proud of what the Labour Government achieved, and despite his protestations about his lack of influence, the hard work of many an MP and junior Minister such as he was a vital part of that. All of us are inclined to underestimate our own power to influence others. Like me he is desparately sad at how the party pulled itself to bits and then walked over the cliff in 2010, all the while knowing Gordon was leading them there. Last week I went to hear him talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival about the final volume of his diaries, just published, which covers 1994-1999. Balanced, sensible, amusing, insightful. He had a full house of around 1000, each of whom paid around £14 for the privilege of hearing him talk about politics. He reflected in a wry aside that he would never have been able to get such an audience when he actually did politics.
I have a great respect for those who do politics, although as a career it attracts its fair share of egomaniacs, partly because the thickness of their skin allows them to survive injuries that put others off at the first hurdles. Politics is not that different to many other jobs -it is much easier to see what needs to be done from the outside than to achieve it on the inside.