Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: Chris Mullin

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary: Chris Mullin

Article excerpt

To the Business School at the University of Edinburgh to be interviewed on the theme of 'Great Political Disasters'. Main criteria for inclusion: decisions, often taken for short-term reasons, whose unforeseen consequences have echoed down the ages. Everyone will have their own little list, but mine included the Balfour declaration, Partition, Suez, Wilson's failure to devalue in 1964 (which haunted subsequent Labour governments), Denis Healey's IMF loan in 1976 (which he later admitted had been unnecessary and which led to the Winter of Discontent and the election of Margaret Thatcher), the poll tax, Iraq and the Brexit referendum (yes, I realise that the jury is still out on that last one). Some (Suez, poll tax, Iraq) will for ever be associated with a single individual. In other cases responsibility is more diffuse. The big villains of Partition were Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his Muslim League, who insisted on the division of the sub-continent regardless of the likely consequences. Mountbatten, a man of staggering complacency, played his part. First, he brought the date forward by eight months, despite the evident lack of preparation. On violence, he had this to say: 'At least on this question I shall give you a complete assurance. I shall see to it that there is no bloodshed and riot. I am a soldier and not a civilian. Once partition is accepted in principle I shall issue orders to see that there are no communal disturbances anywhere in the country. If there should be the slightest agitation, I shall adopt the sternest measures to nip trouble in the bud.' The rest, as they say, is history.

When I was Africa minister at the Foreign Office, I travelled to Kisumu in western Kenya to open a new British Council library in the constituency of Raila Odinga, son of the country's first vice-president, Oginga Odinga. He laid on a big reception. All day we raced around in a gleaming convoy of Land Cruisers, mobbed by cheering crowds. At the British Council there was a visitors' book to sign. I scribbled my pathetic little signature across three lines. The Honourable Raila was not impressed. 'You are a big man', he said. 'This is not how big men sign their names'. He then put his signature across the centre of a full page. …

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