The generation that grew up to be New Labour has long had General Pinochet on its wanted list. No wonder they got excited last week
FOR members of the Cabinet, the arrest of General Pinochet must have been like listening to Frank Zappa or watching a pirate copy of A Clockwork Orange. What better way could there be to relive those heady days of long hair and student sit-ins than to sanction the detainment of a genuine figure of Seventies hate?

Whether by accident or design this evocative act also looks like a deft answer to the complaint of disenchanted old-school socialists that Tony Blair is a Tory in disguise. Lady Thatcher invited her fellow pensioner Pinochet to tea, but Mr Blair was ready to help the Spanish put him on trial for genocide and terrorism.

The Prime Minister understood the instincts of his colleagues and warned them not to gloat after the arrest, but it was already too late. Peter Mandelson had seized the chance to grab back some credibility with those on the left by describing Pinochet as "a brutal dictator" and the idea of his claiming diplomatic immunity as "pretty gut-wrenching stuff".

Within days, Blair himself was telling Le Monde that, as a student, he too had condemned the man held responsible for 30,000 deaths.

The name of Pinochet still provokes revulsion in the minds of Mandelson, Brown, Mowlam and other members of the Blair generation - politicians in their forties who were young and impressionable students during the late Sixties and early Seventies. America withdrew from Vietnam, the fight against apartheid in South Africa would eventually be won, but the general who overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and brought terror on his country got away with it. Who could blame those who marched, campaigned, petitioned and protested then if they were tempted to use their power against the 82-year-old now?

Tony Blair's days at Oxford University coincided with the coup, but he was no activist. Friends and biographers say he was more interested in God and the guitar. But his chancellor and friend Gordon Brown certainly did raise his voice against Pinochet, as a leading member of the Chile Solidarity Group at Edinburgh University.

Brown had his own battles to fight. A brilliant scholar who gained a first in history before the age of 20, he was also a fearsome political operator. As editor of the independent magazine Student, he displayed a taste for writing up gossip and printing photographs of attractive young women. Boredom Beaver Brown, as contemporaries called him, gave up the editorship after being elected as the first student rector of the University Court in 1972. His campaign team had included a bevy of beauties called Brown's Sugars, who wore T-shirts proclaiming that "Gordon's For Me".

PRINCESS MARGARITA of Romania, with whom he had a five-year student affair, said: "I never stopped loving him, but one day it didn't seem right any more; it was politics, politics, politics, and I needed nurturing."

Ironic then that his career as rector was apparently saved by the direct intervention of her godfather, the Duke of Edinburgh. The Chile Solidarity Campaign was based in the office given to Gordon Brown as rector, and its activities were widely reported in Student. Brown's predecessor as chairman of the Labour Club at Edinburgh was Robin Cook, who left in 1970. "Robin was much more interested in foreign affairs than Gordon was," said Professor Henry Drucker, who knew them both as students.

"Edinburgh at that time was a highly politicised place. Robin was a very important member of CND who wrote a pamphlet called No Nukes. I don't recall either of them taking a strong position on apartheid. Gordon was passionate about Scottish politics and devolution. He was the first person I ever knew who understood the limitations of sit-ins and other forms of student protest. He knew that sit-ins were only effective if the students had already won their case."

Robin Cook became an MP in 1974, the year after the Pinochet coup. Meanwhile, a young left-winger called Peter Mandelson was making waves at Oxford, where he ran the United Nations Association. The future moderniser had already established impressive socialist credentials before going to university, as an activist in the anti-apartheid movement and the National Council for Civil Liberties.

He was involved in projects to help disadvantaged young people in London and had taken a year out to do community work in Africa. Friends say he was never a great campaigner against Pinochet, but that opposition to the general's regime was de rigueur among Labour Young Socialists.

You didn't have to be young or particularly committed to express solidarity - it was fashionable in Labour circles to boycott Chilean wine, along with South African oranges and Israeli grapefruit. Frank Dobson did more than that. The future health secretary was approaching the age of 40 when he took part in a pro-Allende deputation to the Foreign Office in 1979, the year that he became an MP.

Jack Straw joined Parliament in the same intake. A graduate of Leeds University, he had served as president of the National Union of Students until 1971, before being called to the bar and joining Islington borough council. Last week he stressed that General Pinochet should be dealt with according to due legal process rather than political intervention, a note of caution that will not have surprised those who remember his term in charge of the NUS, when he wore a collar and tie and campaigned to make it "respected, but not respectable".

THERE is one personality in the Cabinet, however, who you can be sure never flounced around in long hair and flares listening to progressive rock.

No doubt John Prescott had a few choice expletives for radical hippies during the early Seventies, when he was already a hard-hitting politician. Prezza, as the cheeky young pups call him, had been a ship's steward and union activist before educating himself and getting elected in 1970.

This was no child of the Sixties. When the 11-year-old Tony Blair stood as a Conservative in a mock election at Durham Choristers School in 1966, a certain John Prescott was the Labour candidate at Southport. Never mind sit-ins and protests, he was - to quote an advertising slogan popular during Blair's Oxford years - the real thing.