13th October, 2018
Durham Town Hall
Review by Rhiannon Morris
Chris Mullin is a Book Festival favourite, and it is easy to see why. He presented a comfortable and relaxed figure onstage as he tackled the vast and daunting topic of British political disasters. In a period of confusing domestic and international politics, I was both eager (and apprehensive) to hear such an experienced individual talk about this convoluted history.
Beginning with the 1917 Balfour Document, and closing with the ongoing problem of Brexit, Mullin’s list of failures showed the difficulty of trying to compress history into a narrative – especially when trying to learn from the past. He covered the problems of government and democracy: decisions made by individuals and small groups, and those made by the many. There is no formula for perfect government. It is difficult to amalgamate the requisite need for empathy and compassion as well as intellect, strategy and determination.
The difficulty of severing politics from personality was demonstrated when there was a slightly volatile response from one audience member to another, relating to the issue of Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude toward terrorism. This underlined the inherent complexities of political discourse when participating in it and casting judgement. There are so many opinions, so many questions, and so many people giving different answers. Everyone has different passions and motivations in life which inevitably colour their attitude to politics, and make it impossible for there to be an objectively definite success or disaster. At which point do we stop listening and ask questions? How far do we trust experts – or trust ourselves?
Mullin’s rumination on the cloudy justifications for the Iraq war, and the limitations of knowledge when so much information is concealed, throws doubt over the reliability of our own critical faculties. Nobody can be certain of anything: not even those in charge. Decisions are made sometimes with the best of intentions, and sometimes for motivated gain. Despite the interesting disclosure of the intellectual and political failures and triumphs of history, it was during the course of the audience Q & A that I felt I best understood the point of such a list. Failure – it seems – is inevitable for politicians, and perhaps we are best able to hold people to account in hindsight once the full extent of damage is known.
Nevertheless, the mistakes of the few affect the daily lives of us all, sometimes irrevocably. As a result, the event prompted a change in my perspective: I found myself no longer asking whether something was a good or bad decision; instead, I wanted to know if we could forgive those who had made them, and how.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.