When Hawke lets fly: Dream up a tough old Australian with the full vocab and you're half-ready for Bob Hawke. As for his book, think of old politicians' memoirs and think again. Interview by Mark Lawson

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In Britain, it was a front-page story when John Major called some of his colleagues 'bastards'. In Australia, it would have been a front-page story if Bob Hawke hadn't.

Shortly after being thrown out, Thatcher-like, by his own party, despite a record four election victories, Bob Hawke went on television in Australia. He had been billed to appear jointly with his wife, Hazel, but was in the studio alone. The interviewer asked about her absence.

'Frankly, Mike,' said Hawke. 'After all that's happened, Mrs Hawke is a bit buggered.'

The broadcaster's switchboard was not jammed. This was how Hawke talked. The second longest serving prime minister in Australia's history adopted no slick film of statesmanship in office.

'G'day,' he greeted me at the door of the London hotel suite from where he was promoting his memoirs. At 65, he has taken care of himself and looks as if he could take care of himself in a fight: tight and wiry. During our conversation, he broke off to take a telephone call, in which his first line was 'G'day, mate', and his last: 'OK, mate. That's a beaut. G'day.' If a prime minister should embody the character and mannerisms most commonly associated with his nation, then Bob Hawke was Australia's perfect leader.

He believes he was just that, or at least among its best, and The Hawke Memoirs are a 618-page justification of his right to have remained in office. Like Margaret Thatcher, he never lost a general election, but was dispatched, in December 1991, by colleagues who thought only an overthrow of the leader could save them at the polls. Hawke's Heseltine-like challenger, however, took the crown. He was Paul Keating, Treasurer (Australia's Chancellor) in Hawke's Labor administration, and still its Prime Minister after winning last year's election.

If the language rules of Australian politics differ from those of Britain, so, too, apparently, do concepts of party loyalty and discretion in retirement. The Hawke Memoirs are the most vituperative in political history, an unprecedented attack by a former prime minister on a successor from the same party. People liked to describe Baroness Thatcher's book as bitter and bitchy, but convention dictated that the bile had to be hidden between the lines. Hawke comes right out and calls a donger a donger.

'Reading your descriptions of Keating,' I said, 'the word 'hatred' comes to mind . . . .'

'No. No . . . .'

He grabbed the book off the coffee table, and flicked to page 537, from which he read the words 'courage' and 'imagination' about Keating's work as Treasurer. I grabbed it and turned to 448, from which I quoted the adjectives 'self-righteous' and 'hysterical, illogical, and self-deluding' about the Treasurer's ambition to be Prime Minister.

'Well,' explains Hawke, 'I'm describing a particular situation there . . . .'

'But, in this country at least, there's a convention that you aren't too critical of your successor.'

'Well, I've never been a man for convention. I call it the way it is . . . bullshit to that double-standard.'

The book's most startling claim is that Keating, in a private conversation with Hawke in 1991, described Australia as 'the arse-end of the world' and confirmed his plans to emigrate to Paris if he failed to become PM. In America, such a revelation would end a politician's career, and even in the less fanatically patriotic Australia, it looks a gift to Keating's opponents.

'It wasn't pleasant for him when that came out,' admits Hawke. 'But I'm only writing what was said. I'm not writing an advertising tract for the Labor Party. I'm writing my contribution to history for all time. I'm explaining an important part of Australian history. For God's sake, is it not important that Australia's (second) longest-serving prime minister was removed? I'm writing for history.'

'Did you secretly want Keating to lose the 1993 election?'

'Oh, come on, come on, I resent your observation. It's a shit of an observation. A shit of an observation. The truth of it is: what did I do? I worked my ring (Australian for 'arsehole') off in that election. I appeared in every state for the party. I did special television commercials. Am I a masochist? Am I going to go round campaigning, with thousands of other bloody things I wanted to do, if I wanted the bloody party to lose?'

Even more than Thatcher, Hawke provides a test-case for students of politics in the tenacity with which a leader clings to power. Hawke even agreed with Keating a date for his departure, and then reneged on it.

'People often say of Margaret Thatcher that she didn't know when to go. Do you think that's true of you?'

'Oh, people say to me, if only you'd gone at the end of the Gulf war, when your popularity was so high, but they miss the bloody point. Even my worst enemies have never said that the pomp and circumstance meant anything much to me. It was a pain in the arse, frankly, the 21-gun salutes and all that. I wanted to stay because the conservative opposition had the most damaging policy package in history, and I honestly believed I had the best chance of beating them.'

As well as providing a compelling study of the never-let-go psychology of politicians, The Hawke Memoirs will be read by a constituency beyond Australia for his portraits of international leaders. There is an amusing description of Lady Thatcher's tendency towards hysterical digression at multi-leader summits, when Brian Mulroney of Canada refers to something 'pulling the fat out of the fire', and Thatcher starts shouting at him: 'What fat? What fire?'

Most astonishingly, Hawke discloses that Ronald Reagan, during meetings, read from cue-cards, producing generalised sentences on any subject raised by the visiting leader from a pack he kept in his hand. Yet Hawke presents this chilling insight into the leadership of the free world of the Eighties as an endearing trait. Indeed, all the political big-shots in the book - Thatcher, Reagan, Bush - are presented warmly, although the author occasionally mentions that he disagreed with them ideologically. This seemed to me an example of the way in which leaders of small countries become star-struck: they liked being photographed with someone like the American president and so became puppies to the top dogs.

'Owww]' exclaimed Hawke. 'They've said that about me. I had no bloated idea of Australia's significance. But I had the view that good ideas were not the monopoly of major powers. There's no reason to think historically that was ever the case.'

He takes co-credit, in his book, for the close of the Cold War, the end of apartheid and Libyan-Israeli rapprochement, but, in conversation, he gave a more homely example of influence: 'Everyone recognises that the existence of the Cairns Group (an Australian agriculture committee) was a significant factor in the Uruguay round of the Gatt talks . . . The quality of your ideas is not a factor of whether you have a population of 70 million or 170 million.'

One Australian idea with which Hawke has often been connected is Rupert Murdoch, whose business interests he is said to have assisted in exchange for editorial support. Hawke awarded a federal medal to Murdoch, although the tycoon later became an American for business reasons.

'Is Murdoch a credit to Australia?'

'Well, it depends what your criteria are. If you take the criterion of wealth and power, he's one of the most successful men in the world. Now, I think there are legitimate questions about how he's exercised that power . . . But there's been some misunderstanding here. I've never been terribly close to Murdoch . . . I've met with him, of course, but I don't think there's any way you could use the language of 'mates' about me and him.'

In power, Hawke was also regarded as surprisingly matey towards Queen Elizabeth, although, before becoming Prime Minister, he had made a series of speeches with a republican spin. His loyalty to the Crown in office was regarded by some as an example of how Australia's PMs go, as it were, non-native after a few dinners with the Governor-General. But, having handed in his seals, Hawke has resumed his anti-monarchist advocacy, though cautiously.

'Will Australia be a republic and should it be one?'

'It should and it will. But, for me, it's not a top-priority issue. If Australia became a republic tomorrow, the daily life of a citizen would not change one bit. We are a sovereign independent nation, but there is an appearance problem in having another nation's head of state as our head of state. And that problem should be removed. The proposition I put, which I think Keating would be wise to adopt, is a referendum with the question: 'Are you in favour of Australia becoming a republic at the end of the present Queen's reign?' If that was done, there'd be a huge majority. The problem in becoming a republic tomorrow is that a hell of a lot of people would be reluctant to be seen to vote against Her Majesty directly.'

The only bottles on display in the hotel room contained mineral water. A Hawke residence would once have contained far more exotic empties. Anecdotes about his drinking are a feature of his early political career, but, on the brink of the premiership, he became a complete abstainer: 'I was not an alcoholic, but I would do foolish things in drink. And I could not risk that as Prime Minister.'

'Were you tempted to go back when you lost power?'

'I left office in 1991. I started to have a drink again in 1993. It was nice to have some wine with friends, but I did have a couple of silly incidents, and I thought, bugger that, so I've given it up again.'

Assuming that he did not, as he claims that his successor does, regard the country as the arse-end of the world, I wondered what his own bottom line on Australia was. For the first time in the interview, he reverted to the conventional language of politics.

'I think it's the best country in the world, and I don't mean that in a mawkishly jingoistic way. We've had the Aborigines, one of the world's oldest civilisations. Then we had the great wave of Anglo-Celtic immigration, which gave us all the great institutions of our country. Then, after the war, we had the most massive immigration initiative, of people from 140 nations, which has brought to us an enormous enriching. And, with all the strains of that, we've become an enormously tolerant and progressive society. And that's why I love it.'

And, with that, Bob Hawke buggered off to sell more copies of his memoirs.

'The Hawke Memoirs', Heinemann, pounds 20.

(Photograph omitted)

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