Tribute to Nelson Mandela

I thank the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their perhaps over-generous remarks about my role. Let me simply underline that there were many tens of thousands of activists in the Anti-Apartheid Movement who deserve to be acknowledged as well.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your personal leadership in ensuring that this tribute debate is such a special event, as you said, for such a special person. I note that you are wearing the South African tie on this occasion. I specifically thank you—this is very important—for proposing, along with the Lord Speaker, Thursday afternoon’s Westminster Hall event for civil society including, importantly, veteran activists of the Anti-Apartheid Movement who worked so tirelessly over many tough and bitter decades both for Nelson Mandela’s release and for the sanctions against apartheid that he wanted and that ultimately triggered his freedom.

I have never really been into heroes but Nelson Mandela was mine from when I was a young boy in Pretoria and unique among my school friends and relatives in having parents who welcomed everybody to their house regardless of colour—activists in the anti-apartheid struggle. I remember that one fellow activist, Elliot Mngadi, remarked, “This is the first time I’ve ever come through the front door of a white man’s house.” Blacks acting as servants or gardeners might be allowed in the back door occasionally.

My mother, Adelaine, was often alone in the whites-only section of the public gallery at Nelson Mandela’s 1962 trial in Pretoria and when he entered the dock, he would always acknowledge her with a clenched fist, which she would return. His beautiful wife Winnie attended the trial each day, often magnificent in tribal dress. Once, when my tiny younger sisters went with my mother during a school holiday, Winnie bent down and kissed the two little blonde girls to the evident horror of the onlooking white policemen. A black woman kissing two little white children disgusted them.

Forty years later, I was escorting Nelson Mandela to speak at the Labour party annual conference in Brighton, but before that he had an appointment with the Prime Minister that had been very carefully scheduled. We were going down in the lift in the hotel and he said, “How’s the family?” I mentioned that my mother had broken her leg and was in hospital. “Ah,” he said, “I must phone her.” The Prime Minister was kept waiting while Nelson Mandela chatted to porters and cleaners and waitresses and waiters, all lined up as the minutes ticked by. I desperately tried directory inquiries to get her phone number, eventually got the ward and was put through. I said to her, “There’s a very special person who would like to speak to you,” and I handed the phone to him. He said, “This is Mandela from South Africa. Do you know who I am?”

Having been sentenced to five years on Robben Island after the Pretoria trial that my mother attended, Mandela was then brought back more than a year later, as has been mentioned, to be Accused No. 1 in the Rivonia trial, when, facing the death penalty and against the strong advice of his lawyer, he famously said:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

I remember reading those powerful words aged 14, trying to take in their full significance, and aware they were a great inspiration to my parents and all those involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, as Nelson Mandela faced the death penalty. In fact, after worldwide pleas for clemency, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, and in July 1964, Mandela returned to Robben Island, not to be seen or heard in public again for nearly 26 years.

Two years later, in 1966, after my parents had been jailed, declared banned persons and deprived of earning a living, our family sailed past Robben Island and into exile here in Britain, and we will always be grateful for the welcome that we were given in this country. I remember looking out over the Cape rollers and imagining how Mandela and his comrades were surviving in that cold bleak cell. As an African, he was permitted 5 oz of meat daily, whereas coloureds were allowed 6 oz; he was permitted ½ oz of fat, and coloureds 1 oz: the evil precision of apartheid penetrated every nook and cranny of life, banning inter-racial sex as well as segregating park benches, sport, jobs, schools, hospitals, and much, much more. The apartheid state had hoped that, out of sight on the former leper colony of Robben Island, with its freezing cold waters that had devoured all escapees, Mandela would be out of mind, but the longer he was imprisoned, the bigger a global leader he became.

In July 1988, his 70th birthday became a global celebration, with a pulsating. “Free Mandela” anti-apartheid rock concert attended by 100,000 people at Wembley stadium and watched on live television by 600 million worldwide, despite—I say for the record, not out of any recrimination—some Conservative Members pressing the BBC to pull the plug on its coverage. Then, almost miraculously, something occurred that we had dreamed of, but deep down doubted would ever, ever happen—on that historic day in February 1990 Mandela walked out of prison to freedom, providing an image for ever imprinted on me and on millions, perhaps even billions, across the world. I say “almost miraculously” because history gets compressed and rewritten over time, and we take change for granted.

The reality was very different. Nelson Mandela’s struggle for freedom, and that of his African National Congress, was long and bitter, taking nearly 100 years from the days under British colonial rule when the roots of apartheid were established. Under Britain in 1900, 50 years before apartheid was formally institutionalised in South Africa, most of its features were already in place in the bustling gold-rush city of Johannesburg. By then, Africans were prevented from walking on the pavements—they had to walk on the streets—they had to carry “passes” to work in the city, they could not use buses and trains designated for whites, they were dreadfully exploited in the mines, and they had no political rights.

We all say in Britain that we were against apartheid, and doubtless we were, but some did things about it—others did not. The anti-apartheid struggle was for most of its life engaged in a big fight, here in Britain too. The executive secretaries of the Anti-Apartheid Movement—first, Ethel de Keyser, then Mike Terry—were indefatigable. Its chairman, Lord Bob Hughes, and treasurer, Richard Caborn—former Members of Parliament—were real stalwarts, along with Neil Kinnock and Glenys as well. Protests to stop whites-only Springbok tours provoked fierce anger. I remember them well: “Hain the pain”, as I recall. Some people might still feel that. Yet, as Nelson Mandela confirmed to me, the Springboks’ sporting isolation was a key factor in making whites realise that they had to change, so that today that wonderful black rugby star Bryan Habana can be a Springbok, whereas his predecessors under apartheid at the time that we were demonstrating never could.

Demands for trade and economic sanctions were also resisted, yet their partial implementation, regrettably not by London, but by Washington, eventually helped to propel the white business community in the late 1980s to demand change from the very same apartheid Government from whom they had so long benefited.

Mr Speaker, forgive me if, for a brief moment, I strike what I hope will not be seen as too discordant a note on this occasion, which sees the House at its very best, coming together to salute the great man. Were it not for interventions in the media in recent days, I would have let pass correcting the historical record. I give credit especially to you, Mr Speaker, for volunteering most graciously that you were on the wrong side of the anti-apartheid struggle as a young Conservative. I give credit to the Prime Minister for apologising for his party’s record of what I have to describe as craven indulgence towards apartheid’s rulers. And if Nelson Mandela can forgive his oppressors without forgetting their crimes, who am I not to do the same for our opponents in the long decades of the anti-apartheid struggle?

But it really does stick in the craw when Lord Tebbit, Charles Moore and others similar tried over recent days to claim that their complicity with apartheid—that is what I think it was—somehow brought about its end. To my utter incredulity, Lord Tebbit even told BBC World in a debate with me that they had brought about Mandela’s freedom. I know for a fact that Nelson Mandela did not think so. At every possible opportunity he went out of his way to thank anti-apartheid activists across the world for freeing him and his people.

It is therefore especially welcome that Nelson Mandela always retained an almost touching faith in British parliamentary democracy. Even though—I disagree with the interpretation by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—over most of his life he was a believer in non-violent legal peaceful change. by force of circumstance—the suppression of his African National Congress’s non-violent campaign for over 60 years—he had to become a freedom fighter and to lead an underground campaign of guerrilla activity similar to the French resistance against the Nazis. Even when the majority in this Parliament, and the Government of the day, were not on his side, he still cherished our parliamentary democracy. I mention this because Mandela’s old foes became his new friends, his former adversaries his admirers. That was part, as others have said, of his greatness.

But that was Mandela the political leader. There was, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) remarked in his marvellous speech, another equally engaging side to his greatness. He had an infectious capacity for mischief. In London a few weeks after our marriage in 2003, I introduced my wife Elizabeth to him. “Is this your girlfriend?” he asked. When I replied: “No, she’s my wife”, he chuckled, “So she caught you then?” When Elizabeth, who can be somewhat feisty at times, exclaimed indignantly that she had taken a lot of persuading, he laughed, “That’s what they all say, Peter, but they trap you in the end!” By then she realised that he was teasing her and we all ended up laughing together. He had apologised earlier for not coming to our wedding, instead sending a message, which contained these impish words to us newly-weds: “But perhaps I will be able to come next time!”

It was not just his towering moral stature, his courage and capacity to inspire, that endeared Nelson Mandela to so many. Despite being one of the world’s most prominent statesmen—perhaps the most revered—he retained his extraordinary humanity. When he was with you, you had all his attention. When he greeted you, his eyes never wandered, even though you were surrounded by far more important people. Whether you were a mere child, a hotel porter, a cleaner, a waiter or a junior staff member, he was interested in you. And he never forgot a friend.

On the same occasion when Elizabeth met him in 2003, my parents were also present, enjoying a reunion. The conversation somehow turned to my ministerial driver, whom Mandela promptly summoned. “I was once a driver, too,” he told him as they shook hands, referring to the time in 1961-62 when he was on the run and went underground, dubbed the “Black Pimpernel”, often moving about the country dressed as a chauffeur, in order to invite no attention, with cap and uniform and his white “master” in the back, as was stereotypical in those days and so a good form of disguise.

An ordinariness combined with extraordinariness was not Mandela’s sole uniqueness. His capacity for forgiveness is what made him the absolutely critical figure, first during secret negotiations in the late 1980s from prison with the Afrikaner nationalist Government and then after his release, both in the transition and in healing a bitterly divided nation.

That brings me to his status. Gandhi, Kennedy and Churchill are all iconic figures, the last for his inspirational wartime leadership and the first two more for having been assassinated. Yet today ask almost anybody anywhere which global statesman they admire most, and “Nelson Mandela” will as likely as not be the answer. Other world figures are usually famous within their own professional disciplines, sections of society, interest groups or age groups. Many attract hostility, cynicism or plain indifference. Nelson Mandela’s unique achievement was to command fame, admiration and affection from virtually everyone, everywhere in the world.

So if, as I believe, he is more iconic than anybody else, why? His life story of sacrifice, courage, endurance and suffering in the great and noble cause of liberty, democracy and justice places him among a very select few: the Tolpuddle martyrs, Chartists, suffragettes, Gandhi himself, anti-colonial African leaders, Che Guevara, Lech Walesa, Solzhenitsyn and Aung San Suu Kyi, to name just some. But Mandela towers above them all in the popular imagination, perhaps in part because he was the first such figure to be projected to the world’s peoples through the powerful modern media of global television and the internet. He was quite simply far better known than any comparable figure.

Equally, however—this is the lesson I draw—he survived, and indeed prospered, even under the fierce media spotlight of 24-hour news, over-hype and spin. Uniquely, he remained untarnished and undiminished by that modern media beast’s unrivalled capacity for building up then knocking down, leaving him serenely above all its insatiable prurience and obsession for triviality and instant novelty. Where most political careers end in failure or opprobrium, Nelson Mandela’s continued to soar long after he stepped down as President.

Mandela’s greatness, his stature, derived not just from an extraordinary biography that dwarfs the rest of humankind; it came from the warm glow of humanity that he radiated, his common touch, humbleness, self-deprecation, humour and dignity. Prison could have embittered, adulation could have gone to his head and egotism could have triumphed. The clutching of the crowd and the intrusive pressures of the modern political age could have seen him retreat behind the barriers that most leaders and celebrities today erect around themselves, not necessarily through any fault of their own, but in part to retain some personal space, but the consequence of which all too often becomes either aloofness or insincerity and its companion, cynicism. But none of that happened to him. Throughout everything, Nelson Mandela remained his own man, neither seduced by the trappings of office, nor deluded by the adulation of admirers, always friendly and approachable. That is why, for me, he was the icon of icons, and perhaps always will be.

President Bill Clinton, who has such a wonderful way with words, said:

“Every time Nelson Mandela walks into a room, we all feel a little bigger, we all want to stand up, we all want to cheer, because we’d like to be him on our best day”.

Sadly, Nelson Mandela will not be walking into our rooms ever again, but we can all still strive to be like him on our best days. For, as he said in one of his many memorable proverbs:

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others.”

Nelson Mandela and the Conservative Party – Forgive But Never Forget


‘Forgive,’ urged Nelson Mandela after the battle against apartheid triumphed, ‘but never forget’.

He might have had in mind the British Conservative Party.

In very recent times its leaders have joined the rest of the world in seeing Mandela him as an almost saintly figure. But that was most emphatically not the Party’s history, as David Cameron himself acknowledged when, in his pre-election rebranding phase, he publicly apologised to Nelson Mandela in 2009 for Tory complicity in sustaining apartheid.

It went back a long way. After his African National Congress was banned and Mandela was forced underground, he travelled to London in 1962 seeking support. But Tory Cabinet Ministers refused to meet him and the ANC was shunned by the Foreign Office. Instead Mandela was welcomed by the Labour and Liberal leaders Hugh Gaitskell and Jo Grimond.

After a nationwide campaign of direct action in 1969-70 by the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign of which I was chairman, mounting pressure on cricket bosses forced the previously unthinkable: they cancelled the 1970 white South African cricket tour to Britain at the direct request of the Labour Government, but shrilly denounced by Tory leaders.

Soon white South Africa was propelled into sporting isolation – banned from competing internationally in rugby, cricket, football, the Olympics and all sports. It was a ban ecstatically welcomed by Mandela – who upon his release said it was decisive – but vigorously opposed by Tories.

When the Tories won the 1970 election they reversed Labour’s limited ban on selling arms to the apartheid state. Then back in opposition in 1974, Tory Leader Ted Heath welcomed the British Lions rugby tour to South Africa in direct breach of the UN sports boycott of whites-only South African teams. By contrast Labour’s Africa Minister Joan Lestor refused normal British embassy receptions and facilities for the Lions.

Consistently, as the struggle against apartheid escalated through the 1980s, Tory MPs aligned themselves with apartheid, enjoying generous travel and hospitality, one becoming known as the ‘Member for Pretoria’. One, Gerald Howarth, was even involved in a private prosecution against me for conspiracy to stop the tours, nearly having me jailed after a month-long Old Bailey trial in 1972. Conservative Students wore ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’ badges and Margaret Thatcher denounced him as ‘a terrorist’ just a few years before he walked to freedom from prison.

When in 1988 the Anti-Apartheid Movement organised a great ‘Free Mandela’ concert which filled Wembley stadium to bursting, Steve Wonder flew in. George Michael, Sting, Dire Straits, Eurythmics and a host of other stars performed. They defied Tory backbenchers who tried right up to transmission to pull the plug on BBC2’s live broadcast as over 600 million watched worldwide.

Labour trade union leaders like Ron Todd, Rodney Bickerstaffe and Jimmy Knapp gave leadership and solidarity. So did Labour MPs like Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Joan Lestor, Richard Caborn and Bob Hughes.

I record all this, not out of spite at a time of genuinely widespread grief over the passing of perhaps the greatest leader of the last half century, but simply because we should understand our history – not least to learn for the future.

Nelson Mandela and the Conservative Party – forgive, but never forget

Nelson Mandela and the Anti-Apartheid Movement


“Ah, Peter, return of the prodigal son!” Nelson Mandela beamed, welcoming me to his Johannesburg home in February 2000.

Although on an official government visit, in a sense I was also being welcomed to my “home” – to South Africa, the panoramic, sunshine country of my childhood, as the first-ever British minister for Africa to be born on that continent.

Almost to the day, 10 years before, many of us had watched, tears welling up, as he had walked to freedom after 27 years in prison. And a long time before that – in March 1966 – I was a teenager aboard an ocean liner steaming out of Cape Town, past Robben Island where Mandela and his fellow leaders of the African National Congress were jailed. My anti-apartheid activist parents had been forced to leave their beloved country and the “island from hell” disappeared in the stormy mist as we headed for exile in Britain.

People forget how tough it was then, how hard the struggle was to be for decades afterwards. The resistance had been closed down, leaders such as Mandela imprisoned, tortured, banned or forced underground.

Within a few years, Mandela had almost been forgotten. British diplomats dismissed the ANC and Mandela as a busted flush. The white racist police state seemed omnipotent.

But in Britain, the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) had kept the flame of freedom flickering. Soon it was lit by our militant protests, which stopped white South African rugby and cricket tours in 1969-70. The country had been forced into global sporting isolation.

On Robben Island, brutal white warders, all fanatical rugby fans, vented their fury on Mandela and his comrades at the ostracism of the mighty Springboks, unwittingly communicating a morale-boosting message through the news blackout.

Barclays Bank was forced to withdraw from South Africa – a humiliation in the face of the AAM’s “boycott Barclays” campaign, which saw student protests against the bank signing up new customers during university freshers’ weeks Then in 1976 Soweto exploded as black school students took to the streets and were mown down by police and soldiers. Townships across the country erupted. Resistance grew, bursting through repression until in the 1980s it had gathered an unstoppable momentum: the economy teetered and businessman panicked.

By then Nelson Mandela’s name adorned anti-apartheid banners and placards the world over. An almost mystical, even forgotten, figure slowly became a household name, and soon the heroic symbol of the freedom struggle.

Fear struck the white ruling elite to the point where in February 1985 they tried to bribe Mandela with his freedom if he denounced the ANC’s militant resistance. He flatly refused to be freed if his people were not freed also.

Margaret Thatcher still denounced him as a “terrorist” but history was sweeping such reactionary sentiment aside. In 1988, the Anti-Apartheid Movement organised a great “Free Mandela” concert that filled Wembley stadium to bursting. Steve Wonder flew in. George Michael, Sting, Dire Straits, Eurythmics and a host of other stars defied rightwing Tory backbenchers trying to pull the plug on BBC2’s live broadcast as more than 600 million watched worldwide.

Finally, the regime had to treat with him, first by tentative overtures in prison, then by open negotiation. His oppressors had to seek Mandela’s help to save the country descending into chaos and civil war.

And he had long prepared for that opportunity, was always convinced it would come one day. Long years in prison turned him from burly, pushy freedom fighter into wise, almost saintly, statesman, able to heal a bitterly divided people.

I found myself alone with him in Johannesburg on the eve of his election as president in April 1994. Aged 76, he was tranquillity personified. “Peter, I suppose I should be jumping for joy. But I just feel a stillness. There is so much responsibility, so much to do.”

That humility, selflessness and absence of ego endeared him to everyone. Rarely for a celebrity he remained a people’s person, with time to chat to a hotel waiter or cleaner even as he kept a president or prime minister waiting.

The icon of all international icons – one of the very greatest figures of the 20th century – Mandela found world leaders of all political shades queuing up for photo-calls; when he addressed both Houses of Parliament, I spotted Mrs Thatcher scurrying down the aisle to get a front row seat. Tory MPs who as students in the early 1980s sported “Hang Mandela” badges were there too.

Courteous to all, whether they had backed his struggle or not, he had a soft spot for English ladies, especially the Queen. He was determinedly his own man, transcending political silos. Despite evident disapproval – including from his great admirer Bill Clinton – he insisted on visiting and thanking those leaders and countries that had backed the struggle during the cold war, notably Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Russia, when the governments of Britain, the US and the old European countries, were shamefully his opponents. He also defended the partnership between the ANC and the Communist party of South Africa.

But Mandela was never dogmatically ideological. His ANC generation was steeped in a moral and constitutional parliamentary tradition, brilliantly described in The Founders, Andre Odendaal’s recent book on the roots the ANC. His socialist instincts combined with liberal ones, his old-fashioned manners and family values the product of his Methodist missionary schooling and African chiefdom roots. His commitment to civil liberties was absolute – to the point where he had to instruct his deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, not to suppress a 1998 Truth and Reconciliation Committee report critical of the ANC.

Sadly, his successors have been unable to live up to Mandela’s high standards: first Mbeki’s denial of HIV-Aids and pusillanimous courting of Robert Mugabe, then dismaying corruption among local, provincial and national ANC politicians under Jacob Zuma.

Mandela openly defied Mbeki over HIV-Aids and hated Mugabe’s callous despotism and betrayal of the Zimbabwean freedom struggle. Corruption offended his most basic values, as his close Robben Island comrade Ahmed Kathrada recently told me.

Yet Mandela’s heart still beats within the ANC and the question is whether his inheritance can be rediscovered by a new generation. Upon that will turn South Africa’s future. And, as the African continent awakes to become the fast-growing part of the world, maybe its future too.

Madiba never forgot those hundreds of thousands of activists who rallied to the Anti-Apartheid Movement. “Except for all of you, I might not be standing here, a free man today, and our people would not be free,” he always told us.

Not only the AAM’s indefatigable executive secretaries, first Ethel de Keyser and then Mike Terry, but also the ordinary citizens who did their bit by boycotting South African oranges, wine and produce, should be proud.

An Evening with Peter Hain

Great to talk to the Friends of Aberdulais last Thursday (18th July) evening, where I was invited to speak about my experiences as a British politician and an anti-apartheid campaigner.

Selling The Severn Dream

Peter Hain stepped down from Labour’s backbench last May, but he’s very much on the front foot in campaigning for the Severn barrage to be built. Mathew Beech finds out why

Peter Hain cannot escape the Severn barrage, even if he wanted to.

“When I’m at the gym, I’m always having people come up to me in the shower asking me why it hasn’t happened yet,” says the Labour MP, who is becoming synonymous with the project.

Hain also gets questions on the progress of the barrage in his south Wales constituency of Neath, and on the train up to Westminster, where he is taking up the fight to get the barrage plans moving.

The Kenyan-born MP, who came to the UK after spending his youth in South Africa, has history when it comes to campaigning. In the 1970s he was a staunch anti-apartheid campaigner, and was the recipient of a letter bomb that failed to detonate in 1972.

Having stepped down as the shadow Welsh secretary in May last year, Hain was keen to make the most of his backbench freedom and pick up another challenge – the Severn barrage.

“I wanted to have the freedom to do my own thing and concentrate on where I really felt I could make a difference,” he says. “I thought that in this period up until the next election, the most important thing I can do is take forward the Severn barrage project – there is nothing to compare with it.” He is keen to highlight that the project would have significant economic ­benefits as well as generating renewable electricity.

The latest set of plans envisage an 18km barrage running from Weston-super-Mare across to Cardiff. However, there have been many proposals to build a barrage across the Severn Estuary – dating back as far as the 1920s – and all have failed.

This time, Hain insists, things will be different.

The key departure with the proposals put forward by the Hafren Power consortium, Hain says, is that the developers are not asking for any government funding.

“The rock on which the barrage has floundered in recent times was that the developers wanted government money, and that is not possible in the current climate,” he informs me.

With his sales pitch in full flow, Hain adds: “It is a private power station, so why would you expect government money? Hafren was clear it could do it without that.”

The Neath MP runs over what has become a well-rehearsed narrative, of how the barrage would help regenerate the south Wales economy, providing tens of thousands of jobs (many in his constituency), and also of the potential for massive regeneration for Port Talbot and Bristol Port.

He also knows how to tackle the thorny issue of the significant environmental impact a barrage would have on the Severn Estuary.

At the centre of the case for the defence is the design for a new, bi-directional turbine. The claim that these would be “fish-mincers” is “overblown rhetoric” because the turbines are designed to turn at a third of the speed of existing turbines, and on both the ebb and flow tides.

Hain acknowledges that the multi-billion pound scheme would affect the surrounding area, but he points out that the estuary environment is changing now, regardless.

“The thing that frustrates me the most is a dialogue with the deaf, with critics saying there is a choice between some kind of present paradise and a completely changed future – whereas the present is being changed all the time.

“For example, the Dunlin wading bird – the iconic wading bird of the Severn Estuary – has been in catastrophic decline over the past ten years because of global warming,” says the MP.

What Hafren Power has done to mitigate the impact any barrage would have is a proposed partnership with the RSPB and the Angling Trust to work out the best way to spend the £1 billion the consortium has set aside for habitat compensation.

With the financial and environmental side of the Severn barrage puzzle discussed, there remains one significant issue – political backing.

The battle-hardened – or should that be battle-weary – Hain is convinced he can get this government to support the project, especially, he adds with a wry smile, as “not a penny of Treasury money is required”.

“The government needs to support it in principle and it needs to take a hybrid bill through Parliament, which I’ve offered to help with, but they need to make time to do that,” says Hain, obviously making a nod toward the last Queen’s Speech, which critics labelled an “empty legislative programme”.

“There’s got to be significant movement this year,” says Hain, whose main concern is the project’s opponents will try to “kick it into the long grass” and wait for the funding to dry up. If Hain is to be believed, this won’t happen.

The prime minister, chancellor, energy secretary, and Welsh secretary are all said to be interested in the scheme, but Hain says they “should be welcoming it with open arms” because it is a “bigger investment than anything on the horizon” and will provide tens of thousands of jobs.

Even energy and climate change minister Greg Barker, who lambasted the lack of detail in Hafren Power’s five-page executive summary for the project, “still thinks the project very positive”, says Hain. So why did Barker mock the documents at the select committee, and why were the plans lacking in detail?

“Frankly, he was very mischievous on that,” says Hain, once again aggressively defending the barrage.

He says the document submitted was 130 pages long, its written evidence is “quite extensive”, and that there is “masses of information out there”. In addition, Hain insists there is further, commercially sensitive information available that could be provided once the government gives the scheme conditional approval.

Hain admits he has taken flak for championing the barrage but virulently denies he stands to benefit financially from promoting it.

As for his image, he also denies he is using the scheme to boost his political profile.

“I don’t need that. I’ve been in politics for over 40 years, I have one of the highest profiles of any politician, why would I need to increase that?” he says.

In a reminiscent tone, he adds: “Throughout my time in politics I’ve fought for the anti-apartheid cause, and various other causes.

“In my experience, all good causes attract criticism and then people look back and think, actually there was merit in that case after all.

“When the Severn barrage is built, people will turn around and say why on earth wasn’t this done generations ago,” he adds.

As for what is needed to get the project going, Hain is clear: political will.

“If you look at the two big things that have been done in recent times – the huge construction projects of the Channel Tunnel and the Olympics – they were both heavily criticised but they were right.

“Nobody criticises them now.

“There are too many pygmies in politics and public administration that would have been put to shame by the Victorians and the great construction giants of the past.

“We need some big decisions by big ministers for a Britain that thinks big, not parochial and petty. It’s time we thought big.”

This article first appeared in Utility Week’s print edition of 7th June 2013.