Wednesday 5 September 2012

Left write

Until this past month, I’d have said that political diaries and memoirs were low on my list of must-reads. Then the diplo-mate picked up at Heathrow the first (albeit most recently published) in a trilogy of diaries by Chris Mullin, and once he’d finished A Walk-On Part, I was hooked, following close on his tail to devour the other two volumes, A View from the Foothills and Decline and Fall.

Who’s Mullin, you might ask? He has at various times been a real Mensch (not Louise, please) of a Labour back-bencher under charismatic Blair – ‘The Man’ as he calls him - and troubled Brown, a dedicated chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, a reluctant junior minister to John Prescott and Clare Short. In posterity’s eyes he’ll no doubt best be remembered as the writer first of a well received novel subsequently turned into a film and play, A Very British Coup, and now these diaries. Reflections on his family life up in his constituency of Sunderland with wife Ngoc and daughters Sarah and Emma, the qualification he would probably value highest, have surely been much pruned in the editing, but the traces have plenty of pith.

In spite of review trumpetings about ‘wicked indiscretions’, Mullin takes a fair and balanced view of most of his more illustrious political colleagues. Though the author is far from starry-eyed about The Man, Blair comes across as a spellbinding speaker on most occasions, and never a deceiver, Mullin believes and so do I (though there’s one disconcerting moment when he half-jokingly advises a colleague to lie). The dash of superhuman stamina Mullin detects in The Man renders him an almost heroic figure with one tragic flaw or major hubris, Iraq, an issue which Mullin alone among the Labour politicians voted against. He is rightly dismayed, too, about a far more black-and-white blot on Blair’s copybook, the lack of a stronger stand on Guantanamo. 

Brown emerges – no surprise here - as difficult, a neurotic obsessive with little hinterland, perhaps a little softened by marriage and fatherhood; even Mandelson, ruthlessly dispatched in a number of vignettes, gets some respect for what he was good at. Cherie sounds fun – I’ve always liked her when I’ve seen her in action – but it’s hard to forgive the thousands of pounds claimed for her ‘hair stylist’ on accompanying visits. New Labour spin and the foolish decisions like the risible 75p rise in pensions are viewed more in sorrow than in anger, for the way they undermined all the genuinely good things achieved, especially in the early years of government; Mullin constantly laments how, despite the money poured into health and education, doctors and teachers hate the politicians responsible. The public is constantly caught saying ‘all politicians are the same’. Mullin is transparent proof that they’re not.

The real spinning villains of the piece are Murdoch and the gutter press, the Mail especially. Telly tyrant Paxman and radio hound Humphrys deserve a passing swipe or two. Mullin is, on the other hand, pally with members of the opposition when there’s overlap, as there clearly is in the rather charming tete-a-tetes with John Major – and he admits that ‘half my trouble’, at least in terms of advancement, is that ‘I can usually see the other side’s point’. Some figures have his unreserved contempt – smirking George Osborne, ghastly Teresa May, opportunist Clegg – and sometimes a devastating adjective is enough (not quite sure what he’s got against Joanna Lumley, though). He is astonishingly prescient, too: unless diaries are tampered with – and I’m sure these were not – there’s no question of golden hindsight.

One little dialogue led me across from diaries to biography. This is 22 September 2002, after The Man’s big speech on ‘why we need a war with Iraq’.

Immediately after the statement, we trooped into his room for a meeting of the parliamentary committee. ‘One of your biggest problems,’ I said, ‘is that, outside of Texas, no one has the slightest confidence in George W Bush or in those who surround him.’ I added, ‘No doubt, we shall have to wait for your memoirs to find out what you really think of him.’

‘No need to wait,’ he replied cheerfully. ‘I’ll tell you now, George Bush is intelligent, open and easy to deal with’.

‘You must see a different George Bush to us,’ interjected Doug Hoyle.

So it was time to see what The Man had to say; and on Dubya he remains – maddeningly – as good as his word. Though he’s less of a pleasure to read than Mullin, with lots of colloquial speech-devices like ‘here’s the thing’ or ‘you know what?’ as well as a surprising amount of sober exposition, A Journey – which tellingly began messianic life as The Journey - is at least presented as the long-pondered reflections of a statesman, not a cosying-up celebrity. Most of it is plausible and seems truthful (sucker, I hear the many ‘Bliar’-cryers retort). No-one could have put more time and effort into retrospectively reasoning out the pros and cons, the weighing of an uneasy conscience, of the drive towards war with Iraq. He does seem almost too willing to see more of the good than the bad in his improbable international allies; but the coming-clean about the terrible kerfuffles with unreasonable Gordon surely pulls no punches.

Those are the elements I can remember most clearly about A Journey at several weeks' distance – not much, I know. Now I’m skimming the later stages of Denis Healey’s The Time of My Life, a substantial chunk of which paints a lucid and complex picture of the world post-1945 and sheds light on the author's unusually broad and deep cultural perspectives. It's when Healey details his years as Defence Secretary – a post for which, having seen a great deal of action in the Second World War, he was better qualified than many politicians – and subsequently as Chancellor of the Exchequer that I find the minutiae of military hardware and fiscal policy beyond me. One passage did leap out, written about the mid 1970s from the perspective of 1989:

Meanwhile the private banks were licking their lips at the thought of the money they would make out of lending to the developing countries. They thought that loans to governments carried no risk. Walter Wriston, the head of Citibank, the most aggressive of all the New York lenders, proclaimed ‘Governments can’t go bust’. On their side, most of the developing countries were happy to borrow from private banks rather than from the IMF, because they could do so without limit and without conditions. It was the beginning of a series of miscalculations as disastrous as those which produced the Great Slump of the thirties; it could still end in a similar catastrophe.

Which leads me back to another prophetic utterance, this time from Mullin writing with painful clarity on 1 January 2000. Having noted that ‘beyond fortress Europe and North America much of the world is in meltdown’ – the fortress, alas, is crumbling in 2012 - what he writes about the environment is even more pressing now that the Arctic has seen a record summer ice melt and Tory factions are clamouring for the third Heathrow runway their party had promised not to build. Thus Mullin at the beginning of the new millennium:

Our main problem is, of course, not other people’s wars. It is that we have invented an economic system which is consuming the resources of the planet as if there were no tomorrow – and there well might not be unless we change our ways. In the United States, the home of the world’s most voracious consumers, there is no sign at all that the political process is capable of persuading – or indeed has any desire to persuade – citizens to adopt a sustainable lifestyle. All over the democratic world, politicians increasingly follow rather than lead. And even were an ecological disaster to occur (perhaps it has already begun), the price will be paid by those least responsible and least capable of protecting themselves. Indeed the consumers of the developed world may not even notice. To crown all, the emerging economies of Asia are falling over themselves to emulate the mistakes that we have made. Indeed they insist that it is their right to do so.

Maybe, just maybe, this will be the century in which we learn to reduce, reuse and recycle our waste, develop benign sources of food and energy and stop burning up the ozone layer. Maybe Europe will lead the way and others will follow. Who knows, there ought to be money to be made out of going green, in which case capitalism will enjoy a new lease of life.

Or maybe it is too late. Maybe we have failed to heed the warning signs and a long, slow slide towards ruin beckons. By the end of my life the signals should be clearer.

Too late? Now that the imperatives of economic unravelling and frightening population growth push environmental issues way down the agenda, I fear it is. Only a few years ago I imagined resourceful mankind would find a way to adapt. Now I wonder. Well, as Aeschylus put it, Ailinon ailinon eipe, to d'eu nikato: let us cry sorrow, sorrow, but let the good prevail.


Catriona said...

Glad to see you enjoyed reading Dennis Healey's autobiography. I think it has to be my favourite, with Nigel Lawson's and Michael Heseltine's runners-up. Lawson's, because he is charmingly honest about where his narrative is getting too technical for most of us, so he sign-posts the bits we can skip without losing much of the narrative. Heseltine, on the other hand, was just interesting.

David said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Catriona. Now Lawson's on my list. Shirley Williams next.

Susan Scheid said...

What a phenomenal post you have written here, a tremendous tour of political biographies. I don't know the British players and their roles so well, other, of course than Tony Blair, and to a smaller extent Gordon Brown. It's hard for me to get past my fury with Blair for giving Bush "cover," as it were, but I do remember, early on in Blair's years as PM, listening to a speech of his and wishing we could have someone as intelligent, well-spoken, and reasonable as he was then. (Come to think of it, this may be much of why I became so furious with him, for George Junior was a total dolt, and led us into disaster after disaster. Ah well.)

Over here, of course, the Democratic convention is in full sway. I've sworn off television, so missed Clinton's speech, but read about it. He, too, is maddening, because he truly had it all, and squandered it in the most stupid of ways imaginable (actually, his lack of judgment remains unimaginable to me), but it is a great relief that he's here and able to speak with such force and clarity right now. The times are fraught, indeed. I am struck by many things you report about Mullin, but this one leaps out at me particularly: “‘half my trouble’, at least in terms of advancement, is that ‘I can usually see the other side’s point’.” This brings Obama in mind for me—though he has advanced, of course, to the “top” position, this trait presents an ongoing difficulty for him in achieving all he could. (Too much the law professor, I sometimes think.)

Your closing lines are elegant and true. I worry, too, though I feel I have no choice but to remain hopeful. “Let us cry sorrow, sorrow, but let the good prevail.” May it be so.

Laurent said...

I was not capable of reading Blair's book simply because I never liked him. I do agree though with Blair's opinion of George W.Bush, I remember the King of Saudi Arabia saying that he was a very nice man but understood nothing. Nice does not make a good leader.
Am reading Kissinger on China at the moment, now that is a good book, since I lived in China it brings back a lot of memories.

David said...

I liked Blair, at least in the early days of the New Labour government, which raised such high hopes (and did realise quite a few of them). I was even conflicted at the time about the reasons behind the war with Iraq. I never thought Bush Jr could be thought of as 'nice' (and TB didn't quite say that): as a Governor of Texas who signed more death warrants than any other in recent history - and casually, too, having barely skimmed the briefs - he had blood on his hands before he even became President.

Though like you, Sue, I don't watch TV, I've seen various clips of the Republican and Democrat conferences. How we winced (delightedly) at Clint's ramblings to an empty chair; how impressed I was with Michelle's mastery of pace and tone. By all accounts Obama's speech was pragmatic rather than euphoric, but that chimes with what I think of as the man's honesty. It seems bizarre to me that there's any contest this time around, but that's America for you.

One day, let's hope, Dubya (and Blair, why not) can be caricatured in an opera as outrageously as Kissinger is in that masterpiece Nixon in China. Interesting what Healey has to say about HK ('his most disappointing performance was over Vietnam...By invading Cambodia he...imposed unnecessary death and suffering on a horrific scale...Nevertheless, history may forgive him because he shifted American policy towards an accommodation with the Communist powers').

Anonymous said...

Have you read Thatcher's The Downing Street Years and Callaghan's Time and Chance; both comic masterpieces, full of Wallace Arnoldish self-justifications and emply meditations on nothing in particular. They may well be brilliant Craig Brown spoofs actually. I always liked Denis Healey's quote from Yeats depicting the Conservative Party in full cry:
"The best lack all conviction
The worst are filled with a passionate intensity"
John Graham, Edinburgh

David said...

Never thought of reading the Iron Lady's memoirs, though perhaps for comedy might make them bearable. Not as interested as I should be in Jim Callaghan.

Fond of his Yeats, is our Denis.

About to give up on Shirley Williams's 'Climbing the Bookcases' - such a disappointment after the eloquence of the lady in person.

David Damant said...

I am afraid that not enough attention is paid - in general though also in some of the comments in this blog - to the real failing the Blair government - the dreadful economic management. Overspending by the government ( far too much on social security and the health service: nice but irresponsible) and ( though the central banks were mainly to blame) the prostitution of the money supply. Thus the banks were funded by a tsunami of very cheap money - what could they be excepted to do, but take foolish risks? Encouraged by one of the most disgraceful comments ever made by a politician, Brown's " I have abolished boom and bust" What stupidity ! What vanity! Plus the failure of the regulators who claimed that they applied a light touch but exercised no touch at all.
And the group of Callaghan, Healey, Shirley Williams ( as a result of whose schools policy we have a cabinet from Eton and Westminster etc) - all were trapped by the post war consensus which brought this country to a state in which we were the worst economy in Europe, until Mrs Thatcher transformed us into one of the best, and until Blair and Brown threw it all away. Mrs Thatcher should be seen as the greatest PM since Churchill - why is she not recognised as such? And
she may have a state funeral and deserves it.

One of her faults was not firing Nigel Lawson. I could never understand that, unless he did not tell her that we were shadowing the Deutschmark. She certainly foresaw the results of a fixed exchange 1995 she wrote that with a fixed currency the southern countries would revolt about the privations imposed, and against being run from Brussels and Berlin

David said...

Well, Sir David, you have argued more broadly than my remit, and while of course I don't agree with your Maggie sentiments, it is all food for thought...