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Features & profiles


Interview with Peter Hain - Britain's deputy foreign minister

2 November 2002

Published in The Age

“I remember having the most terrifying time of my life in Melbourne,” says Britain’s deputy foreign secretary Peter Hain. “Being chased out of a rugby ground by police on horseback. It was entirely gratuitous intimidation on their part.”

That was 1971, and Hain was the infamous British student organiser who came here to disrupt a tour by South Africa’s Springbok side. The visit was a startling success. Thanks partly to the Victoria Police’s “sickening” violence, the tour culminated in bad publicity worldwide for South Africa’s racially segregated sport.
“It also led to the cancellation of the [South African] cricket tour, which was due to take place the following September-October,” Hain says.
He’d achieved identical results the previous year in Britain. “It was a decisive time in the anti-apartheid battle. Nelson Mandela told me after his release that these protests were the decisive thing as far as they on Robben Island were concerned.”
Peter Hain is not, he says, “somebody who displays a lot of emotion publicly”. The vowels of his South African childhood have not entirely abandoned him. But underneath the phlegmatic British - and dour South African - layers, there’s a passion for change which has fired him since his activist family fled South Africa for London in 1966.
He was 16 then. At 52, he relishes the sense of things coming full circle. In the 1970s he was the subject of hate campaigns, and an assassination attempt, by the South African government. In the 1990s he was welcomed to post-apartheid South Africa as Minister for Africa.
And today, the student radical who once painted anti-apartheid slogans on British roadways is a Privy Councillor, Minister of State, and Minister for Europe. He is one of Britain’s leading spokesmen for the “war on terror”. The Guardian opines that with Hain, you are getting “early indications of where Blair is going next”.
With South Africa now out of the shadows, Hain’s immediate passion is for the new Europe.
“The big challenge, which I’m very involved in now, is enlarging Europe to bring in ten more countries - countries like Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania - right the way down to Cyprus and Malta. What that does is extend the zone of stability, democracy and human rights.”
Did he encounter much scepticism in Europe about Britain’s relationship with the US?
“Yeah - but it’s schizophrenic. On the one hand people in Europe are jealous of it, but on the other hand they know it’s really important. And they know that Washington, unfortunately, has very little regard for many other governments in Europe.”
Does he see Europe developing as a counterweight to an increasingly worrisome United States?
“I see Europe as a force for what I call progressive internationalism. Seeking all the time to have a relationship of friendship with the USA - but being clear where we stand.
“We’re not [for example] going to be bulldozed into reckless military adventures.”
Such as?
A diplomatic poker-face: “Well, wherever they might be.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, of course, cops the same flak as John Howard: that he is slavishly accommodating of the US. But Hain has read the secret transcripts of Blair’s conversations with President Bush.
“The idea that Blair is ‘Bush’s poodle’," he feels, "is just a complete fantasy."
The British public seems to disagree. In a poll last week, fifty-four percent of them were actually quite comfortable with the term “Bush’s poodle” for Blair.
Hain accepts that “President Bush is not a popular figure in Britain.” But he thinks the "poodle" jibe unfair, pointing out that Britain differs with the US over Kyoto, the International Criminal Court and the comprehensive test ban treaty. But, he says: “I think we have a position of influence because we are close” on the major cultural and geopolitical items.
Many British commentators say that that “influence” with the US is just window-dressing.
The deputy foreign secretary looks stern: “I happen to know that the eventual American and allied response in Afghanistan was very much influenced by Tony Blair’s views. And I think that what happens or doesn’t happen on Iraq will be similarly influenced.”
Whilst Tony Blair “was emotionally very, very shaken” by September 11, and had “a very clear view that you had to take bin Laden and his gang on and destroy them”, Hain acknowledges there are two sides to that coin: “I don’t think enough has been done to rebuild Afghanistan - especially by America. America’s very good at fighting wars, but not necessarily as good at rebuilding countries.”
Speaking of wars, was there going to be another one now?
“There are all sorts of different voices coming out of Washington,” he concedes. “But I really have a sense of deja vu. If you think of the weeks and days after September 11, there was a whole concern that President Bush was, within hours, about to unleash Cruise missiles on Kabul. Well it didn’t happen, did it?”
Might that have been Tony Blair’s influence?
“Well I’ve said what I have to say about that.”
This spell of reticence notwithstanding, Hain is startlingly frank by Australian political standards. The former campaigner against white rule in Rhodesia says of modern Zimbabwe:
“The Zimbabwean people have become the victims of a megalomaniac - it’s enough to make you cry.”
He even mention’s Zimbabwe’s misrule in the same breath as the new International Criminal Court - which, he says, should “catch war criminals like Saddam Hussein, Milosovich and Robert Mugabe”.
If the developing world is susceptible to these colourful tyrants, we seem more prone to  middle-raters. Are British politicians as venal and mediocre as Australia’s?
“Oh, I think there’s a lot of mediocrity in the British parliament. But I also think there are a lot of people with strong principles, who are doing their best.”
The British press seems to place Peter Hain in the latter category - to put it mildly. Journalist Andrew Roth writes:
“Mr Hain's problem is that his mixture of radical commitment and personal ambition compels him to try to energise and lead every organisation he joins. Shortly after reaching the Commons by way of a 1991 byelection, he joined the somnolent Tribune group, becoming its secretary in 1992. By the next year it had become so active and influential that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown felt it necessary to organise his ousting from the post.”
After chortling through the description, Hain acknowledges: “Well, the latter’s true. They got me axed, yeah. But I don’t think the former’s true. I’ve never been into getting up people’s arses to climb on a career.”
After catching up with his wife’s family, and Prime Minister Helen Clark, in New Zealand, Hain is relaxing here with his brother Tom (now an Australian resident) and family - and sampling a little Coopers, his favourite Australian beer. But his reputation for 80-hour working weeks is in no danger. Next week he arrives back in London on a 5.10 a.m. flight from Cairns, then catches a 6.45 a.m. flight to Manchester to speak at a Trade Union conference.
A referendum on the Euro looms - “I think that was one of the things I was brought in for”. And there may or may not be a “reckless military adventure” to defend.

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