Matthew Norman: From anti-apartheid hero to New Labour amnesiac

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The Independent Online

It is with some distress that we note a certain scepticism regarding Peter Hain's defence to the charge of dodgy dealings in funding his campaign to become deputy leader of the Labour Party. Those known to the former prime minister Mr Tony Blair as "cynics and sneerers" appear wilfully unconvinced by Mr Hain's insistence that his failure to declare some £100,000 in donations was due solely to inadvertence. In other words, he forgot to ask what was going on.

What they themselves forget is that Mr Hain has suffered so grievously from memory loss for so long that his rise to the Cabinet ranks among the more moving triumph-over-tragedy stories of the age.

He is by no means the only chronic amnesiac to achieve high office under New Labour. One example among many was the failure of David Blunkett – a man capable of memorising the contents of myriad pages of briefings each week – to recall intervening in the visa application of his mistress's nanny.

Yet whereas that was a one-off failure of the kind that sporadically afflicts us all in middle age, Mr Hain's amnesia is of an entirely different character. The poor man simply forgot who he was. Exactly when it happened is impossible to pinpoint, but at some point between entering Parliament in 1991 and joining the Government in 1997, all memory of having once been a heroic warrior for social justice was wiped from his neural pathways, enabling the erstwhile firebrand who did so much to publicise the iniquity of apartheid to mutate into the aggressive defender of the sanctions policy estimated to have caused the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children.

Then he forgot his passionate opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which prevented him joining Robin Cook in resigning (although to his great credit, when the scale of the disaster became clear, the memory came flooding back). Later still, he forgot his allegiance to Mr Blair and mutated into a vocal fan of Gordon Brown's.

Exactly how he developed this curious ailment is equally mysterious. Myself, I can't help brooding on potential links between overexposure to ultraviolet rays (Neath, the seat held by Westminster's leading Judith Chalmers tribute act, is Britain's rainiest constituency) and forgetfulness.

Others may have been wondering whether the Progressive Policies Forum, the under-rated think tank, might consider taking the relationship between amnesia and the rapacious quest for political power as the subject for its keenly awaited debut pamphlet.

Lest anyone be misled by the words "policies" and "forum", we now learn that the PPF "was prepared and able to assist" in donating to Mr Hain's campaign. Little wonder, then, that it made no progress, debated no policies and provided a forum for nothing but the current debate as to how long it can be before Mr Hain leaves the Cabinet to spend more time with his sunlounger.

Whether so durable and slippery an operator can entirely be written off remains unclear, but since he is obliged to pay the Labour Party 15 per cent of campaign contributions – almost £30,000 – and has promised to pay back a further £25,000 loaned, interest-free, by the PPF, this is not a convenient moment to lose his ministerial salary.

If he must go, he will not quickly be forgotten. For one thing, his achievement in spending twice as much as his rivals to finish fifth out of six in a field of selling platers, beating only the titanic figure of Hazel Blears, will linger in the memory. More poignantly, he will long be recalled as a poster boy for a political age in which remembering the beliefs that drove people into politics in the first place became an unaffordable inconvenience.