Talking to the former Sunderland MP about politics and posterity
In Mowbray Park, Sunderland there is an imposing bronze statue of industrialist and former MP John Candlish. It was built five years after his death in 1874 to recognize his outstanding contribution to the city.
Chris Mullin was MP for Sunderland South for fifteen years longer than John Candlish but he says he “entertains no such expectations” for his career to be commemorated in such a way. The region that Chris Mullin was elected to represent in 1987 would have been almost unrecognizable to Candlish who, just over a hundred years before, was responsible for the largest shipbuilding town in the world.
In his three volumes of highly acclaimed diaries Chris Mullin is frank about the limitations and frustrations he faced both in Parliament and back home. When asked about his achievements during his time as MP for Sunderland South he begins by outlining his regrets.
“There are a lot of things I wish I had achieved…Myself and my colleagues were forever being called in at the last minute in attempt to save factories and shipyards that were going under, and there were some quite big battles. And I'm sorry to say we failed in just about all of them. I don't think anything, the struggle over the shipyards or the brewery, none of them resulted in those surviving.”
Although disarmingly modest by nature Mullin doesn’t need much prompting to recount the examples of successful regeneration projects that followed this industrial decline.
“Doxford International, the business park on the outskirts of town. Well that was a green field 15 years ago, now 7500 people work there. Of course Nissan has been an enormous success. That really has done wonders for the local economy. [There’s also] The University’s riverside campus where one of the old shipyards used to be. There is a promenade along the front, all the dereliction has gone and you've got a wonderful university campus. Sunderland has come up a long way in the last 10 or 15 years.”
But the former MP doesn’t assume individual credit for each of the successes that Sunderland experienced during this time. He is quick to point out that “unless you are one of the top politicians, you’re only actually a small cog in quite a large wheel”. For Chris Mullin there was a great deal of satisfaction to be found in the work he could do directly with the residents of the city. “I quite liked the surgeries because although you weren’t always able to change the big picture you could sometimes make a difference in an individual constituent’s life.”
During the recent public lecture at the University of Sunderland Mullin took a wry pleasure in recounting tales of the opposition he faced when he first stood for election from tabloid newspapers.
“Rejoycing was not unconfined.” He remembers.
The Sun, who nicknamed him “Crackpot Chris”, had also printed the headline “Looney MP Backs Bomb Gang” in relation to his campaign to free the six men who were convicted of carrying out the Birmingham Pub Bombings. But in 1991 when the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six were quashed Chris Mullin began to see a change in his political fortunes and he became “respectable”. Despite this improved reputation, and the opportunities for promotion that it conferred, Mullin was keen to maintain his integrity. His promotion to Minister for Africa entitled him to a ministerial car and driver, but he sought to avoid the fleeting trappings of office. “I discovered when I became a Minister that, not entirely to my surprise, the numbers 3 and 159 buses continued to run past my front door even though I was a Minister. So I continued to get on.”
When the expenses scandal broke the claims from the former Sunderland South MP caused some light relief when it was reported that, as opposed to claims for plasma screen TVs from some colleagues, he had claimed $45 for a license for his black and white TV.
By the time this particular scandal broke Mullin had already decided that he would retire from politics. He said he preferred to leave when people would be asking “why” he was stepping down rather than people demanding to know “when”.
When he made this decision Chris Mullin recalls feeling “a great deal of angst and doubt as to whether any useful role awaits me outside the world of politics”. But the success of his three volumes of diaries and the political thriller A Very British Coup, have led to a large number of invitations to speak at lectures and literary festivals, and also a return to his former career in journalism.
And perhaps he should be grateful, not just for the continued interest in his writing but, of the fact that he has been afforded the modern 21st century equivalent of his likeness being cast in bronze.
He and his work have been recorded for posterity on prime time television.
Recently he was offered a walk-on part in the remake on Channel 4 of his novel A Very British Coup, now titled Secret State.
“That’s my acting career peaked!” Mullin says of his five second cameo.
Let’s just hope that when it comes to air he manages to watch it on a colour TV.
Secret State courtesy of Channel4.com