It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Not only are they good with words, but they're also experts in disloyalty

Simon Kelner
Wednesday 02 September 2015 17:04
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William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham

When William Hague addressed the Conservative Party Conference at the age of 16, all wide lapels and blue kipper tie, warning of the perils of the “Socialist state”, and pouring scorn on James Callaghan’s vision of a “promised land”, he could surely have not imagined that a career which encompassed both leading his party and a period as Foreign Secretary would climax with his being re-introduced to the nation as a “brilliant new columnist”.

Yet there he is, 38 years after he stood on that podium at Blackpool, on the front page of the Daily Telegraph with top billing for his treatise on why the Labour Party is a basket case at the moment. It was a rather good column, which leant on personal recollection of his time in opposition to Tony Blair but which provided an analysis – albeit tendentious – of Labour’s current troubles.

Whatever anyone may think of his opinions, it was a well-written piece, and Mr Hague’s new career got off to an assured start. The pages of our newspapers are full of the musings of those whose expertise was not earned in journalism. Look at the sports pages, for instance: every paper – including this one – has a team of star columnists whose position of eminence comes from the fact that they’ve played the game rather than merely written about it.

Much more than footballers, however, politicians make natural journalists, for a number of reasons. They have spent the majority of their working lives with words, spoken and written; they’ve shown themselves to be very nifty when it comes to expenses; and if there’s one group of people which could match journalists for disloyalty, it has to be politicians. I have some evidence for this assertion. For example, the story of a very senior politician who I had known well for a number of years. So well, in fact, that he came to my wedding. Unsurprisingly, our friendship didn’t really survive his writing a letter to my bosses only two years later demanding that they sack me.

The emergence of Hague as a columnist made me recall my experience with one of his predecessors as Foreign Secretary, the late (and, in this quarter, much lamented) Robin Cook. I was editing The Independent when, in 2003, at the height of the public disagreement over the Iraq War, Cook resigned from the government with a blistering and brilliantly crafted speech in the House of Commons. This was a war, he said, that had, “neither international agreement nor domestic support”.

It was an electrifying intervention. Here was a man at the top table taking a dramatic and principled stand. I recall putting the text of his speech all over the front page of the next day’s Independent. Robin phoned me to thank me for my support, and I suggested he might like to write for us regularly, given our stance on the war was akin to his. He always expressed gratitude to me for pushing him to his second career, which became a considerable success. He became an even more celebrated figure in the anti-war movement, and a major book deal was forged.

One day, he invited me to lunch at Pont de la Tour, an expensive restaurant in the shadow of Tower Bridge and a New Labour favourite. We had just ordered pre-lunch drinks, and I was telling Robin how popular his columns were with our readers, when he stopped me. “Simon,” he said, “you’ve been very good to me, but I’ve had an offer from The Guardian and I’ve decided to take it.” I chose the Dover sole, and we remained friends, but I’d learnt that where journalism and politics intersects, it would be a mistake to expect any favours.

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