"I think that our policies are miles better than the Tories'," says Peter Hain. It is not the most encouraging of comments; it would rank low in any test of a prospective Labour candidate, grilled on how he would present the party's programme to the media. Yet here it was, uttered by a senior party figure, a Foreign Office minister, a man with a pre-Labour Party life of protest and passion. Has he gone daft?
No. He is simply responding to the question: will the ethical dimension to Britain's foreign policy remain firmly in place? The question causes him to say the sentence above, slowly and carefully, as a necessary prelude, which is then fleshed out by the observations that the main non-governmental organisations praise many of the particular policies, including those on arms-trading; that the overseas aid budget has been raised 28 per cent in three years; that Britain has been a leader in pressing for debt relief for the devastated economies of the developing world.
He then says: "We don't live in an ethical world and we don't live in a perfect world. I think, if there was a mistake made, it was in allowing the policy [on the ethical dimension] to be presented as if we could have perfection. What I would say - and this was well set out by Robin Cook in a speech he gave at the end of February - is that, you know, British values, labour values, socialist values if you like, based on principles and morality - we will apply these as best we can wherever we can, and we do whatever we can. That means there are no absolutes in the case, of, for example, China, which is a particularly difficult case, or Russia, another difficult case. Human rights, in fact, do take up a great deal of the time in these meetings - it was about two-thirds of the meeting Robin Cook had with Putin, and a considerable time during the Prime Minister's meeting with him.
"The other thing I would say is - because you can't do everything - is that a reason for doing nothing? I've been developing some core responses on this, because I don't think we as a government have been very good at explaining what we are doing in this area. I am very struck in the Foreign Office that we are probably more besieged in terms of criticism than any other department, over a period. The phrase 'ethical foreign policy' was never used - it was 'ethical dimension'. But in a sense it was a hook on which we found ourselves, and I think it has obscured the very big advances we have made."
I ask if the phrase "ethical dimension", as well as the practice of it, would remain. Hain says: "What will remain is what I have said. We will continue to pursue policies which are principled and to apply these values and principles in a tough, imperfect unethical world as best we can." I ask if discussion of human rights with, for example, the Chinese has got anywhere. "What is interesting is that the Chinese, who for years refused to talk about human rights, now have a critical dialogue with us on this . . . We have bilateral meetings twice a year and every time we meet we raise issues. How do you measure? They are willing to talk about it. There have been some advances, and there have been some very severe retreats in China. There's no attempt to try to deny our right to raise these issues. You know . . . it's not entirely successful; I wouldn't pretend it is. But there's not really an alternative, in China, or in Russia's case, I think."
This is an important, if constrained, shifting of the official position. Hain - whose portfolio includes Africa and the Middle East, as well as "cross-cutting" issues such as nuclear proliferation and human rights - has taken (and had when he came to office) a much higher profile than any other FO minister below Cook. When he says that he has been developing some "core responses" on the ethical dimension, he reveals - it is an open secret within the Foreign Office - that the phrase is being consigned to the memory hole. It was, he is saying, given too much of a flourish when brought out nearly three years ago, immediately after the election. The immensity of what it connoted has been too great to bear. Instead of persevering with it, new Labour will do its best with principles and morality, wherever and whenever.
Hain, who later says he is seen by the Foreign Secretary as a "soul mate", has done more than most ministers to keep his left-wing credentials to the fore. He himself raises the matter of his youth, when he demonstrated against US actions in Vietnam. He also blames the US for the present plight of Angola, because it armed and supported the Unita rebels. "So the US has got some pretty bad skeletons in its cupboard. In Latin America, in Bolivia, Guatemala, virtually any dictator was supported if he could be seen as an anti-communist. I'm a strong critic of America in that period."
But in this period, he finds a pronounced shift in US policy away from supporting tyrants to taking them on. He thinks that Saddam Hussein is one of the most evil men in the world. He is prepared to keep sanctions going for as long as it takes, because sanctions, he believes, have penned Saddam into his country and prevented him from launching attacks on his neighbours. "I've never been a pacifist; I thought there was no alternative to taking on Saddam Hussein. I thought, too, there was no alternative, given the way the Tories bungled the lead-up to the Falklands war, to fighting the Argentines. I've always had arguments with people on the left about this . . . The point I feel most strongly about the critique on the sanctions advanced by John Pilger and the others is: what is the alternative to the sanctions policy? They don't have one. They just hold up their hands innocently, and say: it isn't down to us if Saddam goes and invades another country, or the Kurds get obliterated by mustard gas. I think that's an indefensible position. He is still developing weapons of mass destruction - and what makes me angry with the critics is that they don't seem to care. He's still developing chemical weapons. To say he doesn't have these weapons sounds like an apology for one of the most brutal tyrants of modern times. Our intelligence suggests that he does have that capability. He has a latent nuclear capability. If left unchecked and unpoliced, he could develop a nuclear weapon system. How does Pilger know he couldn't?"
Hain also speaks passionately about Zimbabwe which, in his view, could have been one of the giants of Africa, but has been turned into a liability during Robert Mugabe's 20 years in power. "The idea of Mugabe's - that Britain is trying to do Zimbabwe down - is pure invention; all of the donor countries have been wringing their hands in exasperation at this - and a lot of African countries, too - at Zimbabwe's failure to engage with the international financial institutions. The economic policies are so backward that it would not be responsible to waste money in that way.
"Look at land reform. The distribution of land is grossly unfair, a relic of colonialism. But what has happened is that the land has been redistributed by the government - half of it has gone to cronies - who have not only pocketed it but don't farm it. So you have got land which is not being farmed and the country is not productive. So it's starved of foreign exchange . . . I had a very good meeting with Mugabe in a London hotel in late October, where both sides thought we'd done well - though his paranoia and conspiracy theories about Britain were evident then. But, literally the next day, there was a demonstration against him at his hotel by Peter Tatchell on his attitude to gays; and on the phone from Harare, Mudenge [the foreign minister] accused the British secret services of setting the whole thing up with Tatchell. When you get that level of paranoia, you can't do anything."
But what of the domestic front? Hain has recently warned that the Labour leadership pays too little attention to the "heartlands" or "core Labour voters" - a complaint he says he has discussed with the Prime Minister. He says that "the Budget was a major step in addressing this", and says he wants to say no more now. But he does add that "there is always an alternative" for the core voters. "I don't just mean the core Labour voters in a cloth-cap way - there is a core Guardian voters as well, and they are equally important. Civil liberties are very important here. But I don't see the core Labour vote and the new Labour vote as actually being in conflict. Some of my friends on the left would say that we should forget about the Daily Mail vote - well, that would mean that Labour would never be elected again. I don't take that view. I think that Tony Blair has done something really important for the left - he has assembled a broad coalition behind new Labour . . . a progressive coalition, and this should not be given up to retreat into a narrow workerist position.
"But it is also true that every Labour government - and the Prime Minister is well aware of it - has failed to turn out its supporters. Harold Wilson lost because the council estates didn't come out. I remember seeing it in Putney [the area of south London where Hain lived]. It's complicated. Because the Tories are not seen as a threat, there is a complacency around that we are just going to roll in again. There is this feeling that Hague is a joke - I don't think he is, actually. We just have to make sure - it is about style, language, communication. I am always struck when I do talks about how few people know about the working families tax credit, or the minimum wage. Yet the minimum wage is historic. This is one of the most radical Labour governments there has ever been, which is why I am proud to be a minister in it."
He will not be drawn further. Asked about reports that he, with Robin Cook, had protested against the actions by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, in trying to muzzle the media reporting on the allegations made by David Shayler, the renegade MI5 officer, he responds: "I will say: no comment". He adds: "Jack Straw has done some really good things; he pursued the Stephen Lawrence case, when the Tories had let it drop."
And then he stops.