“I try to lead a useful life.”
It may be more than six years since Chris Mullin bade farewell to the House of Commons, but he remains committed to public life.
He serves as the regional chairman of the Heritage Lottery, lectures in politics at Newcastle University, chairs development charity International Alert, ‘and I write for anybody who will have me.’
The former MP was already a successful journalist and author when selected to contest Sunderland South for Labour in 1987. Since then, he has added the title of political diarist to his CV, with A View From the Foothills, Decline & Fall and A Walk-On Partall published to critical acclaim.
But his latest work, Hinterland, takes a broader look: “The first three volumes were diaries, covering the rise and fall of New Labour from the night of John Smith’s death to the day Gordon Brown walked out of Downing Street, which was the day that I retired,” he says.
Although the new book touches on his time in Parliament, it is by no means the sole focus.
Sunderland has reinvented itself.Chris Mullin
“There are three chapters related to my 25 years in Sunderland, but the reason its called Hinterland is because, in my view, all the most useful politicians are those who have done something else before they got elected to Parliament, instead of just going to university, going to work for an MP and then being wafted into a safe seat. So this is my hinterland.”
Mullin served as a journalist, freelancing in the Far East, and wrote three novels, before entering Parliament. The rights for all three were optioned but only one – A Very British Coup – made it to TV.
“I was the director of a newspaper called Tribune and as a result of that I had a small national profile, at least among Labour supporters,” he says.
“And some local people asked me to put my name forward, which I did.”
Mullin had previously contested unwinnable seats for Labour – taking on Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in North Devon in 1970 and against Norman Lamont in Kingston on Thames in 1974.
Being invited to stand for a safe Labour seat was a very different prospect.
“Life changed completely. I moved to Sunderland two years in advance of the election and after I was elected my wife and I bought a nice house in St Bede’s Terrace, close to the centre of Sunderland, next to Mowbray Park, and we lived there for 25 happy years.”
Hinterland opens with Mullin’s selection for Sunderland South and the less than ecstatic reaction from the Labour leader.
“Neil Kinnock came up here shortly after I was selected, and he was in Middlesbrough, surrounded, as he thought, by safe company, and he started to make his mouth go.
“What’s gone wrong in Sunderland,” he says, “first they elected – in reference to Bob Clay, who was the MP for Sunderland North – ‘a boil on the **** of the Labour Party.’ And now they’ve gone and selected a certifiable lunatic’.”
The new book also deals with Mullin’s involvement in the campaign to win justice for the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four – something he admits was not always popular during his time on Wearside.
“That chapter is entitled ‘Loony MP backs bomb gang’ – that was the Sun’s take on it,” he says.
“It was a campaign I took up as a journalist but carried on with when I became an MP.
“Obviously, I had to put up with my political opponents saying ‘We’ve got an MP who wastes all his time on feckless Irishmen’ – or worse than that. They used to say ‘a supporter of convicted terrorists’ – then all my terrorists became unconvicted, so they had to change their line.
“There’s a chapter on my time in Government, entitled A Little Light Governing a chapter about how I met my wife, entitled Good Morning Vietnam, and there’s a chapter entitled Path to Respectability. When I was vindicated over the miscarriages of justice, suddenly I was respectable. Cardinals, Law Lords, Cabinet ministers were happy to be seen in my company- even Labour frontbenchers.
“So soon afterwards, I was appointed to chair the home affairs select committee, which I did for four years. There’s a chapter on that, too.
“And I was a minister in three departments – environment, international development and the foreign office.”
Sitting in the cafe at the National Glass Centre, he casts his mind back over the quarter of a century he served as MP.
“Sunderland changed dramatically during the time I was here,” he says. “When I first came here, it was at a very low ebb. The miners’ strike had just finished, the shipyards were on the edge of collapse and then, of course, all the pits were closed. Sunderland has made a remarkable recovery over the 25 years that I was associated with it. It’s just extraordinary, the difference.
“We’ve got a magnificent football stadium – unfortunately the quality of the football doesn’t quite match the magnificence of the stadium – on the site where the pit used to be. I thought that was a stroke of genius, because that huge derelict site could have mocked us for years, that close to the centre of town.
“Putting the stadium there was really a stroke of genius on the part of the local authorities and the football club.
“And the big thing, of course, has been Nissan, with 7,000 jobs directly and many more people employed in the supply chain. Nissan had started when I came here but there was some cynicism about it, people thought it would go away once the grants ran out. That has not been the case at all.
“And what it has demonstrated is that, with decent management and sensible trade unions, British workers are as competitive as any in the world.
“In the time I was here, the early years were very bleak indeed. We lost the shipyards, the pits, the textile industry– but the good news is so much has come to take their place. Sunderland has reinvented itself.
“The university has expanded hugely and is now a major contributor to the wealth of the town, one of the biggest employers, and it’s got about 16,000 students. The polytechnic, which preceded the university, only had about 3,000.
“The remarkable thing is that so much has come to replace what we lost. One thinks of Doxford International business park, a string of companies that are national names, and then home-grown companies like the Leighton Group, at Rainton. I really think Sunderland has succeeded – it has still got its problems but it has succeeded in making the transition from old industries to new.”
He made the decision to quit Parliament in 2010, rather than defend the new Sunderland Central constituency.
“I was already selected to fight again,” he says. “My constituency was divided in two and I had been selected for the Sunderland Central part but I decided not to, since I was 63 and I thought it better to go while people were asking ‘why’, rather than ‘when.’
“In 2013, having lived in inner cities for 40 years, I moved 50 miles north and bought a cottage and a walled garden in the north of Northumberland.
“I created nice garden there – I always wanted to end up growing vegetables and that’s what I am doing.”
Is there anything he misses? “I miss being able to walk out of my gate in the middle of Sunderland, turn right, stroll through Mowbray Park, then Sunniside, over the bridge and along the river, then along the beach to Whitburn, have a cup of tea and cake in the cafe on the corner and catch the bus back.
“I miss my friends in Sunderland, but I still see quite a bit of them. I still do things in Sunderland people invite me to do things, give talks and I like doing that – I always say yes. When I decided to retire I thought ‘this is either the best decision I have made in my life or its the worst,’ because I thought I might end up with nothing to do, but actually it has worked out very well.”