Alastair Campbell noted in the first of his published diaries that students with an interest in politics might find the diaries of value in years to come. Indeed, their purpose seems almost instructive - an exposé of the often unplanned, reactive and petty nature of government, alongside high diplomacy and long-term strategy. These are diaries which take into account everything from personal depression to international diplomacy.
'A Walk on Part' is the theatre adaptation based on Chris Mullin's diaries. Mullin's account follows the major contours of New Labour's rise and fall, taking us from the elation of the Labour landslide in 1997 ('Things can only get Better'), through 9/11 and Iraq until Mullin's resignation speech in 2010. Mullin worked in a few minor governmental roles, but like the diaries of Alan Clark he is very much a writer in the shadow of greater figures - 'The Man' in Mullin's case; 'The Lady' in Clark's. Like those of Clark, Mullin's diaries are accessible, entertaining and filled with anecdotes and cutting observations.
His account is peppered throughout with some brilliant little sketches. Clare Short's pager going off in front of the Queen, for example - 'someone important?' was HRH's response. Or Tony Bank's description of the Dark Lord Peter Mandelson (who you never actually see coming into a room 'there's just a chill in the air and suddenly he's there'). Mullin's description of David Cameron is surprisingly sympathetic in retrospect - 'the more I see of him the more I like him'.
Tony Blair is central throughout. Mullin often seems lost between his traditional socialist principles and staying loyal to someone he becomes increasingly attached to. The Tony on display is both ruthless and cold (he tells David Milliband to smile at people, and then get other people to shoot them) but also immensely persuasive and personable. For all his principles, Mullin is not immune to Blair's charm.
Yet for all their faults, messianic Prime Ministers are often the lesser of two evils, in comparison to their shrinking, uneasy and impotent colleagues. Mullin, once described by Quentin Letts as resembling a deck chair which had been left out all winter, seems to fall into the latter category. He is constantly frustrated by how little he can do in government. And yet the very thought of his own ambition makes him uneasy (he is prepared to give up £27,000 in salary to make a point, for example). All this seems to clash with the Blairite point that 'power without principle is barren; principle without power is futile'.
While there are plenty of knowing laughs emanating from the audience ('Why did we ever vote for these people!?'), the performance does a fine job luring us into that same confidence once felt in New Labour. Hywel Morgan's account of Tony Blair is striking for its accuracy - one moment you are laughing at the uncanny likeness; the next you are grabbed by a generally good piece of oratory.
Mullin, played by John Hodgkinson, seems to come from a different epoch - long before that of the Mondeo Man and Sky TV. His is a vision of a little England, complete with walled gardens, mining towns and pints of bitter at the local. It all seems tragically out of place next to the reality of modern Britain and politicians like Tony Blair. Do ordinary people still care about principles or do they just want to get on in life? New Labour's greatest achievement was figuring out the latter mattered more. And no doubt there is a grain of truth in the assertion that Mullin's diaries have a hint of that moral superiority that those unwilling or unable to grasp the nettle of power always do. Of course Mullin notices much - including the big changes which have taken hold of Britain - mass immigration and mass consumerism - but he is incapable of offering any alternative. Politicians don't lead anymore, they follow, he muses.
The audience remained fully engaged in a way you rarely see at the theatre. Many did their best to display to their fellow theatregoers that they got a reference by guffawing a bit too loudly, of course. Yet many of the lines in the pacey script continue to resonate, as old themes take on a new meaning. Sharp and very entertaining.
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