Peter Stead gets to grips with Peter Hain’s autobiography
In spite of its title Outside in, suggesting a position in some unknown team game I was eager to read Peter Hain’s autobiography. I must confess that he is a politician whom I have always regarded as being a good thing. In personal terms I have always found him to be nothing but helpful and courteous, and this volume’s cover photo nicely captures his rather apologetic smile that confirms his generally unassuming manner.
First and foremost one remembers and admires Hain as a hero of that 1960s battle to isolate South Africa. As someone who played a small part in some of the bitter protests of that era I had not appreciated quite how difficult and painful his own experiences had been. At the age of fifteen he had to go to the lectern of the Pretoria crematorium to read a tribute to a close family friend who had been hanged just two hours earlier and whose body was now in the adjacent coffin. It was Hain who then pushed the button that sent the coffin on its way.
Later, in London, he was hounded by MI5, sent a powerful letter bomb and then framed for a bank robbery by agents of BOSS, the South African Security Agency. I did not know those details at the time but felt an enormous gratitude to Hain for his part in exposing the evils of apartheid and for showing the value of protests against specific evils rather than indulging in the futile ideological battles of that era’s left-wing extremists. Above all I appreciated the manner in which he had flushed out all those sportsmen and women, fans, administrators and, of course, choristers who suppressed all matters of ethics and morality once their own pleasure was at stake.
In a later manifestation (and such is the physical change, one can be forgiven for thinking that it is a different person) Hain emerged as the MP for Neath. I was delighted by his adoption and gave thanks that a safe Labour seat in Wales had opted for a candidate with a hinterland who was capable of making it to the Cabinet. Subsequently one admired the significant contribution that Hain made to the securing of devolved government, especially when one remembers all those home-grown Labour representatives who created difficulties or dragged their feet. Both in the Cabinet and subsequently in Opposition Hain has continued to think both creatively and pragmatically, not least with regard to the organisation and running of the Labour Party. In many ways his thirteenth and final chapter, Mission Unfulfilled, is the best in the book.
And yet one was always aware that in admiring Hain certain allowances had to be made, not least with regard to his all-too-obvious vanity. In Outside In Hain has written a dramatic account of his early years and a remarkably detailed account of Labour in office. Throughout, however, we are never very far from the ‘I’ dimension, a perspective brilliantly satirised by John Crace in the Guardian. One can imagine that his publisher urged him to start with Mandela, but actually to start the first sentence of the book with “Ah, Peter, return of the prodigal son!’ Nelson Mandela beamed”, pretty much takes the biscuit. And this account of a meeting with the great man at his home in 2000 ends with vainglorious banality: “we walked out together…his hand resting on my shoulders, in part affectionately, in part because (now aged eighty-one) he found walking increasingly difficult”.
So often do luminaries greet ‘Peter’ that one is soon longing for Mandela to slip up and call him ‘Brian’ or for Ian Paisley asking to be reminded of his name. Occasional footnotes remind us of Hain’s many publications, including his 1995 thriller The Peking Connection written following a trip to China. I had not previously known of this book though Robert Mugabe had, for the book had treated him sympathetically and in 1999 the author presented him with a copy. At their meeting Mugabe patted ‘Peter’ on the knee.
When all is said and done Hain’s vanity is so blatant and persistent that one just accepts it as a rather amusing and almost endearing part of his persona. Every politician has to cultivate some sense of his own worth and has to develop a coherent and acceptable image. Of course, Hain had to deal with being an ‘outsider’. He chose to live in another country and to abandon the role of protester as he entered mainstream politics, first in a small party and then in one that was capable of forming a government. In reliving this process I think Hain rather overdoes the relevance of his rebellious past, for the 1960s were a general period of protest and this country is full of successful business people, vice-chancellors and politicians who would be reluctant to discuss their 1960s values and lifestyles. What emerges from this book is that Hain being an outsider was far more of a psychological question than one of political extremism.
Once when I was in East Africa I saw Hain’s name in a newspaper headline. It was a story in which, in his capacity as ‘Minister for Africa’, Hain was making a general pronouncement about the future of the continent. I remember thinking at the time that Hain was destined to be Foreign Secretary. Reading this autobiography, the essential subtext is not that of a rebel choosing to play the insider’s game but rather of someone failing to make it into the higher echelons in the party of his choice.
In his noticeably favourable review of the book Martin Ivens spoke of Hain’s “career of reliable if unspectacular achievement”. Contrast this with the plane journey taken with Tony Blair in 2006. Hain accidentally sat in a seat designated for the Prime Minister and Blair commented, “You might as well get used to it, Peter”. This is the most revealing moment of the book, for whilst Hain was never a new Labourite (Robin Cook was his Labour hero) he was undoubtedly seduced by the Blair image and tantalisingly was faced with the possibility of being Blair Mark Two. And so it was that he became a Blairite Minister for Europe, supported the war in Iraq and agreed that Rhodri was not the man for Wales. There is something almost Shakespearean about the path that subsequently took Hain from that high-point of Blair’s casual aside and patronage to his coming only fifth in the 2008 Deputy Leader’s poll and then being dropped from the Cabinet as scandal threatened to ruin his career.
As he develops his theme of being an outsider Hain points out the he “was not born into the pernicious British class system” and insists that he has never seen himself as a “politician’s politician”. In these remarks, and in countless references throughout the book, one has the distinct impression of a politician who has never had any access to the sub-cultural batteries that fuel most of his colleagues. Of course, the fruits of his career have accrued. We learn of the small finca in Spain and one senses the move away from early religious influences, teetotalism and vegetarianism, but the pride in the ‘unostentatious lifestyle’ remains.
Throughout there are references to the relative ‘modesty’ of people’s homes and at one point there is a give-away reference to one politician’s immaculate appearance suggesting a sense of inferiority. Yes, Hain is vain, but his pride is essentially that of a petit-bourgeois and contrasts with the braggadocio arrogance exuded by most political leaders.
We are left in no doubt that his family have always come first. There is his devotion to his remarkable parents (for many years his mother was his secretary) and more recently the phenomenon of his kith and kin taking over Resolven. Hain was moulded in Pretoria and Putney but it is the Neath Valley that the family boma has been built. There remains something satisfactorily adolescent about Peter Hain and the evidence is there in his constant assertion of support for his beloved Chelsea team. One suspects that he would have willingly sacrificed his later political career if he could have swapped places with Jose Mourinho, ‘the Special One’. And, unlike Blair, his football is not an affectation. For all his over-developed sensitivity, Peter Hain’s roots, both old and new, are real enough.