David Williamson: Peter Hain was a big beast from Wales – will Westminster see his like again?

By David Williamson 

The Neath MP has never known a quiet life – and he is not about to retreat from the public stage now.

There was an echo of Tony Benn when Peter Hain last week announced he was to leave the House of Commons where he has served as MP for Neath since 1991.

Just as the late Labour left-winger announced his own departure from parliament on the grounds he planned to “spend more time on politics”, Mr Hain made it very clear that he has no intention of stepping off the public stage. This is not a bowing-out act but the transition to a new act.

Using Twitter, he said he was “moving on to remain active in politics, campaigning for justice, freedom, equality, democracy”.

This will not be the second act in 64-year-old Mr Hain’s career but at least the third. As the 19-year-old chairman of the Stop the Seventy Tour he sprang to national attention as a vociferous anti-apartheid campaigner who disrupted the all-white Springbok rugby tour of Britain. The cancellation of that year’s cricket tour was a major victory which cemented his reputation as a young South African ready to rock the establishment.

Mr Hain has never displayed any inclination towards a quiet life, although that was never an option for him.

His parents received “banning orders” from the South African regime as a result of their anti-apartheid activities and took the family to Britain only when it became impossible to earn a living in their homeland. Due to his own campaigning, Mr Hain was sent a letter bomb and the UK Government put him under surveillance.

He was a founder member of the Anti-Nazi League in 1977, a move which cemented his status as an enemy of the British far right. The UK had no shortage of radical left-wing parties at this time but Mr Hain switched his allegiance from the Young Liberals, where he had been president, to Labour.

A job as head of research at the Union of Communication Workers immersed him in the world of Britain’s trade unions and his victory in the 1991 Neath by-election ensured he would put down roots in Labour’s Welsh heartlands. Many of Labour’s rising stars gravitated to seats in the former industrial heartlands at this time but the move proved particularly meaningful for Mr Hain, who has embraced a political identity as a “libertarian socialist”.

In his statement last week he made it clear we should not expect to see a “for sale” sign anytime soon at his Aberdulais home.

He wrote of his constituents: “They warmly welcomed me as an outsider, and members of my family subsequently moved to the Neath Valley where I will remain living after I have stepped down and continue to support Labour in our mission to build a better Neath.”

In Government, he would serve as Welsh Secretary, play a central role in securing a Yes vote in the 1997 Assembly referendum and lay the legislative foundation for the 2011 public vote on primary law-making powers.

His wife, Elizabeth Haywood, is one of the highest-profile figures in Wales’ business community as a former chair of CBI Wales and a Welsh Woman of the Year winner.

Critics may wish more powers had come the Assembly’s way while he was at the helm, and the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition came the closest to splitting in 2009 when a joint-statement by Mr Hain and First Minister Rhodri Morgan signalled their party would not start consulting on the All Wales Convention’s referendum recommendations until after the 2010 election. Ahead of the 2007 election he insisted there was “no prospect” of Labour doing a deal with Plaid and in February 2011 he urged his party to “kick the nationalists out of government”.

Nevertheless, Mr Hain was on the stage at the Welsh College of Music and Drama that night in 1997 when the victory for the Yes campaign was announced. He speaks with pride of delivering devolution and – from his perspective as a Labour MP with Scots about to vote on independence in less than 100 days – he may well feel he was justified in his concerns about the entry of nationalists to government.

But one of the most striking aspects of his parliamentary career is how he was both intimately involved in Wales’s constitutional evolution and yet played a role on the frontline of Westminster politics.

Today, ambitious young Welsh politicians face the choice between fighting for a seat in an Assembly in which they will not have a say on international affairs, defence and, for the time being, welfare, or seeking to enter Westminster where they will not be able to vote on Wales’ health or education policies. It is interesting to ask where Aneurin Bevan would go if he was starting out today.

As a foreign minister and later a Work & Pensions Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons and Northern Ireland Secretary, Mr Hain was a big beast from Wales. When he brought Sinn Fein and the DUP together in government jaws dropped around the world – his intimate knowledge of a nation other than England can only have helped him in this role.

UK politics will be diminished if we do not see his like again but the man himself is not preparing to escape the spotlight. Rather, a new adventure may be about to begin.

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