Chris Mullin interview: The best authors don't take themselves too seriously
The Labour MP and celebrated diarist discusses the art of political writing and his own new memoir, Hinterland.
For fans of political memoirs, 2016 is looking like a vintage year. One of Westminster’s biggest beasts, Ken Clarke, has finally lifted the lid on his many years at the top of the Tory party. Elsewhere, Nick Clegg has opened up about the inner workings of the coalition government and Ed Balls has become the latest New Labour heavyweight (and the most senior Brownite) to tell his story.
And it doesn’t stop there. Next up is David Cameron, apparently aided by 53 hours-worth of digital conversations that he has stored away on MiniDisc.
As Cameron and co make their first forays into publishing, Chris Mullin has already established himself as one of Westminster’s finest authors. His three volumes of diaries, spanning the rise and fall of New Labour, have been described by Cameron as “destined to be handed out as leaving presents in offices across Whitehall for years to come”. So he knows what makes a cracking political read.
“You can have held the highest office, but if you can’t write it’s no good,” he says. “The best books are a bit anecdotal, when the author doesn’t take himself too seriously and is capable of owning up to weaknesses. If it’s just a parade of your greatest triumphs it’s not of as much interest. But most people these days don’t go down that route.”
He suggests that politicians often struggle to be self-deprecating: “It varies. Many of them are not troubled by self-doubt, which is why they rise so far.”
Mullin says the best political biography he has read in recent years was John Campbell’s study of Roy Jenkins. The best diary he has read is John Colville’s intimate account of life in Number 10 during the wartime Prime Ministership of Winston Churchill.
He says Tony Blair’s book “was better than some of his enemies were willing to admit” and he is similarly lukewarm about Balls’ effort.
“Quite interesting, but I don’t think he’s been frank about his part in the Brown court,” is Mullin’s verdict on the Balls book. “I can understand he doesn’t want to upset a lot of people and refight old battles. There are good anecdotes in there, but it probably wasn’t as good a story as he could tell if he was minded to tell it….
“He says there were faults on both sides, ie the Brown and the Blair camps. But I am inclined to believe there was a great deal more fault on the Brown camp’s side. I think it would have been a more interesting memoir if he told us frankly about what went on.”
Does he have high hopes for the Cameron book? “Anybody who’s been prime minister, if they’re capable of writing – and he is capable of writing – will have a story to tell. And I await it with interest,” he says.
Are there any political memoirs he’d still like to see emerge? Mullin notes that Gordon Brown is now the only big beast from the Blair/Brown years not to have written up his account. But he also suggests that perhaps Brown should leave it that way.
“Gordon’s not a man who owns up to mistakes. So I’m not sure it would be very interesting.”
For his part, Mullin has published a new political memoir, Hinterland. The book is written with Mullin’s customary wit and candour, but it differs from the diaries on two fronts. First, it covers his whole life, including some phases already covered by the diaries. Second, it abandons the chronological narrative in favour of a thematic account.
“The diaries covered the rise and fall of New Labour from the night of John Smith’s death to the moment that Gordon Brown walked out of Downing Street,” explains Mullin.
“This covers a much wider time – my entire life. It’s written in a series of episodes. It’s called Hinterland because my view is that the most useful MPs are those who have done something else before they get in.”
Talking over smoothies in Westminster, Mullin runs through the various chapters of the book.
One titled ‘Loony MP Backs Bomb Gang’ delves into his successful campaign to free the innocent people convicted of the Birmingham bombings. The chapter name is taken from a Sun headline.
He says: “That was regarded as an extreme cause to start off with, but it proved to be my path to respectability. Suddenly cabinet ministers, cardinals and judges were happy to be seen in my company. And even the odd member of the Labour front bench.”
The book also covers growing up in Sunderland and being a war reporter in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. “There’s stuff about my early life, there’s even a chapter on my disastrous early love life,” he smiles.
There is also a brief nod in his book towards the current predicament that his “dear old Labour party” finds itself in.
“I’m not a Corbynista, but I do have respect for him,” says Mullin. He urges Labour MPs to stop laying into their leader. Yet Mullin is also clear that Corbyn should not be leading Labour into the next election if at all possible.
Asked who might be up to the job, he pauses and responds: “Stephen Kinnock is impressive – and he’s got hinterland.” He also ventures that “Chuka Umunna may yet emerge at the top of the pile”.
But Mullin then adds the caveat that he no longer keeps such a close eye on such matters.
He left parliament in 2010, a year after the publication of his third diary, A View From The Foothills, cemented his place in the pantheon of truly great political diarists. As such, he has often been more focused on literary festivals than the Commons chamber.
“I miss the company of friends. I miss not having a ringside speech when big events happen,” he says.
“But I’ve actually I’ve found another quite useful life. I’ve not been short of things to do since I retired. The diaries have generated a small industry and I do a lot of literary festivals.
"The political meeting is not dead, it has just transferred to the literary festival.”