A View from the Foothills by Chris Mullin
|A View from the Foothills by Chris Mullin|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: Mullin was never one of the 'big beasts' of New Labour but this well-written and considered book may well prove to be the definite volume about the Blair years. Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 416||Date: January 2010|
|Publisher: Profile Books|
Chris Mullin's diaries cover the period from July 1999 to May 2005 during which time he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, for the Department for International Development and after a period on the back benches also at the Foreign Office. As he says, there will be no shortage of memoirs from those who have occupied the Olympian Heights. In A View from the Foothills he offers a refreshingly different perspective – that of a man at the lowest levels of government who's party to what's happening further up the hillside and down on the plains.
Political diaries can be tedious: they're usually self-serving and noisy with the sound of axes being ground. That's not the case here. A few people attract Mullin's rancour, such as Piers Morgan (whose own diaries he nevertheless admitted to finding riveting), the tabloid press in general and certain politicians whom he felt were without principle. It's refreshing to read a man who judges on the basis of how people act rather than on party or self-interest grounds.
He was initially reluctant to take the job at DETR, wondering how he would get on with John Prescott. As time goes on he remains aware of Prescott's faults but warms to the man himself – beneath that volcanic exterior lurks a decent human being. I liked Prescott more after reading A View from the Foothills than after I finished his own autobiography. Similarly he was far from agreeing with Tony Blair over Iraq (and a few other things) but still retained admiration for The Man and was loyal to him when others drifted away. Even after he voted against the war he still hoped that Blair would be proved right as that would be best for all of us. He's rather less enthusiastic about Gordon Brown, particularly when Brown was working so hard to ensure what he saw as his inheritance – regardless of the effect on the party.
If you believe – or want to believe – that the country is governed by politicians acting professionally then you might be better not reading this book because you are going to be sadly disillusioned. The tone might be mild (even under provocation), ironical, detached to the point where you occasionally wonder if government really mattered to him but you'll be left in no doubt that John Prescott completely lacked management skills despite being a consummate politician or that Clare Short had what she felt was the best job in government but was totally unable to delegate.
It's not just the cabinet ministers either. The government car service was manifestly run for the benefit of the car service and certainly not for the taxpayer. Mullin's refusal to have a car caused consternation and his battles on this front would be hilarious if they weren't so worrying. Civil Servants don't escape unscathed, but he's fair with his praise and his criticisms. So far as Cherie Blair was concerned he makes clear his contempt for her attitudes: she has a golden life and yet she thinks of herself as a victim.
There is one area where Mullin's air of detachment slips and that's when he's involved with Africa. He has a talent for illuminating the stark contrasts between those who have (including himself) and those who have nothing – not even hope. He's clear about the corruption that's endemic and firmly convinced that the answer to Africa's problems is not aid or even debt relief but better governance.
This isn't a heavy-weight book, but that's not meant as a criticism. It's well-written and the editing by Ruth Winstone seems to have been subtle and well-considered and the result is eminently readable. Even knowing how the story would work out I still found that I couldn't put the book down. It's by no means lightweight though and there's considerably more depth, balance and understanding than you'll find in Greg Dyke's book which covers some of the same period.
Doubtless the big beasts will be writing their own memoirs in due course but this might well turn out to be the definitive look at at least part of the Blair years.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr.
A View from the Foothills by Chris Mullin is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.
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