The former Labour cabinet minister has had a bumpy career; and even one or two regrets. But nobody could accuse his life of being boring
When the three current party leaders come to write their memoirs, it’s hard to imagine how they’re going to bring the pages alive with stories of their pre-parliamentary life, when they barely even had one. This wasn’t a problem for Peter Hain. The first third of his autobiography reads more like a political thriller than a memoir, and leaves the vanilla back-stories of today’s former special advisers looking almost comically bland.
Outside In recalls a dramatic childhood in South Africa, as the son of anti-apartheid activists who were spied on by the country’s Special Branch, harassed and imprisoned, until the family was forced into exile in London in 1966. Only 16, Hain was already something of a veteran; a year earlier he’d had to deliver the funeral address of a family friend and fellow activist who had been hanged in a Pretoria prison.
As a student in London, Hain began organising pitch invasions of sports matches against visiting South African teams, and the success of his campaign to halt the 1970 South African cricket tour drove the British establishment to distraction, securing Hain’s notoriety. “It would be a mercy,” the columnist Sir John Junor famously wrote, “if this unpleasant little creep were to be dropped into a sewerage tank. Up to his ankles. Head first.” Hain was followed and bugged by MI5, was sent a letter bomb in the mail, and was then framed in a London bank robbery by the South African security services. He sensationally and successfully defended himself at the Old Bailey. In the febrile politics of the 70s, Hain was becoming a folk hero.
Defecting from the Young Liberals to Labour in 1977, he began working for a trade union and helped found the Anti Nazi League, standing twice for parliament during the 1980s. With a peculiar symmetry of timing, a year after Nelson Mandela finally walked free in South Africa Hain arrived at last in Westminster, elected in 1991 to represent Neath.
At 41 he’d already lived a more thrilling political life than most senior ministers – and it’s impossible to read his book without reflecting that the contrast has only sharpened ever since. But it’s also impossible not to notice Hain’s concern, throughout the book, to rebut the charge of “ambitious”, which has attached itself to him throughout his Westminster career. He suspects these two themes – his extra-parliamentary fame, and the suspicion of personal ambition – are not unconnected.
“I think I got the label because, certainly among people today aged over 50 or 60, they would probably know of me more than a lot of other people in politics, because of the anti-apartheid sports campaigns,” he reflects. “My profile was one of the highest in government – even though I didn’t necessarily hold the highest jobs.” Although he doesn’t explicitly accuse anyone of jealousy, that seems to be what he is saying.
“But I never even thought I’d be an MP. I was always ambitious to make a difference – but I honestly wasn’t that bothered about the position – and I’m still not, I’m not. So ambitious for change, yes I’ll happily accept that for a label. Ambitious in career terms? No I don’t think so.”
Either way, he did achieve high office, serving in cabinet for six years of the Labour government under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – and also achieved significant change. As Northern Ireland secretary, he brokered the historic 2007 deal which saw the IRA lay down its arms for good. He was also a popular and effective secretary of state for Wales.
Now back in opposition, he retains the Welsh brief and is a high-profile member of the shadow-bench team; Outside In certainly doesn’t read like the memoir of a man who feels that his opportunities to effect change are behind him. If anything, I get the impression from the book that he has a sneaking sense of underachievement. He is forever quoting colleagues, civil servants, officials and the like telling him how brilliant he is, so I ask if he feels he’s never yet been as successful as he ought rightfully to have been.
“No, I put the quotes in because I was trying to give an honest representation of what they said.” I can’t recall any instances of him quoting anyone telling him he was rubbish though. “Maybe because it didn’t happen,” he laughs. There’s no admission, either, of any mistakes on his part – apart from one. “The deputy leader campaign. I do wish I hadn’t stood for the deputy leadership.”
In 2007 he finished an ignominious fifth out of six in the race to replace John Prescott. But the real disaster struck a year later, when it emerged that he’d failed to declare a number of campaign donations, sparking a police investigation and forcing him to resign from government. He always insisted it was an innocent oversight, and no charges were brought, but the gist of his defence in his memoir seems to be that loads of other politicians forgot to declare big donations, so it was unfair to single him out. He wouldn’t buy the “everyone else does it” defence of, say, smoking cannabis, he agrees at once – “No, of course.” So why does it apply in his case?
“Well in the end what was this about?” he counters, and I realise the subject is still terribly raw. “It was about an honest mistake and a disorganised end to the campaign and when I found out about it I told everyone. It’s quite possible that nobody would ever have found out if I hadn’t done that. And a lot of thanks I got for it.”
The indignation is understandable, but I notice that while his book lists the precise and substantial sums others forgot to declare, it fails to mention that his own exceeded £100,000. “Oh,” he says. “Well it wasn’t a conscious strategy on my part.” Why does he think the Electoral Commission came down so hard on him? “Well they wanted to make an example of me, and I came along at the right time.”
The title, Outside In, hints at an enduring sense of otherness within the British political establishment, and when I ask if he still feels like an outsider he concedes: “A bit. But it wasn’t something that worried me or made me feel insecure. On the contrary, I think it gave me a strength. Everybody born and brought up in Britain is a product of the British class system, which is corrosive, and I’m not encumbered by that.” Even so, he must have been surprised not to be elected to Ed Miliband’s first shadow cabinet. “Er, yes. But I think a lot of people thought I would be elected anyway so they didn’t have to vote for me, so, er, there we are. It was a rather surprising outcome from my point of view, but I think that was probably the reason actually.”
Hain was one of Miliband’s most vocal champions during the Labour leadership election, so I ask if he’s disappointed by his leader’s poll ratings. “Well of course I’d like him to do better,” he agrees frankly. So why isn’t he? “Well you’ve got to start off with the electoral reality that coming back from 29%, for any opposition leader – including Ed’s brother – to bounce back into a kind of mega league just defies political reality, it doesn’t happen like that.”
It sounds as if he’s suggesting Labour can’t win the next election. “No, what I’m saying is that people continually place the bar too high for Ed. For over a year we’ve been [polling] round about the late 30s to 40% – a 10% recovery – that’s a big achievement. The Tories didn’t win a by election for about 10 years after they lost in 97. We’ve held every one, with swings to us. The May elections in Wales, we got our best ever result.”
But in all of those elections, voters could tick Labour without any risk of delivering Miliband to No 10. Most people seem to have difficulty regarding him as a credible prime minister, I suggest. Hain doesn’t contradict me, offering instead: “Well I don’t think most people know Ed yet. And if you look at Cameron’s first period in charge, his ratings were in fact slightly worse than Ed’s.” Does Hain feel that things are actually going well then?
“Look, the last person who is complacent about this is Ed. I think he has strengthened his leadership and grip on the party and shadow cabinet. He has been proved right on a lot of things, from Murdoch to bankers’ bonuses to the destruction of the NHS. Now would I like to be higher in the polls? Of course I would – and so would Ed. Do we have a long way to go? Yeah, of course we do.”
Hain launches into an attack on Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, blaming them for the loss of the AV referendum – “I always said that bracketing it with the local elections would be catastrophic. I’m a lifelong AV supporter. Clegg threw away a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity to change the voting system,” – and accuses him of “betraying the Liberal tradition”. But Labour can’t win next time by merely mopping up disillusioned Lib Dem voters. “No,” he agrees quietly, “and I think we know that. We have to win sufficient Tory-switcher supporters in marginal seats in the south of England.”
There isn’t much evidence of them coming over yet, is there? “No.” Then, after a pause, he volunteers something quite surprising for an opposition front bencher. He may not be saying Labour can’t win the next election – but he doesn’t appear to think they will.
“I think actually that it’s going to be very hard for any party to win an outright majority at the next election. Very hard. But I think we can be the biggest party.” And form a government with the Lib Dems? “Not with Clegg and co. They stand for just about the opposite of everything we stand for. But I think the Lib Dems are probably going to split. Immediately after the next election. I choose my words carefully, but some very senior people within the Liberal party are extremely unhappy.”
So just to clarify, he predicts a hung parliament in 2015, a split in the Lib Dem party, and a government formed by Labour and half of Clegg’s old party?
“That’s what I think we’re fighting for. Yeah. And I think that’s a very realistic prospect.”
For those on the left Hain was a reassuring presence in the Labour government – principled, genial, and unaligned to either the Blair or Brown faction. But his willingness to support the line on Iraq and civil liberties left some feeling betrayed – and there are moments in the book when it sounds as if he almost went native, describing the job of authorising intercept warrants as “a fascinating task which I undertook with diligent enthusiasm”. Given his own experience at the hands of the security services, why didn’t he take a stronger stand on civil liberties?
“I didn’t just blindly swallow it all,” he objects. “ID cards I never saw as a big number; most democratic countries have them, and I never saw it as a big issue. I was always worried about the issues of detention, partly because of my South African experience. We had an attitude in New Labour where you’d go for the maximum, have a big row and end up with somewhere more minimal. My argument in government was that this may be a view of political tactics, but there was a very high attrition rate along the way. I always felt you could be tough on crime and security without being seen to be so gratuitous about individual liberty. And I argued that.”
But it was his loyalty to the government over Iraq that surprised most of his supporters – including his parents, wife and two sons, which he admits he found “chastening”. Had he known there were no WMDs, he would have voted against it. “Yes, of course.” But he refuses, even now, to say he was wrong. “People who, for example, during the  deputy leader campaign said: ‘Actually we were totally wrong and I was wrong’ – I just think that’s a bit of a cop-out. You can’t have it both ways.
“Do I think the world is a better place without him? Yeah, I do think it is. Are the Iraqi people better off without Saddam Hussein as their ruler? Yes I think they are. So it’s always been a difficult judgment for me. I’m just judging where we are now, and I think it’s too early to say whether the fact that Saddam Hussein was toppled has been a good thing or a bad thing.”
Critics would say it’s Hain who’s still trying to have it both ways. He smiles: “Well the left has always been quick to perceive betrayal in their own” – and that’s certainly true. Hain sees himself instead as a pragmatist – “not an all- or-nothing politician, but an all or something politician”. Having been a fervent supporter of the euro, he’s now glad we didn’t join – “Who isn’t?” he laughs – but in 2002, at Blair’s request, he even set up a secret group behind Brown’s back to push for a referendum on joining the single currency. “Being pro euro wasn’t an article of faith for me,” he says now, “but an economic mechanism. It either works or it doesn’t; it’s not a principle.”
He believes the euro will almost certainly survive. “But for as long as they pursue a rightwing austerity programme, instead of a jobs and growth programme, to deal with the deficit, I’m pretty pessimistic about the future of Europe. I’ve very worried because lots of the countries most in trouble had fascist governments not so long ago. I think the rise of the right is a great danger, and we’ve got to be very careful not to repeat the mistakes of the 30s. People don’t realise how dangerous this is. And the problem with depression and recession today is that people’s expectations are so much higher. In the 30s you still had a deferential society. There was tremendous poverty and strife and riot – but nothing on the scale that I think you could see if this continues for much longer.”
When I point out that large numbers of voters blame Labour’s profligacy for our economic problems, he is surprisingly – if gloomily – candid. “Yeah. And that’s where the Tories have been effective. With what I call the big deceit in British politics.” The argument Labour has to win is simple: “If we had been spending too much, why did the Tories and Lib Dems sign up to our spending programme for the next three years? They can’t have it both ways. Spending was not too high, borrowing was not too high, debt had come down from what we inherited from the Tories. But the banking crisis blew the economy out of the water, and that’s why I think we’re victims of the big deceit in British politics.
“This will decide whether we win or lose the next election. Whether we win this argument. Or can at least get a score draw on it.”
from Decca Aitkenhead