John Mullin: Politics is a funny old game

While new Labour leader, and John Mullin's MP, Jeremy Corbyn has 'gone legit', brother Piers was leading support for squatters' rights in the 1970s. Picture: Getty Images
While new Labour leader, and John Mullin's MP, Jeremy Corbyn has 'gone legit', brother Piers was leading support for squatters' rights in the 1970s. Picture: Getty Images
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FROM historical injustices that were finally righted,to questions over marriages and women in top jobs, we must always look at the bigger picture, argues John Mullin

Back in the day – I was the future once – I took an inordinate interest in the big British miscarriages of justice, as young men and women of a certain journalistic zeal are wont to do. They all came with numbers attached: The Guildford Four, The Maguire Seven, The Tottenham Three and The Bridgewater Four (if, that is, you included poor Pat Molloy, who had already died in prison). Remember them?

None was as infamous as the Birmingham Six: men from Belfast and Derry who had settled in the Midlands to build lives for their families as hundreds of thousands of Irishmen did back then. They were arrested, charged and convicted of killing 21 people in the pub bombings at the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town in November 1974. They were, I am afraid to say, fitted up.

While working for this newspaper as its London correspondent in the early 1990s, I came across this new method of analysing confessions, and, as the men’s incriminating statements – the product of beatings and threats with guns, they said – were the key evidence, to take them out the equation was to demolish the prosecution’s case. And that is what happened, two years later, when their convictions were quashed.

When I portentously took up cudgels, the six men had already been in prison for 15 years.

I wanted to meet the men, and explain the process. I had another motive: when you could eyeball the convicted, you got a feel for their guilt or otherwise. Hardly conclusive, of course, but it never, ever let me down.

One telling factor: in all those cases mentioned, each of the men, unprompted, expressed sympathy for the families. “I might be suffering being here in jail for a crime I did not commit”, they would say. “But it’s nothing compared to what the bereaved are going through”.

Compare that with Myra Hindley. I was invited to meet her in jail more than 20 years ago. Not one word of remorse did she express, or concern for anyone other than herself.

The reason for this trip down memory lane? To get to the Birmingham Six – they were split between Gartree Prison near Leicester and Long Lartin, close to Worcester – I needed an in. For Hugh Callaghan and Johnny Walker, that in was Jeremy Corbyn.

He was a rather decent, earnest sort, not long MP for Islington North – and is, to this day, my local MP, though I have had no dealings with him for two decades – and he was obviously a fan of – how to put it? – unfashionable causes. Back then, Nelson Mandela was still in jail, regarded a terrorist by the then British PM. Times do change.

I’ve taken a keen interest in my MP since he was elected Labour leader last week. It really is the stuff of Harry Perkins and A Very British Coup, the 1982 novel by Chris Mullin, also once a Labour MP, and author too of Error of Judgment, his investigation into the Birmingham pub bombings that first piqued my interest.

Perkins, the surprise victor at a general election, has the establishment spluttering in their coffee cups with his uncompromising but honest left-wing approach. Inevitably, they soon do for him, a secret love affair is discovered and used against him, prompting his honorable resignation.

Who knows where the Corbyn story may end? And that, in a sense, has been the joy of the last week or so, watching mainstream political opinion – the Westminster know-it-all bubble of politicians and press which failed to anticipate its beginning – struggling to get to grips with this phenomenon, and scratch its head in confusion at his antics. Chaotic, certainly. Entertaining, too.

You would have to have a heart of stone not to find some of the coverage hysterical, in all senses. Like the SNP’s success at the British general election, it has completely upset the orthodoxy of how these affairs of state are meant to work. We may as well enjoy it while it lasts.

Corbyn, for example, has been lambasted about the absence of women from the top five jobs in his shadow Cabinet – leaving aside the not insignificant mitigating factor that a majority of his team is made up of women, a first in Westminster politics. You may have noticed that some of those complaining loudest about the top five have never been exactly to-the-barricades supporters of feminism. Any stick, and all that.

There’s been the furore about him not singing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain service, and outrage over his unkempt outfit at the St Paul’s memorial. His jacket and trousers didn’t match; they were ill-fitting; he wore the same tie (red, of course) as the day before; and – horror of horrors – he didn’t do up his top button!

His shadow chancellor is derided for an admittedly bad joke he made about Margaret Thatcher – I daresay he’s not the only politician guilty of that – and for his support years ago of the IRA. You could be forgiven for forgetting that successive governments have since done all sorts of dodgy deals to entice these men of violence aboard the peace train.

He gets the blame when his driver is accused of injuring a BBC cameraman, even though the driver is a civil servant; he’s lambasted for doing something a little different at PMQs; and he’s mocked for being old – 66 being ancient in modern politics. Tell that to Hillary Clinton.

Then there’s his love-life. Some of the media don’t seem to know whether to give him a kicking for having been married three times, or to have a grudging respect for him because his wives are all undeniably attractive. More importantly, they seem still to like him, as do his boys.

And yet it is on this issue of romance that at last I have to question Labour’s new leader. It is reported he had an affair with Diane Abbott MP 30 years ago. I have history here.

Back in 1987, I was somehow invited to a very posh wedding in Pall Mall, and took as my partner my Morton-supporting pal Baba – we were off on holiday the next day. We were, to be fair, Caledonian fishes out of high-class waters, and spent most of the time cowering in the kitchen with the staff, who keep us watered and fed and well-amused.

I had retreated there after the bride on three occasions – three – introduced me to poor Ms Abbott, who only four months previously had been elected to the Commons, and then headed off to leave us to our small talk. Three times, with the time delay successively shortening, I experienced what I came to realise was a feature of London life and me: her looking over my shoulder, scanning the room for someone slightly more fascinating to talk to.

I’m afraid I can’t look at my old boss Andrew Neil bantering with her on This Week on a Thursday night without shuddering at that memory. Not her fault, of course. Mine.