Edinburgh Fringe 2017
An hour of reflection and wisdom from Chris Mullin as he looked back at disastrous political decisions over the last hundred years.
Chris Mullin is a certifiable lunatic. Or so said Neil Kinnock (apparently) prior to Mullin’s selection for what was felt to be the relatively safe Labour seat of Sunderland South in 1985. Presumably Kinnock thought Mullin could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but the voters thought otherwise and elected him as their MP, a post he retained until he retired in 2010.
Who better, then, to take a look at other political lunatics behind some of the major political foul-ups in the last hundred years? Defining a politically disastrous decision as one taken for short term expediency that turned out to have unforeseen long term consequences (some still resonating today), Mullin walked us through his “top ten” bloopers, starting with The Balfour Declaration of 1917. This, as you will recall, consisted of a single sentence in a letter from then Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, promising a Jewish homeland. “One of the greatest mistakes in political history – discuss” remains a popular exam question, and not just in this country.
Mullin’s selection included many of the howlers committed by memorable and less memorable politicians, including partition in India in 1947 and Suez in 1956, the latter catastrophe being down to one man, Eden, and his complete inability to read the political tea leaves. The Suez crisis only ended when the US threatened to engineer a run on sterling that would have bankrupted the UK in weeks, if not days.
Then there was Harold Wilson’s failure to devalue immediately on entering office in 1964, when he could have blamed preceding Tory incompetence. Wilson wavered but was then forced to devalue three years later resulting is his being known ever more for pretending that this would not affect “the pound in your pocket”.
Further examples included the Poll Tax (Thatcher) and Iraq, which Mullin believes may well be for what Blair is ultimately remembered, despite all the good work he did in increasing investment in education and health together with bringing peace to Northern Ireland and the introduction of a minimum wage in the UK economy.
It was interesting that Mullin included Healey’s flight to the IMF in 1976 for a bail-out loan that the Chancellor later argued would not have been needed had the Treasury’s economic forecasts been anywhere near accurate. Having personally just waded through Healey’s memoirs (written back in 1986) it was amusing to hear someone quote the page number (381, if you’re interested) on which Healey, never a man to admit to an error, buried this claim in just a couple of sentences.
And no disaster list would be complete without reference to the EU referendum, a clear case of a politician suffering from what Mullin described as “ruling class over-confidence syndrome”.
But it was when we got off the disaster list and onto a Q&A session that proceedings got really interesting. Never one to hold back his opinions, Mullin’s take on Corbyn (staggered that he ever got elected, an honourable man, but who will be found out by his tendency to promise everything to everyone whilst expecting someone else to pay for it) and the current incumbent of Number 10 (gone from hero to zero and will never fight another election) were pithy and to the point. Better still his views on one George W Bush – “a pretty blank sheet of paper on which pretty much anything could be painted.”
Mullin has the gift of summing up the supposed great and the good accurately with just a few words. He’s a raconteur par excellence, with the ability to take the view of an outsider looking in. And, as he is quick to remind us, he spent his political career operating at the lower end of the power spectrum, with his feet firmly on the ground. Not for him a “life in the stratosphere”, where doors are opened for you, traffic lights permanently green and where the plane goes when you get to the airport.
Westminster’s loss is the gain of those other organisations to whom he now gives his time and expertise. They are lucky to have him as he’s an all too rare example of a selfless politician whose aim was to do good for others rather than scramble up the greasy political pole. Clearly a certifiable lunatic. But definitely worth listening to.
This talk was a one-off at the Fringe, but Chris Mullin is a regular speaker. Details of his engagements can be found on his website which goes by the rather droll moniker of www.chrismullinexmp.com .