Lambeth, London — That Frank Sinatra’s recording of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash I was Takin’ a Bath” are both among Charlie Mullins’s declared musical favorites might come as something of surprise—Cole Porter’s ironic exercise in faux-sophistication from the 1958 movie High Society romping with boisterous teen trifle from the same decade—until one learns that the sixty-four-year-old Mullins is Britain’s richest plumber, his wealth estimated at some seventy million pounds. This well-washed, blondly-coiffed businessman believes Britain is taking a bath on Brexit. Deal or not, Mullins wants to pull the plug on the whole thing, branzely broadcasting his views as the Brexit negotiations in Brussels clog and sputter, threatening even to bring down Prime Minister Theresa May’s government.
For the last decade the mogul from meager beginnings has spent much of his time at his villa on the Costa del Sol, that stretch of decimated Spanish beachfront running northeast from Gibraltar towards the EasyJet destination of Malaga and thick with hundreds of thousands of British pensioners and holiday-makers.
But since last January, when he announced his intention to run for London Mayor at the next election for that post in two years, Mullins has been increasingly present in his hometown, London. Indeed, he is trying as best he can to make political waves with a position shared by many liberals at home and by British expats on the Costa del Sol, where Mullins also opened up a branch of his plumbing empire a decade ago and where Brits have recently been snapping up property in advance of their own country’s divorce from the mainland.
A few blocks from where I’m staying on the Kennington Road—a wide street busy with busses and swarms of mad bicyclists not far from the south bank of the River Thames—is the headquarters of Mullins’ Pimlico Plumbers. The company’s building has a rounded façade of two-storeys that turns the corner of Juxton and Sail Streets amidst large housing projects built in the middle of the twentieth century and a stone’s throw from the upscale gallery of one-time bad-boy artist, Damien Hirst, now comfortably ensconced in the establishment. Such near-collisions have for a long time been typical of the district, a Labour Party stronghold that has been rapidly gentrifying for some two decades. The Houses of Parliament are just across the river.
A plumbers’ depot might be the last place one expects to find political slogans shouted from the rooftops, but since before the 2016 referendum that led to the UK’s imminent departure from the EU, Pimlico HQ has been crowned by a banner. Last week it read: “BREXIT—Nobody voted to be poorer!” This week it shouts: “BOLLOCKS TO BREXIT: IT’S NOT A DONE DEAL.” The imagery cladding the building sends a mixed message, however. Below these slogans runs a row of flags of St. George, symbols of English nationalism. Nowhere to be seen is the European Union’s circle of gold stars on a blue background.
Mullins’ is responsible for the slogans. He grew up in Lambeth, and eagerly shares his rags to riches story on his own recently-launched radio station designed for “tradespeople,” on the Pimlico Plumbers’ website which posts his broadsides, and in television interviews. Mullins started as a plumber working alone, and now has some 350 employees, who provide around-the-clock service in London. Mullin has a penchant for figurative language derived from his professional experience. He entitled his 2015 book Bog-Standard Business: How I Took the Plunge and Become the Millionaire Plumber. Bog, of course, is British for toilet. The book’s cover shows him grinning and spikey-haired, wearing a window-pane plaid suit and his trademark blue tie in front of Big Ben. It is the very picture of political ambition.
Last year Mullins accorded himself the honor of pressing the red button to send out the very first song on his Fix Radio venture for working people. He chose Starships’ 1985 megahit “We Built This City.” Yet his treatment of his own workers has often come under fire. In June he lost a High Court case that held he had deprived a longtime Pimlico contract-worker of benefits due him. The ruling was viewed as a significant victory for labor by many observers, though its importance was brushed aside by Mullins. An ardent proponent of the so-called gig economy, Mullins holds up the United States as the way forward for Britain: flexibility rather than stability is crucial to the American lifestyle and so it should be back in the Mother Country.
Mullins is not your typical Remainer. After nearly losing his business in the economic downturn of the 1980s he sacked his entire staff and restructured his business according to what he calls the Pimlico Bible. Compiled in a three-ring binder, it is oddly Old Testament, a sort lavatorial Leviticus: the document decrees that Pimlico plumbers will wear no earrings nor sport any ponytails (and by inference no drain-clogging man-buns), and there will be no visible tattoos. Along similarly archaic lines, he has described female plumbers as “disasters.” Given the labor protections extended by European law, his stance on Brexit would seem to work against his own business interests. Indeed, he has long been a critic of regulations emanating from Brussels. When Margaret Thatcher died he made all of his plumbers where black armbands.
Mullins duel life on the sun-soaked Costa del Sol and the overcast British homeland cannot explain the oily sheen of cosmopolitanism on his tanned face. Rather it is the desire for notoriety that drives him and that fires the rhetoric of his Pimlico banners and other pronouncements. As he puts it, “I needed to be in the limelight, too.” Bashing Brexit was the most efficient way to get there. Mullins has latched on to other easy liberal causes as well, like the protest against Donald Trump’s first planned visit to the London in 2017. Mullins proposed not just banning Trump but forbidding all living American president from entering the UK, mischievously opining that Carter, the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama would all understand and not hold it against the Brits.
As for political and professional aims, Mullins’ musical tastes are more illuminating than his brash sloganeering. Also on his playlist are Beyonce’s Runnin’, the video of which is set underwater, its breath-holding lovers running in slow-motion across what seems to be a Mediterranean sea bed: the aqueous imagery suggests a plumbers’ paradise of true romance in waters rather more alluring than those of a toilet tank. ABBA’s Waterloo from Mullins’ 1970s youth is another coy choice, since water—its flow and containment—are the source of his wealth, as is “-loo”—another British word (there are so many!) for toilet. Given the current trouble being made by French President Emmanuel Macron, who is seen here as unyielding in his rough treatment of the departing Brits, the reference to the glorious victory of a British-led European coalition over French aggression seems to betray at best an ambivalence towards Brexit.
Another tune tapped by Mullins is Tina Tuner’s “Simply the Best.” It begins with what could well be the tagline of a plumbing service that’s at the ready 24/7, 365 days a year: “I call you when I need you.” Later Tina sings “Don’t let go,” but the Brits are doing just that. And as for Mullins’s avowed admiration for David Bowie’s Major Tom songs, he falls towards earth from space—a Hard Brexit, indeed. Many here think and hope that Mullins’s political fortunes will never lift off, and if they do a crash will be soon to follow. The same might be said of the militantly down-to-earth Mullins as what he has said about Brexit: “You can’t sugar-coat a turd.”
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com)