The New Statesman Interview - Peter Hain

I'm from the left and on the left, he says, but the former campaigner is whispered to be heading for

Peter Hain, the former militant activist, once dreamed of overturning the smug certainties of the diplomats. Now, every morning as he sweeps into their sumptuous Whitehall lair in his ministerial car, he still sees himself, he says, metaphorically "standing outside the Foreign Office" with today's angry, banner-waving groups. "I understand where they're coming from," he says. "In different circumstances, I might be standing there." Ha, say the critics, fat chance, Hain. You're a sell-out. What about the children of Iraq?

We will come to them. Meanwhile, Hain's hopes of a revolution are burning bright in the apparently imperturbable, silky, self-assured world of British foreign policy. He has been working with passionate energy on a new role for the FO, which he calls nothing less than the "death of foreign policy", and which will shape the second-term agenda if Labour wins this year. Nothing odd in that, you may think: lots of ambitious ministers are thinking about the second term. Yes, but few are publishing their ideas, as Hain is in a new Fabian Society pamphlet. It is a blueprint (or a greenprint, maybe) for an environmentalist, civil-rights-focused foreign policy, more closely knitted to the domestic agenda.

Hain's theme is that the interplay of two forces - the new links between people as a result of better communications and the limits imposed on the world by nature - have made traditional foreign policy redundant. "Our domestic policy is inextricably bound like an umbilical cord to foreign policy . . . previously, you could be doing pretty well anything you liked at home and go off on some foreign policy. Well you can't do that any more." His examples include dealing with climate change, arresting the spread of Aids, combating drug traffickers, even coping with a computer virus from the Philippines that disabled ten million computers worldwide. None of these issues, Hain believes, can be dealt with by the British Foreign Office alone.

Despite the Edwardian grandeur and "clever chaps" culture of the FO, it is an institution in trouble. The one big issue of foreign policy - Europe - has been hijacked by 10 and 11 Downing Street. For the rest, John Prescott has taken the lead on the hugely important climate-change agenda, while diplomats struggle with the significant backlash caused by disappointment over Robin Cook's "ethical foreign policy" on Iraq and Indonesia, among others. Hain's solution is to return the Foreign Office to centre stage - to realise the promise of that hackneyed phrase "joined-up government". He sees the Foreign Office becoming "more influential" because "our stability and prosperity at home depend on the ability of the international community to act together". Nearly four years in Whitehall have convinced him that "departmentalitis" still gets in the way.

Isn't it naive to hope that Whitehall departments, and indeed politicians, will lose their determined sense of self-preservation and self-promotion? Perhaps worse, isn't this just a cynical attempt by the impatient Hain to take his boss's job after the next election, and to make sure the job matters a damn sight more than it does now? Hain is exasperated: "That's so much crap, if I'm allowed to use an unministerial statement," he says. He declares great loyalty to Robin Cook, describing himself as one of Cook's "oldest political friends". Hain says he is more than happy to continue in his present job, working under Cook, after the election. "Unless a better offer comes along," he adds quickly. And indeed, it might well. For a minister who is not yet in the Cabinet, Hain has achieved a formidably high profile. He has ranged way beyond his brief as minister for Africa, the Middle East and human rights, and has easily eclipsed his fellow FO ministers of state, Keith Vaz and John Battle. He is talked about, in some parts of the party at least, as a future leader.

Tanned and fit after a ministerial visit to South Africa, he clearly relishes the pace of life in government. We begin our interview in his office in the Commons; within five minutes, he is summoned to the Foreign Office for a meeting with Robin Cook. Half an hour later, we restart the interview in his room at the Foreign Office, but he has barely opened his mouth before the division bell goes: there's a vote in the Commons and we are whisked back. His phone rings constantly with news of late-night votes at Westminster, an interview early the next morning for the Today programme, a slot on Newsnight the following evening. Yet Hain insists it is essential that ministers find time for long-term thinking; it is all too easy to get bogged down in the daily grind of government. "I've always prided myself on trying to keep my eyes up above the frenetic day-to-day political dogfight and concentrate on the more strategic issues." He has forged a friendship with his counterpart at the Home Office, Charles Clarke, another minister who is prepared to think aloud, who doesn't shy from facing the media and who seems relatively unperturbed by commands from on high. Both are tipped for promotion, yet both enrage former colleagues who describe them as sell-outs.

Never more so, in Peter Hain's case, than on Iraq. Hain is excoriated by critics (see, for example, John Pilger, page 8) for his stubborn support for sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime, which, his opponents claim, are costing the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians while leaving Saddam untouched. Hain is unapologetic, claiming the idea that he has sold out is "a lie". "Do you define selling out as standing up firmly against Saddam Hussein's brutal tyranny?" he demands. "If so, you've got a pretty odd definition of selling out." He warms to his theme: "I think there's a serious argument to be had about sanctions, but I find it almost incomprehensible that certain individuals, including New Statesman columnists, get on some kind of fabricated moral high horse and level insults left, right and centre, when actually they're offering no serious alternative." According to Hain, his critics have offered succour to Saddam, which in turn prevented sanctions being lifted a year ago. He simply cannot understand why his stance on Iraq has become "a totem of left betrayal".

Would not the Peter Hain of 30 years ago have understood perfectly well, I ask. No, he insists; he was never a pacifist, pointing out that he supported the invasions of both Iraq and the Falklands, when a lot of people on the left opposed them.

So is the former anti-apartheid campaigner who once dug up cricket pitches still on the left? He describes himself as "unapologetically from the left and still on the left", but condemns as corrosive what he calls the left's "culture of betrayal". According to Hain: "Instead of concentrating on how you can build and move things forward, you look for people about to sell you out . . . well, that's why the right usually wins."

He does not assume that the next election is in the bag for Labour and is deeply worried about apathy. Supporters may wake up, he fears, "to a result they don't like". He sees Labour's big challenge as reminding people that "if they don't vote, the Tories could still win, or at least produce a hung parliament".

But he finds the Labour heartlands in better cheer than they were a couple of years ago, when he had protested that the government was not doing enough for its core voters. The pension increase, the minimum wage and the investment in schools are all feeding through, he believes. He wants the government to paint a clearer picture of the kind of society it is trying to create in the second term: "We've got to be able to give a vision of what we're going to achieve." No safety first there.

Nor is Hain a "safety first" man on the issue of Europe. He mocks the idea that the election campaign can be fought with the single currency kept firmly in the background, and is not afraid to suggest that the government shouldn't hang around too long before holding a referendum on Britain's entry. Hain believes the government "can and will win a euro referendum at the right time", but warns against the difficulties of waiting until the mid-term, when there's "more apathy about".

For now, Hain tries to fight off such apathy by asking himself each week: "Have I made a difference - it's a motto - if I wasn't here, would somebody else have done it just as well?" His critics will rage that he has made a difference - a bloody awful difference in Iraq - but Hain does not see it that way. He lists his achievements: in Angola, tightening sanctions on Unita; his new environmental agenda; giving Africa policy a prominence it didn't have before; ideas such as solar energy for Africa, where only 9 per cent of the population, outside South Africa, have access to electricity. He sees his greatest achievement in this job as the agreement reached at last May's non-proliferation treaty review conference in New York, where "we got global commitment, for the first time, for the global elimination of nuclear weapons".

One is suddenly reminded of Hain's old idealism. Here is a radical who has fallen out with his former friends over Iraq, yet is not fully trusted by traditional Labour types, either. However, Hain is, and always has been, prepared to think big. He wants a world "where there is no longer any such place as abroad". His new thinking on foreign policy is certainly brave and some of the most innovative to have emerged from Whitehall. So how far up the greasy pole of power does he want to go? A ministerial colleague had dismissed his chances of the leadership because "the British people would never allow a South African prime minister". Quick as a flash, Hain assures me he has British citizenship (he was born in Kenya), "so I've always had my own British passport by birth - I probably meet Norman Tebbit's cricket test".

Despite calling his new pamphlet The End of Foreign Policy?, Peter Hain is certainly not writing himself out of a job.

The End of Foreign Policy? by Peter Hain is published by the Fabian Society, the Green Alliance and the Royal Institute of International Affairs on Monday 22 January

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up