Interview: Peter Hain

The Northern Ireland Secretary wants to inject ethics back into foreign policy after all the courtin

Before we arrived to meet Peter Hain at the Millbank monstrosity that houses MI5 as well as the Northern Ireland Office, we had been told that he had much he wanted to say about foreign affairs. Hain was barely five minutes into his pitch for Labour's deputy leadership when he let rip.

"The neo-con mission has failed." No caveats about Tony Blair's friend from across the sea. "It's not only failed to provide a coherent international policy, it's failed wherever it's been tried, and it's failed with the American electorate, who kicked it into touch last November. So if neo-con unilateralism has damaged the fight against global terrorism and taken the world's eyes off the ball of solving the Middle East conflict, for example, we've got to really get back on that agenda."

Hain served as a minister in the Foreign Office under the late Robin Cook, who pledged to introduce an ethical dimension to Britain's global dealings. Now a credible candidate for any one of the foreign-affairs posts under a Gordon Brown premiership - International Development, Defence, or the Foreign Office itself - Hain is adamant that the incoming administration should remember what Labour stood for circa 1997. "All that we've achieved on the international agenda, whether it's trebling aid to Africa, or leading the fight for trade justice, or lifting billions in debt off the poorest countries, or whether it's a new arms export policy which imposes tough controls - all of Robin Cook's policy agenda, including the focus on human rights that he brought in - all of these things people have forgotten about because of the Iraq conflict."

Arms sales? Tough controls? We interrogate Hain on Blair's personal instruction to stop the Serious Fraud Office investigation into alleged bribery involving BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia. He does not justify the decision, resorting to that time-honoured get-out clause of cabinet responsibility. As we press him, his discomfort grows. He becomes angry. "We can do a dog-and-bone job on this if you like," he says, "but then we won't have space to talk about what I think is a very progressive record I'm putting out for the future. I'm part of the collective decision. That's where I stand on that."

Hain could be seen as falling into that category of Labour ministers who express anguish about the war without summoning the words to apologise for their part. Or maybe his refusal to resile from it is a mark of courage? He says he still supports the original decision, not because he backed regime change, but because he believed the threat of weapons of mass destruction was real. "No Labour minister, as I was at the time, can shirk responsibility for it or deny responsibility for it." He now argues that the removal from public life of anyone who was a member of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party was a catastrophic error. He suggests the US should have learned from the "truth and reconciliation" model of his native South Africa: "It's like assuming that everybody who survived under Hitler was a Nazi. I remember in South Africa, at the time when my parents were jailed . . . people who were not card-carrying apartheid fanatics. But they just turned a blind eye to it - they got a job, they just survived."

Hain says the wipe-out of the Republicans in the US mid term elections provides Brown with a historic opportunity to disown Blair's neo-con allies and embrace the likes of John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. "Our sister party is the Democratic Party, so for me the results in November were fantastic." He was delighted to hear Hillary Clinton raise the issue of a minimum wage. "People forget that it wasn't just due to Iraq that the Republicans lost. It was also the fact that they had damaged middle- and low-income earners, [through] their standard of living, quite seriously . . . I think the neo-con agenda for America has been rejected by the people and I hope that will be the case for the future."

We ask Hain where Blair has gone wrong. He points to the difficulty in translating a close working relationship with Bill Clinton's administration into a similar one with Bush. "The problem for us as a government . . . was actually to maintain a working relationship with what was the most right-wing American administration, if not ever, then in living memory."

Hain's intervention comes as Brown begins the painful process of repositioning British foreign policy. The Chancellor's indications that he will give more weight to UK national interests are designed to foreshadow a more sober approach to the US. His close ally and Middle East envoy, Ed Balls, has admitted grave errors in the conduct of the war on terror. For a serving minister, Hain has gone further still.

In last week's NS, Charles Clarke was scathing about Blair's foreign policy, declaring that his good intentions had turned to dust. The former home secretary was no more charitable about Brown, saying he bore as much responsibility, and sometimes more. Hain says he is comfortable with Clarke's remarks: "He's making some really interesting and, I think, stimulating contributions from the back benches. It's important that he's doing so. Because what Charles is trying to contribute to is the revitalisation of policy-making, of the way we behave as a government and our mission for the future."

Four-point pitch

We move on to the deputy leadership campaign, which has been difficult to conduct for Hain, given the number of hours he has spent in the frantic search for a political agreement in Northern Ireland, ahead of the March deadline. He makes a four-point pitch for a job he believes will be crucial: to reconnect the leadership with a party that feels neglected; to assert the Brown agenda of economic stability and public investment, backed with a strong approach to security; to extend equality by narrowing the gap between rich and poor (he has been holding regular meetings with organisations promoting social justice); and to renew the democratic structures of the party and other political institutions. He issues a stark warning about the next election: "I feel very strongly and passionately that unless we completely renew and revitalise Labour, both in terms of our radicalism, our energy and our passion and a reassertion of our values, we ain't gonna win."

So what differentiates him from the other four (and counting) in the pack? "People know from my track record, from my early days of anti-apartheid campaigning, that I have always been independently minded whilst accepting collective decision-making and being a loyal team player," he says. "If you look at what I've done in government, whether it's devolution in Wales . . . or the international treaty to stop the trade in blood diamonds, or whether it's as Europe minister . . . or whether it's now in Northern Ireland, there's a very distinctive radical agenda in everything that I've done."

Marks of a big hitter

In this context, he is particularly keen to point to his achievements in Northern Ireland, where he has abolished the eleven-plus, brought in regulations banning discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and increased local taxes to raise money for health, education and sustainable energy. He supported the Dublin government in its lobbying to keep the island of Ireland nuclear-free.

"I've never hidden the fact that I've never been a fan of nuclear power." He argued in cabinet to increase the emphasis on renewable sources in the recent energy review. Although he accepted the cabinet's decision to allow companies to bid for new nuclear power stations, he remains sceptical it will happen. "Let's see if anyone wants to build one of these things, you know. I remain doubtful about that. But I'm also clear that it's government's responsibility to keep the lights on and keep energy supply secure."

On Trident, Hain sticks close to the line that the Labour manifesto of 2005 committed the government to keeping an independent deterrent. But he insists he urged Blair to ensure that a full debate take place, in the party and the country - a debate he says is about to happen. He points to attempts in the past to impose, without discussion, important decisions such as student fees, foundation hospitals and the education bill that brought in trust schools. "They've all been bounced on the party and created tremendous ill-will and disillusionment."

Hain is labouring under two possible handicaps in this race: he is not a woman, nor is he English. We ask him if this matters. "Whether you are a man or a woman, it's not your gender but your agenda that matters," he says. "Whether you represent a Welsh, Scottish or English constituency, it's what you stand for, what your record is, that matters."

He rarely mentions the Prime Minister if we don't. So we ask him if he stands by an assertion, made during an NS interview two years ago, that Blair will be seen as a greater premier than even Attlee. He says he does, and points to Ulster as one of Blair's lasting legacies. "When Tony steps down, one of his proudest achievements . . . is what we've achieved in Northern Ireland. I think we will see Martin McGuinness as deputy and Ian Paisley as First Minister on 26 March, [although] Northern Ireland's politicians have an enormous capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

So is Peter Hain a serious contender? He is certainly less of a machine politician than some of the other candidates, and he talks a good radical talk. His habit of courting controversy appears to be as strong as ever. And yet, whenever it comes to the big vote in parliament and cabinet - on the war, Trident, schools and hospitals - he falls in line.

One thing is for sure: Hain would not be dull in the job. Leaving his office, we are ushered through the waiting room and past the band Snow Patrol. You know politicians have become big hitters when rock stars agree to meet them.

Peter Hain: the CV

Born: 16 February 1950 in Nairobi, Kenya

1969-70 Leads protests to stop South African rugby and cricket tours of the UK; later fined for his anti-apartheid activism

1976 Tried and acquitted for bank robbery, allegedly framed by South African intelligence

1977 Joins Labour after being president of the Young Liberals

April 1991 Elected Labour MP for Neath

1996 Appointed shadow employment minister

Since 1997 victory, has served as minister in the Welsh Office, Foreign Office and DTI

October 2002 Joins cabinet as Welsh Secretary

June 2003 to May 2005 Leader of Commons

May 2005 Appointed Northern Ireland Secretary

September 2006 Announces candidacy for deputy leadership

Research by Sam Alexandroni

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics