It is now more than a week since the news broke about Peter Hain’s failure to declare £103,000 in donations, but the Welsh Secretary’s future remains unclear. Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price believes it’s time for him to go
JUST when Peter Hain thought it couldn’t get any worse, last week Lembit Opik leapt to his defence. Peter must be hoping the curse of Opik which has wrought destruction on many a parliamentary career won’t strike again.
The Member for Montgomery dubbed me an opportunist and hypocrite in calling for Hain’s resignation. Presumably this also applies to his front-bench colleague David Laws, who said of Peter Hain last week, “I can’t see how he can stay on given he’s clearly in breach of the rules” and the Lib-Dem Treasury spokesperson Lord Oakeshott who also came to the conclusion that, “Peter Hain must now seriously consider his position”.
Who knows why the Liberal Democrats have earned a reputation for facing both ways on almost every issue?
From my narrow party pers-pective, there is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost from the departure of Peter Hain as anyone who cast an eye last week over the Western Mail’s list of his potential replacements would surely agree.
Whatever his public pronouncements, Peter has been a pretty consistent supporter of devolution. The latest Government of Wales Act almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without him.
For the record, I have always found Peter Hain affable, capable, fair and open-minded. I found the goading he received at the hands of the Tories at Welsh Questions last week a pretty unedifying spectacle.
So why do I still think he should go? The reason is not personal; it’s political. I have watched with growing disgust over the past decade the inexorable rise of what Barack Obama in the American case calls “money politics”, a political culture so obsessed with financial fire-power in elections it’s prepared to sell almost anything – access, influence, peerages, even a party’s political soul – to the highest bidder if it can secure some advantage in the “market for votes”. No party has been entirely immune from this but it’s within New Labour that the money-politics nexus has been taken to extremes. This has culminated in the resignation of the General Secretary of the Labour Party who may yet face criminal charges.
Peter Hain is a product of that culture – and, in his current travails, it has to be said, in some sense a victim.
As politics has increasingly let slip its ideological anchor, it’s become an ever more expensive and more pointless cult of the would-be-personality. Hence we have a think-tank whose only purpose and only policy was to advance Peter’s ambition. Indeed, perhaps the most depressing aspect of this entire affair for ordinary Labour Party members is that almost as much was spent on the self-promotion of one individual as on the entire Welsh Labour Party Assembly election campaign.
The religion of socialism is the language of priorities, as someone once said in more innocent times.
Peter is reported to feel “personally betrayed” by the failures of those around him. But by far the bigger betrayal was, surely, of his own principles when he accepted money from a “rag-tag coalition” including the likes of diamond brokers, City financiers and one donor whose previous “donees” had included John Major and Pik Botha’s National Party.
To do all this and then omit to disclose it is to add a final insult to a body politic that’s already battered and bruised. Show me any country in the world where a Cabinet Minister who fails to declare a six-figure sum survives, and I’ll show you a democracy in trouble.
It would be heartless and inhuman to refuse to forgive a simple mistake, or even a series of them. There is hardly a Member in the House of Commons who is not guilty of some administrative amnesia when it comes to the Register of Members’ Interests. And, yes, we got it wrong on the communications allowance – as did Ruth Kelly. Though to be fair to my colleagues, far from trying to break the rules, they, like me, checked in advance that what they were doing was permissible. A mistake, nevertheless, it was.
The difference in Hain’s case is partly one of scale and seriousness, but, to me, it’s the consequences that are more troubling: this is not just some “kerfuffle” of little interest to anyone outside SW1.
The taint of arrogance of a party too long in power and the perversion of principle that flows from money politics can only begin to be removed if Ministers who flunk the transparency test not once but on 17 separate occasions are held properly to account. Not as some pathetic parliamentary bloodsport but as the prime responsibility of an Opposition MP.
As an Opposition politician himself once, Peter well understood this and was as unforgiving to the Tories then as they are now to him. He was savage in his condemnation of the then Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, demanding his resignation because of “his incompetence and the subsequent collapse in public confidence in his role”.
Words like these inevitably come back to haunt you: “The process must be transparent and accountable” he said of Tory funding scandals in the 1990s “rather than concealed and corrupt”.
The sad thing is that, more than a decade on, those sentiments are as relevant as ever.