Paul Anderson, review of Decline and Fall: Diaries 2005-2010 by Chris Mullin (Profile, £20), Tribune, 17 December 2010
The first volume of Chris Mullin’s diaries, The View From the Foothills, was one of the political publishing highlights of 2009 – a candid, witty and beautifully written account of the author’s life as a junior minister between 1999 and 2005 (with a gap in 2001-03) – and the second volume is even better.
Decline and Fall takes the former Tribune editor’s political journey from his dismissal from government up to this year’s general election, a period he spent on the back benches as Labour MP for Sunderland South. Unlike most political diarists and memoirists, Mullin makes no claim to be offering an insider’s view of the power struggles at the heart of government: his is the perspective of the poor bloody parliamentary infantry who catch fleeting glimpses of the general staff and pick up scraps of gossip in the mess.
The book is no less revealing for that. Mullin captures better than anyone the humdrum everyday existence of the backbench MP: the often frustrating, sometimes inspiring, always time-consuming work on behalf of constituents, the long train journeys, the routine business of parliament, the nervy election campaigns.
He is also a perceptive observer of what is going on inside government – and what a lot he has to observe here. There’s the slow demise of Tony Blair’s premiership as “The Man”’s authority is whittled away by the loans-for-peerages scandal and the growing restiveness of Labour MPs. Then comes Gordon Brown’s accession to the Labour leadership and all-too-brief political honeymoon, then the financial crisis that broke in 2008 and then the MPs’ expenses scandal, all topped off by Labour’s last year in office when no one in the party thought it could win under Brown but there was no obvious way to replace him.
On all this and more, Mullin is shrewd and funny, even when he reports feeling gloomy about the “madness” all around him. He has an acute sense of Brown’s inadequacy by comparison with Blair as a political leader – but he still records his dismay at the barrage of media hatred aimed at Brown every day, and he never wavers in his sense of pride in what the Labour government, for all its faults, has achieved.
Always warm and humane, never sensationalist or self-serving – except in the sense that Mullin gets the royalties – this is the best account yet of the death agonies of New Labour. I can’t wait for the next volume, on Labour in opposition before 1997.