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October - November 2004
Profile: Tony McNulty, MP for Harrow East
When my piece on Barry Gardiner, MP for Brent North, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Northern Ireland was published in India Link (April-May 2004 issue) it proved very popular with the readers, especially as the accompanying photographs with the then Indian PM Atalji, with Pramukhswami and Atmaswaroopji at Swaminarayan Temple, gave it a real lift with the eye catching art work that was not only of the highest standard but memorable as well. Then again, India Link has set a benchmark that the intellectual readers have come to expect from such a prestigious publication.
I do write prolifically for various publications with the result that I am in constant touch with the readers who requested me to write another piece. The name that was most frequently mentioned by readers and friends alike was that of Tony McNulty, MP for Harrow East and Minister for Transport.
When I got in touch with Mr. McNulty, he not only readily gave me the time from his busy schedule but also graciously agreed to come to my humble abode, as I find it difficult to travel to the House of Commons where most of such interviews normally take place.
On a warm and a sunny summer day in July, when my front garden is in full bloom, I was privileged to receive Mr. McNulty at my home in Kingsbury. After taking some photographs in my front garden and the conservatory, stocked with evergreen desert plants, I got to the serious business of interviewing Tony McNulty.
As usual, my first question was to enquire about his family background, his childhood and his school and university life. I narrate his story in his own words, as he gave me his background information.
"My background is basically Irish. My mother was born nearby, in Kilburn, but both her parents were born in Ireland, in a place called Kerry and Tipperary respectively. My father was born in Donegal, one of the northernmost parts of Ireland, a very beautiful place indeed, with rolling hills and the tiny mountain range of Lavagh More and Derryveagh. It has mile after mile of green countryside accompanied by Norway-like beautiful and rugged coastline, with the sea intruding deep in the landscape at Lough Swilly and Mulroy Bay.
These seaside places with small, sleepy villages and tiny picturesque fishing ports with whitewashed cottages that would make an ideal stop over for cruise liners if only they were situated in the right place, such as in the Caribbean sea, as part of the beautiful, tropical islands of West Indies or part of the Scandinavian rugged coastline.
The wet and windy climate is not ideal for attracting tourists, at least not for the time being, but it is only a question of time before these tiny places become household names among the seasoned travellers. The cruise industry is expanding at a phenomenal rate and will no doubt soon become the most favoured mode of transport for going on a holiday.
My father left Ireland at the tender age of fourteen. Today one is considered a child at this age but in those distant days, they were adults, so often with the responsibility of providing a daily bread to a large family. He worked at different places, doing different type of work which involved digging tunnels in Scotland, transporting coal, farm work of all sorts but in the end, like many Irishmen he ended up in the building trade.
We had our first proper home in North Kensington, around the Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove area where we lived until I was nine. I attended St .Charles primary school until we moved to Harrow where I went to St. Teresa School. They were all Catholic schools. After that, I attended the Salvatorian College in Wealdstone, right in the middle of my constituency.
I went back to the Salvatorian College as a governor when I became a councillor in 1986. It was a nostalgic return. Recently the college celebrated its 100th anniversary.
"After that I attended Stanmore Junior College where I did my A levels. It was a revelation for me, being an Irish Catholic in a city college was unusual, to say the least, as most of the students there were from middle class English families, although there were a few students from the Jewish and Indian community but none from my background. In addition, of course there were girls there, my first experience in a mixed sex learning institution.
Until then, I had a relatively dull school life, as all the pupils were mostly Irish Catholic with similar background and they were all boys only schools. After my A levels I went to Liverpool University to read politics which was altogether a different ball game.
However, before going to University, I took a gap year, which was unusual at the time. I spent the year working at Kodak, which is in my constituency, doing all sorts of routine jobs. It gave me not only some financial independence but also the notion and appreciation of hard work and made me wise at handling money. I am not surprised that taking a gap year has now become fashionable and a routine procedure, although now this free time is used more to travel or to do charitable work overseas."
"I went to Liverpool as I am a born and bred city boy. My heart is in a city and that is where I feel most at ease. I also wanted to go as far away as possible from my family. I felt I had lived a sheltered life until then and it was important for me to live an independent life, to discover my inner strengths and weaknesses and to acquire wisdom. I knew I had to learn to be street wise if I wanted to achieve some thing in life, especially in politics, as it is often said that politics is a cutthroat business. Fortunately, I have experienced only the good side and pleasant aspects of politics.
I was in Liverpool from 1978 to 1981 where I gained a degree in politics. My favourite subject was history, which turned into politics, as I got more and more involved in student activities, through the National Union of Students (NUS). I also spent one year in Virginia USA, where I obtained a Masters degree in political science. America is more like a continent than one single nation. It is a unique country in many ways, a mixture of colour, caste, creed and religion, all moulded together into a single entity to make America great, the most vibrant nation on the planet.
We were a big family, with three brothers and two sisters, although this was considered a normal size family in those days. They all left school at the age of sixteen except me. I am the only one who went to University. It is needless to say that they were all so proud of me. No one was interested in politics in my family. Indeed my family could not be less political.
My father was once involved with a Conservative Small Business Group, for a very short time, just to wind me up, to annoy me, a typical father and son relationship. We often had a laugh later on about his political affiliation.
One family incident that I remember very well and will stay with me forever is the tragic death of my elder brother who died suddenly and unexpectedly at the tender age of his mid-twenties. He never had a day's illness yet he died of a brain haemorrhage within an hour.
I was in Blackpool, at a National Union Student (NUS) conference when I was given the tragic news on the phone. I was just twenty-one at the time. I could not believe it. I was numb. How I travelled to London and joined my family is still a hazy memory. Like most Irish families, we were a close-knit unit, looking after each other and losing an elder brother in such a tragic circumstances was more than any one of us could handle.
I have been a member of the Labour party since 1978 but due to studies and other family responsibilities, I did not actively get involved in politics until I came back from America in 1982. I was elected to Harrow council in 1986 when Harrow was a staunch Conservative area. In fact, I was one of only eight Labour councillors out of sixty-three and both the members of parliament at that time were Conservatives as well.
When I became a councillor, Harrow was changing and it was an exciting time. Soon afterwards, I got involved in the Swaminarayan Temple issue. Their planning application to build a temple in the open space, adjourning to Northwick Park hospital was objected to by the then Conservative Harrow Council which is the worst planning mistake, a political blunder of Herculean proportions.
Soon afterwards, I was involved in the Hare Krishna Temple dispute in Aldenham, with Hertsmere Conservative Council but the positive action, mass but peaceful protest by the Hindu community, in true Gandhian style and the involvement of the Labour government when it came to power in 1997, saved the temple from closure. Otherwise it would have been another disaster, again by a Conservative Council that normally shoots first and asks questions later"
Whilst I was interviewing Tony on behalf of India Link, I learnt to my surprise, that Tony has known Krishan Ralleigh, the editor of India Link, since his school days. When Tony attended the Salvatorian College, Mr. Ralleigh was one of his teachers. So they have known each other for a long time and still keep in touch.
After returning from America, Tony joined North London Polytechnic, now University, as a lecturer in Organisational Behaviour, Public Policy and Management. While teaching, he got actively involved in NATFHE (National Association of Teachers in Further Education) and was a branch secretary for some time. He left the job when he was elected MP for Harrow East.
Normally in such interviews, I try not to discuss politics but I could not help bringing up Iraq and council tax which are the two contentious issues that may damage the chances for the Labour party of being re-elected at the next general election. He agreed and said, "It is important that we move forward on Iraq, stabilize the country and once it becomes an independent, democratic nation capable of looking after itself, then it is the time for us to withdraw". I feel this is easier said than done.
"On council tax, we are aware of its impact, especially on the retired and the elderly people. It is my personal view that we should keep the council tax, but put a ceiling, say £600 per household. No one should be asked to pay more and the difference may be collected by other means, may it be local income, purchase tax, parking space levy and by other similar means. The government is aware of the high council tax and its impact on the retired people and we are working on it.
On his favourite holiday destination, he said, "I have a simple taste. I love South of France and I spend some two to three weeks there whenever possible. It is one of the most beautiful parts of Europe and the area south of Bordeaux, the towns of Bayonne, Pau and many picturesque villages in the rugged countryside, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, bordering Northern Spain and all the way to Andorra is a paradise undiscovered, a place very few of us know and even fewer visit. It is untouched by mass tourism and I hope it will remain so for a very long time.
I am not a beach lover but I do like to sit around a pool soaking up the sun and reading. I love French food and wine and as I speak the language, it is easier for me to feel at home and to travel inland, away from the popular holiday spots. I enjoy the isolation, the scenery, the peace and the tranquillity, along with the wonderful weather in late summer and early autumn. I love reading, although I must admit I do not often get much time but when I go on holidays, I take with me several volumes of "A la Recherche du temps perdu" by renowned French author Marcel Proust, to pass my time when not on the move. My other favourite authors and books are normally the recent ones, which includes Albert Camus who wrote The Stranger and Plague and Roy Jenkin's book on Churchill.
As I have spent a year in America, I would like to return and it is my earnest desire to tour this vast, unique and very beautiful country, from the East coast to the West, from New York to San Diego. It would be wonderful to stop over at places like St. Louis, Oklahoma, Denver, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and many more places that we have just heard about. I would love to visit the Mojave desert, the hottest place on earth (Death Valley), the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park, a few among many attractions that are scattered all over America. Though, as it will take at least six weeks and time is at a premium for me at this stage in my life, I am afraid it will remain only a dream for the time being.
As for the leading personality of the 20th century, it has to be Mahatma Gandhi, considering his achievements, although Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela come a close second. I also admire Sir Winston Churchill as a great war leader and Clement Attlee who was a great Labour leader and reformist. He introduced a sweeping programme of nationalization, a completely new system of social services and he presided over the establishment of a welfare state which includes the NHS. India also gained independence during his time as Prime Minister.
On sports, I support West Ham, a club some may find unfashionable, especially for a North Londoner like me. As I was born in 1958, I was only eight years old when we won the world cup in 1966. The late West Ham and England captain Bobby Moore was my favourite player. My most favourable, enjoyable events in sports are naturally associated with West Ham club and their FA cup victories over Fulham and Arsenal in 1975 and 1980 are still fresh in my mind. Though of course I will never forget Ian Botham's heroics when he won the Leeds test single handed."
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Tony McNulty is such a devoted West Ham supporter, as when I first came to this country in 1968, we used to live just 200 meters from the West Ham ground and all my family members have supported West Ham ever since.
Mr. McNulty continued after my brief intervention. "I feel those were the nostalgic days for our country and the game, when sportsmen were sportsmen and not pop stars or media moguls. They loved the game. They had passion, zeal and dedication. It was an honour and a privilege to play for your club and the country. Today’s players are often mollycoddled and pampered like film or pop stars. They are paid a fortune and most of them earn more in a year than ordinary people earn in a lifetime. Many of them find it difficult to handle the fame and fortune. Players like Trevor Brooking, Kevin Keegan and Bobby Charlton were not only articulate and skilful players but they were real gentlemen and a real role model to the youngsters. I find it painful to say that these types of players do not often grace the football fields these days.
It is not only football. The society has changed and our sportsmen just reflect the behaviour in our society. I love rugby and have played the game at club level. So it was a proud moment for me when we won the world cup in 2003, beating Australia with the last kick. It was a marvellous moment for me and of course for every one here in England. No wonder past rugby players like Bill Boument of England and Willy John McBride of Ireland were my heroes.
I am sure many politicians you have interviewed may have said that they would love to bring the Olympics to London. So I am no different. I share their hopes, dreams and expectations. The Olympics are such a big business that changes the face of the country where it is held. Sydney and Barcelona are prime examples. These cities are ten times more beautiful, more vibrant and more accessible after the Olympics. Athens is also experiencing this and going through the same transformation.
On the Euro, it is inevitable to join the club some time in the future, but at the moment our economy, that includes interest rates, unemployment and investment, is not in tune, not in harmony with the EU. But our future is in Europe, we are part of Europe and any talk of withdrawal is just nonsense, perhaps a smoke screen and I believe all major political parties agree on this point at least.
I am very proud of the record of this Labour government. We have made tremendous progress and invested a great deal of money, effort and goodwill into our schools, hospitals and other infra structures. Northwick Park, Central Middlesex and other hospitals which have been greatly modernized, serve our community well and this is just the beginning.
As to how long I would like to remain in politics and my ambition to attain higher office, well I can only say that my first and foremost priority is to serve the people of Harrow East. I am blessed by the diversity of the community in Harrow East - I can share St Patrick’s Day, Eid, Diwali, Janmashtami, Navrarti and St Georges Day without leaving my constituency. My future is in their hands and as long as I retain their trust and their goodwill, I would like to remain in politics. Beyond that I have made no plans." With that remark, the interview came to an end.
Well Mr. McNulty, I would like to thank you on behalf of Kumudini, India Link and myself and your constituents in Harrow East, for giving me this opportunity and time from your busy schedule to come to my home and spend some three hours with me. Our best wishes to you in your upward climb on the political ladder.