Baron Mawhinney: anything but a simple life

Baron Brian Mawhinney has launched his new book. Photo: David Lowndes
Baron Brian Mawhinney has launched his new book. Photo: David Lowndes
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Part 2 of our exclusive interview with Baron Brian Mawhinney of Peterborough, who has lived anything but a simple life as he publishes his autobiography.

The former cabinet minister, Conservative Party chairman, Football League chairman and long-time MP for Peterborough has just released his autobiography to reveal the fascinating stories behind his life and career.

“Just a Simple Belfast Boy” tells the story of his life, from his upbringing in a conservative Christian family in Belfast in the 1940s to posts as Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, Minister of State at the Department of Health, and Secretary of State for Transport.

He also served as Chairman of the Conservative Party before stepping down from the House of Commons in May 2005, after which he was created a life peer becoming Baron Mawhinney, of Peterborough. In 2003, he was appointed Chairman of The Football League where he oversaw a reorganisation of the league structure.

Baron Mawhinney met the Peterborough Telegraph to answer readers’ questions which touched on football, senior politics and life in Peterborough.

The book is published by Biteback Publishing and costs £25. A book signing is planned for June 14 - in time for Father’s Day - at the Bombay Brasserie.

To see more questions - including Baron Mawhinney’s views on Peterborough City Council, the city’s MPs, and Peterborough in 1979, pick up a copy of this week’s Peterborough Telegraph.

Tell us about your book - did you enjoy writing it?

I enjoy writing. It’s frustrating because doing my 24-hour a day job I don’t stop life and then go away and write, so fitting it in is a challenge.

I did a first draft a few years ago that was no good and no-one was interested in it. Then I got encouragement from 2-3 people to revamp it and do it properly, learning lessons. It was spread over 15 months.

The person who was foremost in getting me to do it was a man called George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. He gave me encouragement.

The primary reason for writing it was this; I have been doing this for 30-odd years. Most people have no idea what MPs and ministers do, and how the system works. They would go to a function and meet me, and I was the MP, so they knew who I was.

But they had no idea what I did how I spent my time, what the pressure were. I think that’s even more so when you’re a minister.

You know a few names and recognise people on television, but you know nothing about government. You might read story off the back of a government press release but you have very little knowledge of the internal pressures, where the idea came from, was it smooth sailing or rows, a compromise, so I decided to write a book of stories.

Things I did, things I said, things I got wrong.

Are there many of those?

I wrote a couple of chapters on it. A number of stories where decision was made in good faith, but it turned out to be a bad decision.

You know the variable speed limits? That was me, and that was a mistake. All of the governments since me have spent millions and millions of pounds on this, and I think it was wrong.

I am sorry and the money could have been much better spent in the public domain than on variable speed limits.

The book is about 40 per cent Northern Ireland, with some absolutely new significant information about things I did which have never previously seen the light of day.

There is a chapter on what it is like to walk into a department for the first time and someone calls you minister. There is no training or prior learning and I had disagreements with civil servants before we started to settle down.

There are stories in the book about nearly being killed by the IRA.

About 40 per cent is senior politics; Margaret, John, ‘97 election, rows with the treasury.

And the other 20 per cent is football, in which I tackle a number of issues for the first time including my time as deputy chairman for England’s 2018 World Cup bid, which was a bit of a nightmare the whole way through. I have never said anything about that.

Included in all of that is a chapter about being MP for Peterborough, under the heading of “Peterborough people are normal.”

Although the stories are mainly about me as a minister I though I should do one about being an MP.

The trouble is you could write it again with a whole new set of stories. I have enough to write a sequel – by public demand!

What was campaigning for the 1979 election like?

I always conducted elections on the street, Monday to Saturday. Sundays were spent at home or in church.

The thing noticeable to me was that without exception people would stop me in the streets every single day and say: “Are you the new Tory man? We don’t normally vote Tory, but we will vote for you because someone has to do something about the unions”

Some would say they were not sure about a woman PM, but we are sure about the unions.

That was the first election where local elections were held on the same day as national elections. Peterborough went into the day with a Labour MP and Conservative-controlled council, and by bedtime they had a Conservative MP and a Labour-controlled council.

Up until that point the first MP in Peterborough was elected in 1547, and only one person since then had had a bigger majority than I got in ‘79. He was Lord Burghley who had won a gold medal at the Olympics.

I had never been in the House of Commons so it was all a new experience. You saw all those people from TV and we were all under strict instruction to call people by their first names.

I sat at a table once and Jim Prior (two-time cabinet member and baron) sat down, and I called him sir. I got serious earache – ‘you are Brian, I am Jim, don’t ever call me sir again.’ So there was a lot of learning to be done.

When you were preparing for election, did you think about what it would be like to be an MP?

Some people think like that. I am told it is normal to think like that. I am very abnormal and never spent any time thinking about that.

So you never think about what you could have achieved in medicine, or things like that?

No. Why would I? These are perfectly sensible questions but not ones that ring my bell.

Duncan Jackson asks: Is Baron Mawhinney proud of his role in handing a vindictive and wholly disproportionate penalty to Luton Town, condemning them to non-league football, where they remain stuck four years on?

The answer is that without me and the board Luton Town would not exist today. There would be no Luton Town. Someone would have had to have started a new one.

It was me and the board who changed the rules to give Luton Town the possibility of salvation after 13 years of very bad leadership.

We chose to exercise our discretion to save the club when literally no one else could. Am I proud of that? Yes I am.

I understand there are people in Luton who have a totally wrong and prejudiced view of what we did. I have spelled out accurately and in detail what happened in the book.

Ten of the points taken off were taken off by the FA and I wrote to them to express extreme displeasure that they were interfering in the internal affairs of the Football League, and that we were perfectly capable of disciplining and saving Luton without their help, but they didn’t withdraw the deduction. As for relegation, Luton got relegated because they weren’t good enough.

But I have said some nice things about the fans in the book.

You must have seen some shocking financial mismanagement of clubs. Can you give us some examples of that?

No, that would not be appropriate. I understand what they have done and why. I have dealt with Leeds, Luton and Southampton in the book so the answer is there.

You oversaw a re-organisation of the league structure in 2004, renaming the former Division One as the Football League Championship.

One of the first things I did - but I got patronised very significantly at the time - was a re-evaluation. It made a difference to the league and it was really my way of dealing with the catastrophe of the ITV Digital collapse.

It had a desired but spectacular consequence, which I had hoped for but was not hugely confident that it would happen, but it happened way beyond my expectations.

People liked the way I was leading the league because the league’s commercial credibility in the market place took off, and we did deals that hadn’t been done before or since.

I did one media deal where the amount of money which came in rose by 134 per cent, well more than doubled. You’ve got to be doing something right.

Is there too much money in football?

No. There is too little cost control in football and in particular and this is made more difficult that most of the money gets spent on players and agents. Some persuasive element of cost control needs to be introduced there as well.

The world has changed – I used to be the only voice out there saying this and it was lonely.

Are ticket prices too high?

Forgive me but while prices are important to the fan, taking them out of the system doesn’t make any sense.

They wouldn’t have to be that high if there was less money being thrown at players and a more sensible, cost-controlled system, in the world of football, which would bite more deeply.

I’m perfectly happy for you to ask that question. But I’m trying to convey that it’s important that if you want to go to a game this week and you have to find £15, £25 or £65 - but that is a symptom of a much bigger problem rather than being a difficulty in its own right.

John Toze of Netherton: I saw you preach at Park Road in the 70s, is that still your place of worship?

It was never my permanent place of worship. I preached there because I was invited, but I have preached in a number of places in the city.

Yarwell asks: Does Mawhinney get back to Belfast much these days ? What’s his opinion of the city today

Any excuse to go back is a good one.

I’ve finally got round to doing my coat of arms, all set on the stones of the Giant’s Causeway, which is one of my favourite places.

The details haven’t been announced yet but I have just accepted the non-executive chairmanship of a very large company near Northern Ireland which will take me there every month for board meetings.

Is there a different atmosphere in NI now?

Yes and No. The violence has decreased spectacularly so people feel a lot more free and relaxed, but the tribal element of the politics hasn’t changed.

You can now go into the city centre of Belfast and it is indistinguishable from any other city centre.

What were your thoughts at the height of troubles?

I was there as security minister and I had a job to do, and I did it. There was no point in sitting and dreaming about a different set of circumstances.

The people I was dealing with had a veneer of fear, anger, good people, bad people, people in the middle, but very conservative, so effecting change is quite hard.

As long as the violence doesn’t break out again it’s a two or three generation job.

If you had to go on a desert island with three politicians, from any party and any era, who would they be?

Abraham Lincoln, Disraeli, and John Kennedy. I’m going to have a fourth – Nelson Mandela.

Actually I’m going to five – Ghandi. I don’t think I understand how he worked, he was a brilliant charismatic leader who followed a drumbeat other people didn’t hear.

What are your hobbies?

My Christian faith is very important. Outside of that I like sport, and am reasonably knowledgeable.

I don’t know whether you know but I am the UK special advisor to the NFL, which I have done for three years. It means that, in that the NFL is thinking about it’s future in the UK and Europe, or issues around the games here, they ask me what I think.

I get down to Wembley and I have to go to Superbowl.

My teams are the Detroit Lions because my wife is from Detroit, and the other is the New England Patriots because my son lives in Boston.

My other hobby is reading detective novels, and my favourites are John Lescrote, Robert Parker, Michael Connolly.

How often do you get to the Posh?

Three games a season. And if you’ll forgive me for saying so as I have done any boosting of myself in this interview, I was a pretty good MP for Peterborough Utd.

Peterborough was the first club from outside the top flight in the country that got security cameras. I had a word in an ear.

Who was your favourite player at Posh?

David Seaman. He turned out to be quite good.

All time: Stanley Matthews. His level of skill was magic. Tom Finney. These were real gentlemen.

I was at Finney’s 80th birthday bash and he was such a nice guy.

There are very few gentlemen in the world of football. It may surprise you to be told that Gary Lineker was a gentleman, who didn’t play silly B’s and kick the living daylights out of people.

A story from Baron Mawhinney’s book...

One of the strongest memories I have of a council-related issue involves a constituent who lived in New Road.

New Road is just wide enough to allow two cars to pass carefully. Too often, when cars are parked on the road outside residents’ houses (there are no driveways), they get sideswiped by careless passing motorists.

My constituent, I will call him Mr Jones, came to my surgery and told me his parked car had been sideswiped several times. He was fed up and had decided to pave his front garden to enable him to get his car off the road. The garden was just big enough so that the car did not protrude on to the pavement if parked parallel to the house.

The problem which brought him to me was simple. His application for planning permission to make the change had been refused by the council.

In my view there was a compelling logic in what he wanted to do but, despite my entreaties, the council refused to budge. Eventually I explained to Mr Jones that I had no power to make the council behave as he and I would wish. I was sorry but there was nothing more I could do. As his councillor was not interested his only other recourse was to consult a solicitor.

Eventually he left my office grateful that someone had taken him seriously, but disappointed and mad at the council.

Weeks later Mr Jones reappeared. He had seen a solicitor; had appealed against the council’s planning refusal in court; had lost, and now, on top of everything else, he owed the council £750 towards its legal costs. He was understandably upset.

In this conversation he mentioned something he had not said previously. He told me he could not understand why the council had a problem with his application when they had let so many of his neighbours pave their gardens for parking.

I said I would look into it. After he left I drove down New Road, carefully.

Gillian Beasley was the council’s chief executive. She was and is good at her job and usually sensitive to people’s needs. We happened to have a lunch pending. I rang her office and said I would arrive thirty minutes early because I wanted us to go for a walk before lunch. She agreed.

If my memory serves me right there were about 180 houses in the road, forty or more of which had paved front gardens being used as car parking spaces. We stopped outside Mr Jones’s gate, which was near the end of our walk.

‘So what is the problem?’ I asked Gillian. ‘Forty-plus people have done it, why not Mr Jones? Are you not guilty of discrimination within public policy by refusing him planning permission?’

Gillian is a friend as well as a good chief executive. She defends her council appropriately and sometimes legalistically but can be honest about its failings.

‘It is worse than that, Brian,’ she replied. ‘None of these houses has planning permission yet clearly at least some of those garden parking areas have been in use for years.’ If that use, albeit illegal i.e. without planning permission, has been for more than two years,

and the council has taken no action (which it had not), then they are legally ‘deemed’ to have planning permission.

‘So’, I said, ‘Mr Jones is being punished for being law-abiding. Others, who may not have applied for planning permission yet have had the benefit of safe parking for years, are legally protected. How can that be right?’ I asked.

Gillian said she would ‘sort it’.

She was as good as her word. Within days Mr Jones received a cheque for £750 to cover his outlay in meeting the council’s legal costs. Gillian found she could not change the planning refusal administratively.

So a new application was shepherded through the council’s system under her eagle eye. Eventually Mr Jones was given permission to pave his front garden. He was delighted and agreed not to seek compensation.

On this occasion the chief executive righted a wrong and, maybe, registered a warning to her staff about undertaking and then defending sloppy work. Not wishing to admit you are wrong and to say ‘sorry’ is a human frailty. We are all guilty of it from time to time. It is a reality which is much too prevalent in government – national and local.

The case of Mr Jones taught me again the importance of perseverance and of checking facts myself. Over the years my experience has been that if you always rely on others for crucial information occasionally you will miss a key fact which you recognise as important even when others do not.

This experience is more significant than many are willing to acknowledge.

It was also my experience that sometimes, when I got things wrong, I found it hard to admit my error and even harder to say ‘sorry’.