One of the reasons for the diminished status of politics in a rich democracy is that some of its noble causes have disappeared, solved into oblivion by previous generations of reformers. Peter Hain evaded this problem by being born into a distinguished political family in South Africa in a time of the disgusting separation of people with different coloured skin. That fact alone gives his autobiography an urgency that is lacking from that of most other recent political figures.
Hain’s story revolves around two pairs of terms, which together comprise a politician who has always been, interestingly, outside and yet in. The first pair of terms is the dialogue in Hain’s life between direct and indirect action. The most exciting parts of the book are his leading role in the direct action campaigns against apartheid, notably the success in stopping the 1970 cricket tour, and in the early days of the Anti-Nazi League. By comparison, the account of the parliamentary years is staid. I already admired Hain for his work and I admire it still after reading his reflections but it does pose an intriguing question about the necessary dullness of democracy. Direct action is where the glamour is but democracy is the bedrock. It is a conundrum on which Hain is reflective and interesting.
The second pair of opposing terms is Liberal versus Labour. For many years Hain was active in the Liberal party which he saw as a more hospitable place for his brand of left libertarianism than the rather puritanical Labour party. Whether to seek to radicalise the Liberal party or to liberalise the Labour party is an argument that resounds through the history of the 20th century.
There is one final thing which is the way that politics dominates life for people of that disposition. My favourite paragraph in this book (indeed in any recent book) was the following which I offer with no further comment: ‘I had begun going out with Pat Western, a friend of my sister Jo-anne. In February 1975, washing my old Volkswagen Beetle, I pondered our future. Probably time to get married, I thought. I looked at my diary, as usual full up with political commitments stretching way ahead, discovering the only Saturday free was the very next one. Pat, taken aback to be phoned at her work, was fortunately free and agreeable too.’
Outside In by Peter Hain | Biteback Publishing | 464pp | £20
Philip Collins is chair of Demos and a columnist for the Times
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