Bookshelves may soon groan under the weight of the New Labour autobiography but all you could wish for in this genre is already out there: A View from the Foothills (Profile Books, 2010) by one-time Labour minister and Sunderland South MP Chris Mullin. The diaries of his time working as a lowly minister in DEFRA under John Prescott, DFID under Clare Short and the Foreign Office under Jack Straw provide a joyfully entertaining account of the sheer futility of being a junior minister in government. Mullin would doubtless take issue with Norman Fowler’s banal observation that ministers decide because he spent his time writing letters and giving speeches over which he had little editorial control, working under two people (Prescott and Short) who had no intention of sharing the glory and in a notoriously imperious department (Foreign Office) where ministers are a passing irritant to the enduring civil service.
Mullin has a tenacious reputation as a campaigner (helping to free the Birmingham Six) and as the assiduous Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee yet he seems unconcerned to protect his image in the diaries. Wonderful prose allied to a delicious appreciation of the absurd made this one of the quickest long books I have ever read. The observations he makes on the debilitating impact of working long hours without a sense of achieving anything will strike a chord with many people, while his musings on African leaders and the nature of the continent are fresh and appealing.
The most winsome aspect of the diaries is the sheer lack of pretentiousness. Mullins is a decent and secure man with an honest appreciation of his political worth, describing himself memorably as the Under Secretary of State for Folding Deckchairs. If only such humility was broadly shared. The Bible does not use the word ‘self-awareness’ for it is a modern term; however, understanding the true measure of our role in life, interpreting how we fit into a place and how others relate to us are vital components of a life of faith. Without these there is a risk of narcissism. Personal Christian testimony is persuasive when, as well as telling the truth about God, we are able to tell the truth about ourselves. Such authenticity is rightly prized in an over-spun era.
At one point in the story, contemplating the answering of questions in the Commons, Mullin says:
I tell myself that I am not intellectually inadequate, it’s just that I can’t be bothered to come to grips with things that don’t interest me. Comforting though such thoughts are I fear they may not be the whole truth. What little repute I have accumulated over the years has been achieved by only opening my mouth when I know what I have been talking about. Suddenly, I find myself required to open my mouth on subjects about which I know nothing and I am simply not up to it.
This will raise a wry smile on the faces of those who have felt the same way about their job. Not me of course.