Maverick is a word which is often used in a pejorative manner, especially when it’s used to describe a politician. It was a word which was often used to describe Austin Mitchell, but in his case I think it was used in an affectionate manner. He embraced the word himself and his autobiography, which was one of the last books I published at Biteback, was titled ‘Confessions of a Political Maverick’.
I learned a little earlier today that Austin died in hospital this morning at the grand old age of 86. I’ve known him and his wife Linda McDougall for 25 years and was devastated to learn that he was no longer with us. Austin and Linda were devoted to each other, and although Linda is one of life’s strong women I have no doubt she will feeling utterly shattered at his loss.
Austin was first elected as a Labour MP in 1977 in the by-election which ensued following the death of Tony Crosland, who had been MP for Great Grimsby. Until then he had enjoyed a successful career in academia and then the media. He was a very familiar face in the north of England as the presenter of the nightly regional news programme ‘Calendar’ on Yorkshire TV.
Austin’s reputation as a bit of a maverick, and not a team player, harmed his chances of promotion in the Labour shadow teams of the 1980s. He was a talented media performer but his views on Europe (he was an early Eurosceptic) and his close friendship with Bryan Gould did him few favours with the Kinnock leadership. And when he joined the Sky News launch presenter lineup in 1989, that was it. He co-presented an interview show called ‘Target’ with Norman Tebbit, which was hugely entertaining, but the fact that Sky was funded by Rupert Murdoch was anathema to many on the left.
I first got to know him in the 1990s and he was a big supporter of mine when I opened Politico’s Bookshop in early 1997. He would turn up, camera in hand, at all the booklaunches and parties we held in Artillery Row and then send me the pictures afterwards. He was a very talented photographer and loved taking black and white pictures. The only slight falling out I ever had with him was when I closed the shop in 2004. He was furious. He accused me of closing it to advance my political career. He wrote: "There should be better ways of getting on in today’s Tory Party but the price of political advancement shouldn’t be a big let down for all of us who’ve supported Politico’s over the years”. There wasn't a scintilla of truth in the accusation. I consoled myself with the fact that Linda understood the truth. I wrote: "As his wife Linda McDougall wrote in her New Statesman column, I have let my head rule my heart. At least one member of the Mitchell household has retained a degree of sanity." Austin always did know how to wind me up.
Even though they weren’t on the same page politically, Austin was a fan of Tony Blair, but retained his maverick sense of Eurosceptism and was consistent in his opposition to the EU, especially the Common Fisheries Policy, which had proved so damaging to the fishing interests in his constituency.
He stood down at the 2015 general election, at the age of 80. I always got the impression he instantly regretted the decision. He continued his writings and his memoirs appeared three years later. In the last couple of years he had been in poor health, with several stays in hospital, but wrote a brilliantly original book on J B Priestley’s wartime broadcasts, which came out in September 2020.
At the end of October last year, at Linda’s urging, I recorded an hour long ALL TALK podcast interview with Austin, using the Priestley book as the hook. We talked about his whole life and I’d highly recommend you have a listen HERE. He was worried he wouldn’t be able to hear my questions, as we were recording remotely, but it all worked perfectly, and I am so glad we did it.
Politics needs more Austin Mitchells. He had a zest for life and was unrelentingly optimistic, independent-minded and cheerful. He enriched the lives of everyone he encountered and I am proud to have counted him as a friend.