/ 16 June 2012

The outsider who got in

Peter Hain chronicles his journey from apartheid activist to insider in Tony Blair's government.
Peter Hain chronicles his journey from apartheid activist to insider in Tony Blair's government.

OUTSIDE IN by Peter Hain (Biteback Publishing Ltd)

The trouble with politicians’ memoirs is that they are fatally prone to self-congratulation, self-vindication and the ­settlement of ancient scores.

Peter Hain’s Outside In is not entirely free of these vices, but much of it does have the benefit of being written in an accessible, even racy narrative style.

And although it centrally revolves around his years in the New Labour cabinets of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, moderately well-informed and politically aware non-Britons should find it accessible.

Some sections of the book — for example the chapter on the arcana of Europolitics and Britain’s confused relationship with its continental neighbours — will hold little interest for local readers.

But his account of his role in ­helping to bring settlement to the seemingly intractable sectarian conflicts of Northern Ireland — undoubtedly the greatest political achievement of Blair’s government — should engage local readers because of its parallels with the South African experience.

The politician’s natural egotism and belief that readers must share his or her personal sense of outrage over alleged mistreatment is most evident in Hain’s version of the events leading up to his resignation from the Cabinet in 2008.

He may or may not have been the victim of a media feeding frenzy over his failure to disclose donations made to his campaign for the Labour Party deputy leadership. His non­disclosure may have been an ­innocent oversight, and other, more scarlet sinners may, indeed, have escaped scot-free.

But frankly, the rights and wrongs have all been swallowed by what TS Eliot calls “the languor of broken steel”. As Hain himself observes, the only certainty in politics is the end of ministerial terms. And four years later, who — particularly from the remote vantage point of the tip of Africa — really cares?

As a Kenyan-born South African suddenly transplanted to England in his teens when his liberal parents chose exile, Hain is preoccupied with the phenomenon of the political outsider — hence the book’s title.

Particularly once in government, he was the outsider who was now in the belly of the system. He suggests that this was both a drawback that he never completely overcame, and a source of strength and ­alternative vision that helped him as a ­campaigner, mobiliser and deadlock-breaker.

The activist passions he imbibed in apartheid South Africa, particularly from his liberal parents, who were both banned, undoubtedly informed his role as agitator-in-chief during the protests against touring Springbok rugby and cricket sides in the late 1960s.

The direct-action tactics that made the protests so effective were partly the product of the envelope-pushing, hellraising youth culture of those years. But one suspects that they also grew out of Hain’s distinctly non­British sense of what was proper and lawful.

His upbringing also left him free of British snobbery, suspicion of “foreigners” and class-consciousness, which made him an ideal secretary of state for Wales, well equipped to deal with local Labour leaders and his parliamentary constituency of Neath.

His account of the referendum on Welsh devolution shows him in his natural element — pressing the flesh and winning round ordinary people in a face-to-face campaign.

It was to the Northern Ireland ­crisis that he most obviously applied his outsider’s perspective. He understood that the typically British reflex — to favour moderates and build consensus around them — was a blind alley and that without the buy-in of the “extremist” Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionists, there could be no lasting solution. He specifically refers to the failure of centrist initiatives in South Africa, including attempts to bolster Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

His opening move was to court Protestant hardliner Ian Paisley, whom the British government had traditionally seen as a pain in the neck, and prepare him to lead a future coalition government. The Paisley of his narrative is a surprise: he is portrayed as “an old-fashioned gentleman” with a wry wit.

Outside In contains other interesting vignettes, including an unflattering glimpse of Thabo Mbeki urging the inclusion of apartheid stooge and mass murderer Jonas Savimbi in Angolan settlement talks, on grounds that the Unita leader and his followers were real Africans whereas the MPLA were only “mesticos” (mulattos). So much for Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech …

Apart from the odd slighting comment about his centralising tendencies, the depiction of Blair is overwhelmingly positive. Much is made of his ability to keep numerous balls in the air at the same time, his rhetorical skills and his instinct for the political heart of any issue.

Hain’s persistent ooh-ahing about Blair — whom he describes as the greatest Labour premier — is my main quarrel with Outside In. Some would argue that New Labour was a betrayal of the party’s essential traditions and character, and that ­Clement Attlee, for one, was a far greater socialist leader.

But more importantly, Hain’s account downplays the central shame of Blair’s leadership — his odious truckling to George Bush and the United States’ neocons, a betrayal of Labour’s historical ties with the Democrats, and the whole duplicity-ridden, unlawful British adventure in Iraq.

It is a travesty to argue, as Hain does, that the Blair government’s legitimate case for war was drowned out by the unfortunate discovery that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The alleged weapons, not human rights concerns, were the official rationale for war!

Hain’s stance on Iraq perhaps reveals a more complex truth — that by the end of his 12 years in Blair’s government, he was no longer an outsider. The ideological aliens were his fellow ministers Robin Cook and Clare Short, who had the decency, and old-style Labour instincts, to quit over Iraq.