All The More Reason

Peter Hain
January 23, 2007, 7:25 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

In his valedictory speech to the Labour Party Conference, Tony Blair was effusive in his praise for George Howarth, Janet Anderson and Mike Hall. Why? Because, well…

Good ministers, but I asked them to make way.

Because he had sacked them. The aforementioned ex-ministers must have welcomed the name-check, even if George Howarth might have been left pondering exactly which aspect of his Northern Ireland brief was performed so well as to merit his dismissal. The ministerial reshuffle is a curious sport.

The Prime Minister described their common virtue:

‘They never forgot their principles when in office; and they never discovered them when they left office.’

In plain, and less rhetorically appealing terms, this is to say that they all adhered to the principle of ministerial responsibility. As a member of the government, you must take collective responsibility for government action. If you have a disagreement, you leave your ministerial post, as well as your ministerial car and your ministerial salary (although if dismissed you receive a year’s salary- a safety-net for the ill effects of Prime Ministerial caprice). A minister is politically and morally responsible for the collective decisions of government until he drops out of the collective.

Without wishing to take anything away from Messrs Howarth, Hall and Anderson’s admirable, and constitutionally proper, knack of marching in tight formation towards their own destruction, I rather think that their Field Marshall’s comments were aimed at another target altogether.

With the notable exception of the late Robin Cook, very few Labour Cabinet Ministers have resigned, since 1997, as a result of a fundamental disagreement with government policy. Claire Short made the rather elementary, but surprisingly common, error of resigning in opposition to a policy agreed by a Cabinet of which she was a member. The barb hooked from Blair’s semi-colon was doubtless intended to spike Short after her defection to a whipless no-man’s land.

Peter Hain, deputy leadership ‘hopeful’, is the latest minister to claim that ‘ I never done believed in what I was voting for after all’. Like the superannuated light entertainer, who- did he mention?- ‘does a lot of work for charity’ (did he mention that?), Hain never misses an opportunity to crowbar into the conversation his undoubtedly noble opposition to apartheid in the 1970s. But I wouldn’t want you to think him a monomaniac. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, deputy-leadership-hopeful-Peter-Hain has a view on just about anything you want. So what will it be, comrades? Iraq, you say…?

In an interview with the New Statesman magazine, Hain has criticised American, and by extension, British foreign policy in the Middle East as ‘failed’, whilst offering an unequivocal mea culpa:

“No Labour minister, as I was at the time, can shirk responsibility for it or deny responsibility for it.”.

Unfortunately, he then goes on to do just that; criticising almost every aspect of the policy in Iraq that he had a hand in implementing, except that of the original decision to go to war.

In the absence of a leadership contest, the poll for the deputy leadership post is likely to be the only meaningful opportunity for members of the Labour Party to engage in frank and open debate with key figures about the future of their party. The contenders for this position should be willing to say something interesting and fresh, rather than resorting to the stale rhetoric of the lowest common denominator. With the exception of John Cruddas, all those contesting the post are current members of the Cabinet. We should ensure that their rhetoric matches their record.

To believe that the party has strayed off course and ought to move in a different direction is no crime, but we should always ask ourselves why those who now make a virtue of their strongly held convictions have, up to this point, lacked the courage to express them. In politics, to think is to act.

In the case of Peter Hain, it strikes me as rather uncourageous to employ collective responsibility as a cloak for one’s true views on ‘taking an eye off the ball of Middle East peace’ or an ‘incoherent foreign policy’, particularly when open dissent at the time could have actually made a difference. To crow, after the event, about a ‘failed’ policy you failed to prevent is nothing short of bizarre. But to do so cynically, in furtherance of a bid for political office, is grubby. Forget ‘finding’ your principles after leaving office; anyone who can abandon their principles so readily when in search for office, is probably one to steer clear of.

Michael P


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