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Games of power . . . and football

20 December 2013

This man knows about both, says Nicholas Frayling


Faith and fairness: Lord Mawhinney in the stands at Hillsborough for a Sheffield Wednesday v. Sheffield United football match in 2010

Faith and fairness: Lord Mawhinney in the stands at Hillsborough for a Sheffield Wednesday v. Sheffield United football match in 2010

Just a Simple Belfast Boy
Brian Mawhinney
Biteback Publishing £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT853 )

WHEN the Church Times invited me to review this book, I confess that my heart sank. I would not have chosen to take a political memoir on holiday, still less one in which nearly a quarter is given to football administration. Duty called, however, and I am pleased that it did.

The title of this memoir is misleading. Lord Mawhinney gives few details of his childhood in Belfast, and the tone of the book, consciously self-deprecating and explicitly Christian, is of a politician very close to the centre of events in interesting times. As an MP for more than a quarter of a century, he served as Minister of State for Northern Ireland under Margaret Thatcher, Health under Thatcher and John Major, Transport at the time of rail privatisation, and as chairman of the Conservative Party at the time of its disastrous electoral defeat in 1997. After a spell in Opposition, he became a life peer in 2003.

The book is addressed to the author's ten grandchildren, and is written in an easy, conversational style. It is, for the most part, a good read, not least in the light that it sheds from "behind the scenes" on political issues with which the author was actually or peripherally involved. The (long) section on Northern Ireland is particularly illuminating. It is refreshing to find a politician who is willing to acknowledge the power of apology for past mistakes in government, of which he lists several. These include Bloody Sunday, government policy on drugs, and the manner in which rail privatisation was undertaken.

It is also instructive to learn about the complexity of an MP's work, and the impossibility of pleasing most of the people most of the time. "Occasionally this can be hard to take, especially for the family, and particularly when it derives from ignorance, lies, prejudice or personal animosity. Interestingly, at least to me, the same credit imbalance characterises football."

Mawhinney became chairman of the Football League in 2003, and oversaw far-reaching changes in the state of "the beautiful game", about which he does not mince his words. The last section of the book is devoted to the minutiae of football policy and politics, England's embarrassingly dysfunctional bid to host the 2018 World Cup, and condemnation of widespread cheating in the professional game. After many pages, he asks rather plaintively, "Still with me?" Well, since you ask . . .

That having been said, this is an interesting and often attractive memoir, of a political career that the author believes, I suspect, to have been more significant than the book's title suggests. Mawhinney's strong Bible-based Christian faith is a constant thread: indeed, he reveals that his decision to enter politics was the result of a divine revelation. He uses the term "Christian" as virtually synonymous with honesty and fair dealing. He even manages to find biblical justification for political U-turns, which are "associated with error, repentance and forgiveness".

Mawhinney is an attractive story-teller, whose grandchildren will learn a lot about their grandfather and his enthusiasms from this book: politics, football, and, above all, his unshakeable Christian faith.

The Very Revd Nicholas Frayling is the Dean of Chichester. His book Pardon and Peace - a reflection on the making of peace in Ireland was published by SPCK in 1996.

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