Hain shooting from the hip

Political Editor Graham Dines examines the turbulent career of Peter Hain, the Cabinet minister who's caused uproar by claiming Britain is safer under Labour.

Political Editor Graham Dines examines the turbulent career of Peter Hain, the Cabinet minister who's caused uproar by claiming Britain is safer under Labour.

WHEN Peter Hain ignited the pre-election bonfire by asserting only Labour was capable of protecting Britain for a terror attack, he was continuing his well-known love of shooting from the hip and hang the consequences.

He's now a part of the New Labour establishment – a long way down the road from 1970 when as an anti Apartheid campaigner and firebrand, he successfully disrupted the Springboks Rugby tour in 1970 and showed sympathies for those who dug up cricket pitches to stop England playing South Africa.

The Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal and Secretary of State for Wales is not afraid to sound off publicly and make horrendous gaffs in the process which he is later forced to withdraw.


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His radical record stems from his South African parents who were fiercely anti-Apartheid and were jailed by the regime for their beliefs.

The family was forced to flee South Africa and the then 16 year-old Peter joined the Young Liberals, the most prominent direct action political agitators in Britain.

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Whipping up opposition to sporting ties between Britain and South Africa made him a hate figure and in 1972, he was sent a letter bomb, which failed to explode because of faulty wiring.

Three years later he was accused of a bank robbery, but acquitted after a ten-day trial. He is certain this was an attempt by the South African government to frame him.

Quitting the Liberals for Labour in 1977, he turned his efforts into modernising the party and worked with Neil Kinnock to rout Militant from Labour's heart.

Two unsuccessful attempts at entering Parliament in 1983 and 1987 when he contested Putney were rewarded by becoming candidate in ultra safe Neath, which he won in a by-election in 1991.

Six years on the opposition benches followed, but his rise through ministerial ranks since the 1997 election victory has been meteoric.

Following a spell in the Whips' office and at the Welsh Office, he joined the Foreign Office where he became Minister for Africa and later Minister for Europe.

He now finds himself at the centre of a blistering row, his "you are only safe with Labour" outburst branded "disgusting," "scandalous" and "extraordinary" by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Although Tony Blair insisted Mr Hain was not making party political points or fuelling fear, an unrepentant Commons Leader refused to take that as a signal to shut up.

He hit the airwaves and television studios to insist repeatedly that opposition parties would leave people less safe and secure and said the Tories and Lib Dems were "wriggling" because they had no alternative to the Government's plans.

"My point is if we are tough on crime and on terrorism as Labour is, then I think Britain will be safer under Labour, yes.

"The Tories and Liberal Democrats oppose lots of our measures against terrorism and lots of our measures in tackling crime.

"This whole argument in the Queen's speech is about building safer and securer communities in Britain. We unveiled a whole raft of measure to do that – listening to people around the country, most people do want ID cards, do want their neighbourhoods cleaned up from local yobbery, do want us to adopt tough action against illegal asylum seekers and terrorists. They do want that, they want a safer Britain."

The Blair government has been desperately trying to out-manoeuvre the Conservatives on law and order by scrabbling for votes in the "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" constituency of middle England, its fear factor pitch is now aimed directly at wavering core Labour voters.

It's not edifying. And the row has stirred ill-will far beyond the corridors of the Commons.

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, made it clear she disapproved of dragging security into the political knockabout gutter.

"It is dangerous to start making this into a party political issue. What we need in society is trust, and trust means you don't actually try and gain political advantage out of a very serious issue."

And Labour peer Baroness Kennedy accused her own party of "opportunistic"' attempts feed people's fears which echoed the re-election campaign rhetoric of President George W. Bush.,

"How do we know if Britain will be less safe under the Conservatives?' she queried. "Labour has undoubtedly led the way, but whether we can say that any others would have dealt with it differently, I don't know. This American-style campaigning is regrettable."

Lady Kennedy added: "I want to see a Labour Government returned, but I don't want us to run a campaign based on the idea that it is all about security."

John Major, Prime Minister during the first Gulf War said: "It seems to be rather a desperate comment that the nation is safer under any one political party. To make that point is very silly.

"If Peter Hain is saying people are safer under a Labour government, let me just make this point. Did people feel safer after Gulf War One when we had a Conservative government or after Gulf War Two when we had a Labour government?"

It's not the first time Peter Hain has caused problems for the Prime Minister. Last year, he famously called the European Constitution a "tidying up exercise and then suggested this year's elections for the European Parliament would be Britain's referendum on the document.

He had to withdraw both statements. This time he has not been reined in, which suggests Tony Blair is happy to see the Tories and Lib Dems "wriggling" to Labour's audacious raid on the law and order vote.

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