Sniping From the Foothills

Published in Fest, August 16 2011

Dan Heap talks to Alan Clark’s biographer Ion Trewin and diarist and former Labour minister Chris Mullin about why some of the least-known politicians make the best observers of public life.

Like no other period in recent political history, the New Labour decade has produced a slew of political diaries, memoirs and autobiographies, each pushing the author’s version of events and justifying his or her role in government. Many may be written, but few are loved or retain significance long after the red boxes in the corner start to collect dust. Accounts by the big names are often eagerly awaited, but rarely do they make much of a crfitical impact: Blair’s A Journey received distinctly mixed reviews and was memorable only for the dodgy Mills & Boon-like Tony/Cherie sex scenes, while Thatcher’s tumultuous 11 years in power produced a turgid 800-page policy tract now propping open  many middle England doors.

Some, though, do break through to be read beyond the Westminster village: Chris Mullin, the self-confessed “Minister for Folding Deckchairs” but now celebrated diarist on the cusp of releasing his third set in less than two years and Ion Trewin—editor of the Alan Clark diaries and now the former Tory MP’s biographer—are well placed to shed some light on the secret of recording the most compelling accounts of the cut and thrust of politics.

Both immediately draw attention to the fact that almost all of the best political observers have produced the best accounts from the lower reaches of government – what Mullin called “the foothills” in his first book. “The great political diarists,” Trewin says, “Harold Nicholson, Chipps Channon, Alan Clark, never reach anything other than a pretty lowly position in government. Once you get to cabinet level, however much you think you are not restrained, you are. There is a limit to what you can record. There’s no inhibitions left when you write a diary from Alan’s level.”

This distance from the main action, Mullin says, is key in allowing observers to develop the neutrality that readers find so refreshing: “It allows you to be more objective. You don’t have so much to justify. Bad diaries feel obliged to trumpet their own achievements. Those lower down the pecking order don’t suffer from the same disease.”  By way of confirming his thesis, Mullin cheekily ads that some of the less compelling accounts have come from those who have occupied what he calls, with perhaps more than a touch of irony, “the Olympian heights” of politics.

One of the secrets, it seems, is to be well positioned – not so lowly that nobody bothers to keep you in the loop, but not right in the upper echelons where nobody trusts each other. Mullin says of the legendary 1930s political diarist Chipps Channon: “his career peaked at parliamentary private secretary to the deputy foreign secretary—for just one year—but his secret was that he had married into the Guinness family and entertained on an awesome scale. The King comes to dinner, in the middle of the abdication crisis. Everyone who mattered gathered at his dinner table.”

Mullin himself seems to have occupied the perfect position in between Labour’s various warring tribes: neither New Labour nor Old, equally disdainful of both Blairites and Brownites, confided in by “the usual suspects”—the left wing rebels—but also consulted by Blair as a reliable barometer of backbench opinion and was one of the few to return to government after rebelling against it over the Iraq war. Trewin nods sagely when this proposition is put to him: Clark’s secret was that “people trusted him. People were always telling him things and gossiping because he was that kind of person.”

Writing well, both men point out, is a dying art in a political world suffused with the impenetrable management speak of “best practice”, “strategic management” and “umbrella partnerships” and as such it is no surprise, Trewin says, that the most compelling diarists are those that do more than “just unremittingly tell people what happened”. They have “a sparkle, a glitter in their writing” and a profound love of and talent for telling stories. Clark was a professional historian before he entered politics whilst Mullin was a well-known journalist and wrote a critically-acclaimed political thriller, A Very British Coup, later adapted into the hit television series starring Ray MacAnally. Recalling Clark’s bombastic description of the time he was drunk when answering ministerial questions, Trewin singles out for praise these highly novelistic, stylized parts of Clark’s work, “those set pieces are the things that people remember in his diaries. The passages there are evidence of somebody who really enjoyed writing.”

In a such a tightly cosseted world, so marked by rigid control of the media message, a certain amount of indiscretion and an indifference to how an account will be interpreted is key in producing such compelling diaries. Clark, Trewin insists, had “no thought of ever publishing his diaries when he first started writing,” and as such they present a brutally honest and consequently highly entertaining perspective on politics: “It wasn’t a question of writing after the time and seeing everything through rose-tinted spectacles later on. They were as it was. I don’t think he really worried very much about how he came across. What he wrote is what he believed and he was big enough to say it, however unpopular or non-PC it was. He was a politician without fear or favour and those diaries reflect that.” He was also, Trewin adds, fantastically, spectacularly rude about some of his colleagues, the bitchy style of his diaries winning him legions of fans.

It is shame, he says, that Clark didn’t live to see the new era of politics we have moved into: “He would have probably been very rude about Cameron and Clegg. Coalition wasn’t quite his style of politics. He had his views, he believed in them, he stood by what he believed in. He would have loved to bash away at the coalition.”


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