Chris Mullin was MP for Sunderland South for 23 years until 2010. His three volumes of diaries about the progress of New Labour (A View from the Foothills, Decline and Fall and A Walk-on Part) were widely acclaimed. His first novel, A Very British Coup, about a radical socialist who becomes leader of the Labour party and prime minister, was a bestseller. Channel 4’s versionwas also a hit, winning several Bafta and Emmy awards. A one-time television journalist with Granada’s World in Action, Mullin led the campaign that resulted in the release of the Birmingham Six. His new novel, The Friends of Harry Perkins, a sequel to A Very British Coup, is set in a bleak post-Brexit Britain five years in the future.
What does post-Brexit Britain look like in 2024?
It’s a gloomy place. No great Armageddon has occurred, just a long, slow decline into insularity and irrelevance. The pound has fallen steadily against the euro, the dollar and the yuan and the much-vaunted increase in trade with Commonwealth countries has not materialised. As the book opens, the UK is about to be relieved of its seat on the UN security council.
How is the Labour party doing five years hence?
It has lost five elections. The Labour party always takes a long time to wake up and smell the coffee.
Nissan sets up a plant in the Czech Republic and is unable to guarantee the future of its Sunderland plant in the novel. Did you dream up that plot before or after Nissan scrapped plans to build its new SUV at Sunderland and Honda announced the closure of its Swindon factory?
I wrote the book quite a long time before both things happened. I enjoy a bit of futurology. In A Very British Coup, quite a lot of things that were speculation eventually came to pass, not least the rise of a leftwing leader of the Labour party. I don’t always get it right, of course, and I might add that I don’t want it to come to pass in the case of Sunderland. Nissan is a very large part of the Sunderland economy.
The rise of English nationalism provides a dark undercurrent to the events in the novel…
I wanted to reflect our dark times. To that end, there are three basic themes in the book: Brexit, the increasing tension between China and the US which I expect to get worse, and the rise of English nationalism, which is extremely worrying. I dedicated the book to Jo Cox because she was a victim of the growing intolerance and violence of English nationalists. She was murdered by someone who considered himself part of that movement.
Do you fear nationalism is going to become more extreme in Britain?
It may be a phenomenon that is growing all over the world. Look at what has just happened in New Zealand, and previously in Norway, two of the most beautiful countries in the world. The rise of nationalism is a poison and I hope a trend that doesn’t continue.
Do you really think America might declare war on China, which is what happens in the book?
I don’t think it will happen in the near future but China is getting very aggressive and has territorial disputes with all its neighbours, many of whom are covered by defence treaties with the US. So there is a potential for conflict there. If China starts grabbing bits of the Philippines or islands off Japan, or gets up one morning and decides to take back Taiwan, the US would be in a real bind.
Have you thanked Jeremy Corbyn for giving A Very British Coup a new lease of life?
I should do, shouldn’t I? The book has been reprinted numerous times since he became Labour leader and made me look so prescient.
Will Labour get another centrist leader like your protagonist, Fred Thompson, in the near future?
Not until after the next election. In fact, not for the foreseeable future.
What books are on your bedside table?
An Eye for the Dragon by Dennis Bloodworth, published in 1970. Bloodworth was the Observer’s far-east correspondent in the days when great newspapers could afford far-east correspondents. Jung Chang’s biography of the empress dowager, Cixi is there, too. And for light relief, if that’s the right word, Dead I May Well Be by Adrian McKinty, a writer of hard-boiled thrillers set in Northern Ireland who has not received the attention he deserves.
What novelists and nonfiction writers working today do you most admire?
In nonfiction, John Campbell for his masterly biography of Roy Jenkins, who, I have belatedly come to realise, was one of the outstanding politicians of the postwar era, and Frank Dikötter for his monumental three-volume accountof life in post-revolution China, which demonstrates beyond doubt that Mao was a monster. In fiction, Robert Harris for his contemporary thrillers – an element of envy there, I suspect – and the great John le Carré.
Which genres do you particularly enjoy reading?
Diaries, political and otherwise, Jock Colville’s account of his time as Churchill’s wartime private secretary being among the best. I also like thrillers with a political element – a good conspiracy – though sadly in real life most alleged conspiracies turn out to be cockups. And I enjoy contemporary political memoirs, New Labour produced a rich crop.
How do you organise your books?
When we moved from Sunderland to Northumberland seven years ago, I was obliged to downsize my library, a painful experience. My bulging shelves tend to be divided into politics, contemporary and otherwise, and Vietnam, China, Tibet – all places from which I have reported in bygone years. Fictionlives on a separate bookshelf wedged into a space between my bedroom and the scullery.
Do you prefer to read on paper or on a screen?
On paper, definitely. I do not possess an iPad.
Which classic novel are you most ashamed not to have read?
Too many to list. Just about every great pre-19th-century novel and many from the early 20th. Evidence of the gaping holes in my education.
What book might people be surprised to see on your bookshelves?
Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography; Nigel Lawson’s memoirs; The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley.
What book did you last put down without finishing?
Suffice to say it was by a prominent leftwinger – I’d better not mention his name.
What book or author do you always return to?
Graham Green’s masterpiece The Quiet American. I reread it every time I visit my in-laws in Vietnam.
What do you plan to read next?
I am looking forward to David Cameron’s memoirs when they finally appear. He has some explaining to do.
• The Friends of Harry Perkins is published by Simon & Schuster (£12). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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