Hinterland: A Memoir

John Myrtle 

Review of Chris Mullin, Hinterland: A Memoir (London: Profile Books, 2016), pp. 271. £20 cloth

There is something unusual about a politician who when preselected for parliament would be described as ‘a certifiable lunatic’ by his party leader; and who some years later would be labelled by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper as a ‘loony MP’; and who after more than twenty years of parliamentary service would publish widely acclaimed political diaries. All these things apply to Chris Mullin, author of Hinterland: A Memoir. Mullin, a Labour Party member of the British parliament from 1987 to 2010, has had a remarkable career as a journalist, writer, political activist, parliamentarian, government minister and diarist.

Mullin grew up in a Catholic family; his mother’s family came from Ireland and his father was a Scot. He was sickly child; at school he failed the crucial eleven-plus exam and as a consequence he missed out on a place at the local grammar school. Instead, he was sent to a Catholic boarding school (‘a mixture of inspiration and terror’), run by the De La Salle Brothers. He studied law at university but spent more time working for the student newspaper and was therefore drawn to journalism, rather than the law.

In 1971 Mullin visited China in a party of young people in a tour organised by the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. He wrote that this was one of the seminal moments in his life, awakening a lifelong interest in Asia. In the following year he bought a one-way ticket to the Far East, initially visiting Laos, and then ‘eight months bumming around’, including visits to Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many years later, in April 1985, he visited Vietnam, escorting a group of British tourists. During the trip he met and fell in love with Nguyen Thi Ngoc who was working for the state-owned Saigontourist organisation. They were eventually married in Ho Chi Minh City on 14 April 1987; he was 37 and she was 30. Two months later Mullin was elected MP for Sunderland South in the general election; he was to hold the seat for 23 years.

The late 1970s and early 1980s had been a period of considerable upheaval for the Labour Party in Britain and Mullin was closely involved as an activist, including the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, focussing on the selection and re-selection of MPs and demands for reforms in the method of selection of the party’s leader by MPs, trade unions and party members. During this time (from 1978) Mullin had been working as a journalist for Tribune, the weekly journal of the Labour left. He was elected editor in May 1982 and was pitchforked into considerable upheaval as he and the journal’s staff battled to maintain their independence and to sustain the viability of the journal.

As a politician and parliamentarian Chris Mullin will chiefly be remembered for two aspects of his political life; firstly, his campaigns to publicise miscarriages of justice; and secondly, publication of his political diaries.

On 21 November 1974 bombings in Birmingham pubs resulted in 21 people killed and 182 others injured. Six Irishmen were sentenced to life imprisonment for the bombings. These men, who became known as the Birmingham Six, always maintained their innocence and insisted that they had been coerced by police into signing false confessions through severe physical and psychological abuse. In the years prior to his election to parliament (and after) Chris Mullin emerged as an indefatigable campaigner to free these innocent people. Part of his campaign involved publication of a detailed study of the issues, Error of Judgement: the truth about the Birmingham bombings. The more that Mullin exposed shortcomings in the prosecution of the Birmingham Six, the more he was subjected to hate mail and abuse. In January 1988 the most bizarre was a front-page headline in Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun; ‘Loony MP Backs Bomb Gang’, published following a fresh consideration of the case in the Court of Appeal. In spite of this unsuccessful appeal, pressure for review of the case increased. Among other shortcomings, police evidence was shown to be fabricated and on 14 March 1991 the convictions were quashed and the Birmingham Six were released. Chris Mullin’s investigative journalism had played a critical role in achieving the release of the Birmingham Six. His memoirs quote the author Robert Harris: ‘Whoever planted the bombs in Birmingham … also planted a bomb under the British legal establishment.’

Once elected to parliament, Mullin sought appointment to the Home Affairs Select Committee as a means of continuing to investigate miscarriages of justice and inadequacies in the legal system. Among issues of importance to Mullin were increases in the prison population; accountability of the security service; funding of political parties; appointment of judges; gun control; and the role of Freemasons in the criminal justice system. Initially there was resistance to Mullin’s appointment to the Committee but once appointed he was an energetic and effective member and served as Chairman for four years during his time in Parliament. Mullin’s campaigns and successes with the Committee are described in some detail in Hinterland. Chris Mullin utilised his skill and experience as a journalist and writer, and his involvement in the political life of London and the north of England, to produce a remarkable series of diaries of his life as an MP. There were three volumes published, commencing in 1994 with the death of party leader John Smith and the launch of New Labour under Tony Blair, and ending with the general election of 2010, the defeat of the Labour Party and Mullin’s retirement from Parliament. The three volumes (not published in chronological order) are A Walk-On Part: diaries 1994-1999; A View From the Foothills [covering July 1999-May 2005]; and Decline and Fall: diaries 2005-2010. The diaries have been widely acclaimed and provide a valuable record of life for a keenly engaged member of parliament. It is a significant shortcoming in Hinterland that Mullin provides little information on his motivations for maintaining the diary for such an extended period. Clearly, there is a range of issues involved in such a project that could have been explained, such as how he found time to write a diary (work trips to and from Sunderland and London?); when to reveal his diary writing to colleagues and friends; and the procedure for gaining government clearance to publish the diary for the period in which he was a junior minister.

Overall, Hinterland is a most engaging memoir; funny, moving, inspiring and a valuable record of a period of considerable upheaval in British politics.

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