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Feature: An Interview with Lord Hain

The below article has been reproduced from The Rose and Portcullis 2017 (Emanuel's alumni magazine), pages 16-17.

Author: Emily Symmons (former Development Manager) / Lord Peter Hain

Labour MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015, Peter Hain (OE1966-68) was a senior minister for twelve years in Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments. A leader of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Anti-Nazi League in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s, Peter has been in Politics for nearly 50 years and has written and edited twenty-one books and numerous articles as well as making countless media appearances.

Your early years in South Africa were very formative for you?

Yes indeed. I was woken up as a ten year old with police in my bedroom searching through my motor racing files for incriminating evidence against my parents.

My parents were the Chair and Secretary of the Pretoria branch of the Liberal party which was the only non-racial party in South Africa at the time. Nelson Mandela’s ANC and most of the opposition had been banned. My second strongest memory was of being woken up in the middle of the night aged 11 to be told my parents had been put in jail and I had to tell my younger brother and two sisters. They were put in prison for two weeks without trial but the authorities couldn’t actually get any evidence against them, partly because my mother had chewed up a leaflet when she was arrested and spat it out. If she hadn’t managed to do that, there would have been incriminating evidence. They had been supporting a campaign led by Nelson Mandela calling on black workers not to go to work, so they were in black townships distributing this leaflet and they had a draft of it with them to show their activist colleagues when they were spotted and arrested.

Your parents were not usual among your social circle in South Africa?

They were unique. In fact, my mother’s elder brother - she was one of seven - completely cut us off as a family because he was involved in business and he felt it would compromise his work if he was associated with his notorious younger sister. None of the parents of my School friends were involved but they were not hostile to us. I think we were quite fortunate in that. I went to a very good school called Pretoria Boys’ High School before I came to Emanuel.

It was an enormous culture shock coming to what seemed to me like grey, wet London having come from sunny South Africa.

Do you have any strong memories of your time at Emanuel?

I did double Maths and Physics and Aaron Rogers was my Maths teacher and he was excellent.

To be honest, I did not know until I arrived that Emanuel was a Grammar School and if I had had a choice I would have chosen to go to a Comprehensive. I still believe strongly in the Comprehensive system.

My parents did not know anything about the educational system here and ironically it was a member of the communist party who allowed us to use his very large house in Putney to stay in. It’s probably worth £3 million now. We stayed on the top floor and then rented a flat when my dad started working as an architect.

We were forced into exile against our will so I came from an unusual background but I wasn’t politically active at Emanuel. I started to get very involved in politics at the end of 1967/1968 when I was finishing off my A-levels. I formed the Putney Young Liberal Branch with a couple of friends. We appointed ourselves Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer, not that we really knew what we were doing.

I have happy memories academically, though Charles Kuper did denounce me in the School assembly after I had left. After we had stopped the 1970 cricket tour and I led the rugby demonstrations in 69/70 at the age of 19, he denounced me as being the type of former Emanuel student the School did not want to be associated with.

I don’t think he would ever have expected and neither would I that I would have ended up in the Cabinet let alone in the House of Lords but there we are.

What did you go on to do after Emanuel?

I accepted a place at Imperial College to do Mechanical Engineering having done a year with Lucas as a student apprentice. I also got very involved in radical politics and the anti-apartheid movement. I didn’t really enjoy the Mechanical Engineering degree so I switched to Political Science and Economics at Queen Mary College. I also did a post graduate degree in Politics at Sussex University.

Did you struggle to go back to South Africa in later years?

My parents were prevented from going back; they came out on one way exit permits and when the Stop the Tour Campaign started I got a letter within weeks saying I would never be allowed back myself. I didn’t go back until Nelson Mandela came out of prison and then ironically I was an MP and went as a parliamentary observer for the 1994 election, the first democratic one. It was exhilarating.

Can you tell us a bit about your early activist days?

I led the sports apartheid protest and was prominent in the wider anti–apartheid movement.

I was always mad on sport, particularly rugby, football and cricket. White South Africa was sport mad so it made a difference to them. The tours were a great moral boost to the white community where apartheid was shunned by the rest of the world. Teams could go to SA easily because it was very difficult to stop them, as Emanuel did in 1976, but we stopped any South African teams coming here.

I was the leader of the Anti-Nazi League. The National Front were a fascist racist Nazi organisation and in the 1970s they were polling very highly. We decided to launch the Anti-Nazi League because they had barely concealed Nazi affiliations; I mean they wore Nazi uniforms. We documented all of that and had a huge campaign - Kids Against the Nazis, Skateboarders Against the Nazis, Miners Against the Nazis, Teachers Against the Nazis. We actually stopped them in their tracks. We also confronted them wherever they marched. We had huge Rock Against Racism concerts in Victoria Park, East London and in Brixton as well. The bands included The Clash, Tom Robinson, Elvis Costello, UB40 and so on. They were very important in reaching the parts of society that politics doesn’t normally reach.

Can you explain how you ended up getting into mainstream Politics?

I joined the Labour Party in 1977 and to compress it all down, I was asked to stand for Labour in Putney, which I never expected to do. I never thought I would be an MP. This was the height of Thatcherism and Labour wasn’t quite as unpopular then as we are now but still pretty unpopular so standing was a lost cause I’m afraid but it didn’t feel like it. It felt very exciting at the time. Then I was asked to apply for the Labour seat of Neath, which is a former coal mining area in South Wales, and I was one of 30 people and a complete outsider. I eventually won that selection quite comfortably and moved there for a quarter of a century until Ed Miliband asked me to come into the House of Lords which was a bit of a shock since I never thought I would end up there either.

Of all the appointments I held, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was the one I was most proud of. I knew Martin McGuinness well and Ian Paisley. You’ve got to get close to everybody when you are negotiating with them; you try to bring enemies together. You’ve got to form relationships based on a reasonable amount of trust and respect. You don’t have to like a person, you don’t have to agree with them but you have to understand where they are coming from in order to construct a solution which I did but it was hard work.

I got into politics because I wanted to make a difference. Someone once said to me, “I am an all or something person not an all or nothing person” and I identify with that philosophy.

Can you describe what Nelson Mandela was like as a person?

I am not one for heroes but Mandela was in a class of his own. He was always a people person. Many celebrities retreat into themselves due to all the intrusion in to their lives but he was always open, amusing and self-deprecating.

When I got married we invited him, not expecting him to come, and he wrote back to say, “Sorry I can’t come but I’ll be there next time.” That was very Mandela.

He was our guest at the Labour Brighton Conference in 2000 and as Minister for Africa I was escorting him to see the Prime Minister when he asked me how my family was. On hearing that my mother was in hospital, he insisted on ringing her up. “Hello Mrs Hain, this is Mandela. Do you remember me?” he asked.