William Hague: We cannot become preoccupied with Brexit

Posted On: 
17th November 2016

William Hague is politics’ youngest elder statesman. With nearly 40 years under his belt – and a CV crammed full of impressive job titles – he reflects on his career and what lies ahead

The UK government must not spend "too much bandwidth" on Brexit at a time of "massive global challenges" like tackling ISIL, Hague says

The House magazine is not alone in celebrating a 40th anniversary. Next year, William Hague chalks up 40 years in politics; a career which unofficially began at the age of 16 with that speech. A floppy-fringed Hague, wearing a tweed jacket with lapels the size of which have not been seen since 1977, holds the stage at the Conservative party conference in Blackpool. He has an audience which includes Margaret Thatcher in raptures as he quips that, “It’s alright for you … half of you won’t be here in 30 or 40 years’ time.”

He was probably right; they probably aren’t. But Lord Hague, as he is today, has been present ever since. As has the speech.

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“I can’t ever get away from that speech really,” he says, that sing-song Yorkshire accent a little deeper but virtually unchanged, when asked if he’s watched it since. With a portrait of the Duke of Wellington behind him, Hague is holding court at the Royal United Services Institute’s Whitehall headquarters, having been appointed chairman of the foreign affairs thinktank in September. But while the surroundings – one of the Iron Duke’s swords is also on display in a room packed with history – are fitting for a former foreign secretary, whatever his achievements since, Hague cannot escape the visions of his youth.

“I can’t help it. I don’t sit down and think ‘I must watch that speech again’, but people often play it before I give a speech. Even having been leader of the opposition, foreign secretary, all those things, it’s still one of the most likely things that people will say to me if they see me in the street or meet me at an event.”

Now 56, Hague has lost the hair and is sporting a suit that a looks a little more expensively tailored than his teenage tweed, but this elder statesman retains an energetic youthfulness. Retiring from the House of Commons, which he did at the last election, has clearly been good for him, and he smiles when he looks back on a career which “took a lot of detours along the way” from the path “all mapped out” by that “ambitious teenager”.

William Hague entered parliament in 1989, the tail end of what he calls “the old world … one of my first votes was to vote for television cameras to come in to the chamber”. The House of Commons Hague first worked in was an “old boys’ club” with MPs working “ridiculous” hours: “If you were on the finance bill committee it was a kind of virility test. ‘Let’s see how many all-night sittings we can have.’ People went home exhausted on Fridays. It was ludicrous.”

Becoming a junior Treasury minister at the closing stages of Thatcher’s premiership, Hague rose to the rank of secretary of state for Wales under John Major. Following the Tories’ crushing general election defeat in 1997, Hague became the party’s new leader at the age of just 36. He held the post for the “night shift” years of 1997 to 2001, taking on the thankless task of battling a Labour party led by an apparently unstoppable Tony Blair. He must wish that his timing had been different?

“No, amazingly enough, I don’t,” Hague replies, arms resting on a table upon which German naval officers signed away their fleet at the close of the first world war. “Obviously I wanted to be the prime minister. But actually there was something about fighting the 2001 election and losing it that got that out of my system. The ambitious teenager, by the time he was 40 … the political ambition went right out of me.”

As leader of the opposition, Hague’s main task was to find a way to lift Tory spirits well past the flagging stage. And he did. Having honed his skills at Rotherham’s Wath Comprehensive and then the Oxford Union, Hague describes himself as a politician “brought up to debate as much as anyone who studied in classical times”. The gifted teenage orator had become a gifted performer at prime minister’s questions, one with a knack for bettering a peak-powered Blair more weeks than not.

“It was the only thing that kept us afloat actually,” he laughs. “We had everything else against us – I just had to be able to raise morale on Wednesday afternoons. There was almost no alternative.”

These days PMQs is, to put it generously, a rather flatter affair. It’s perhaps telling that Hague admits he doesn’t tune in to watch, and although resistant of “golden age theories”, he suspects that the 18th century – Hague has written biographies of Pitt the Younger and Wilberforce – is just that. “We can’t be sure, but at a time when Pitt, Wilberforce, Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke were all there, together … if I could go back to one moment in time, to parliament, it would be to go back to one day to listen.”

Whereas Hansard is the only way to relive the speeches of distant centuries, these days YouTube is the place to turn. And as good as any Commons contribution in recent memory is a Hague’s imagining of prime minister Gordon Brown enduring the “awful moment” of being forced to meet Tony Blair as president of the European Union. He knew it was going to be a good one.

“I remember sitting at home in Yorkshire on a Sunday afternoon writing that, and sometimes you start enjoying yourself when you’re writing a speech. I remember starting to chuckle to myself just visualising this scene which I then tried to bring to life,” reveals Hague, laughing at the memory. The speech had all sides of the house in hysterics, with David Miliband, then the foreign secretary, disloyally howling with laughter. And he wasn’t the only Labour politician. “I don’t think I’m talking out of school to say Tony Blair told me how much he enjoyed it,” Hague says with a smile. “So yes, there was a lot of laughter in the Labour party.”

By now Hague was shadow foreign secretary, having returned to the front bench at David Cameron’s invitation after four years as a contented piano-playing and biography-writing backbencher. With the pressure of ‘I must be the next leader’ now gone, he was finding politics more rewarding than ever and enjoyed working with Cameron, not least because “it’s beneficial for leaders to have people around them who don’t want their job and are happy to be in the government, or not to be”.

When the coalition was formed in 2010, Hague was appointed as foreign secretary. He quickly looked comfortable in his role. A little too comfortable, grumbled some in his party who wondered whether the man who had once campaigned to keep Britain out of the euro had now “turned native”. Hague is having none of it. “I have never really changed my views on Europe,” he protests. “On the basis of my slogan in 1999 – In Europe, Not Run by Europe – I never really advocated leaving the European Union, just not signing up to new centralising measures. I’ve always kept that view.”

So the advice of the King Charles Street career mandarins didn’t change his outlook? “Of course it’s part of your job to have a good working relationship with other countries, including in Europe. Some observers or MPs confuse that with ‘you’ve gone native, you’re friends with all these Europeans.’ It’s the job of foreign secretary to influence and increase British friendship with other countries.”

But for the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party, Hague’s continental friendships jarred with his 2001 ‘save the pound’ campaign – complete with a proto-UKIP pound sign logo – and a speech which promised voters that a Conservative government would ‘give you back your country’.

A few months on from this summer’s referendum, the language all sounds rather familiar. No, says Hague, unlike the advocates of Brexit he wasn’t talking about leaving the European Union but “about stopping further European treaties, a loss of power from this country”. In fact, he adds, allowing himself to play “fantasy politics,” if he had won the 2001 general election then Britain would still be in the EU, because “if we had stopped then, if we had not signed the Lisbon treaty, we would not have ended up leaving the European Union”.

Hague campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, and the consequences of Brexit still worry him. “One of the dangers of leaving the EU is pre-occupation and too much of the bandwidth of our government and European governments being spent on that when there are massive global challenges,” Hague argues, worrying whether “the western world will be sufficiently united” to respond to “the opportunism of Russia, the ISIL challenge, and tensions in the Asia-Pacific”.

His concerns have been magnified by the election of Donald Trump as US president. “I am worried about it,” he says of the impending Trump presidency. “I believe strongly that we need an internationalist America where American values and leadership are respected in the world. What we have to look out for is what will happen to American values, soft power, global leadership.”

The Foreign Office will be watching closely. Under Hague’s leadership, critics complained that the FCO focused its energies on trade deals rather than building global expertise, but Hague is proud of his tenure. He says critics need to “catch up with how the world has changed” and points to the “nearly 20” embassies and consulates opened under his watch as well as the reopening of the language school. “The Foreign Office as a centre of learning and of skills is the correct long term view,” he insists, before adding: “It can always do with more expertise.”

Not least in understanding Britain’s place in a post-Brexit world.

“We’re all leavers now”, Hague accepts. “People have voted to leave. I don’t think there can be any going back on that, or should be. That does, in my view, end the argument inside the Conservative party which now has to deliver.”

And with the High Court ruling that MPs must be allowed to vote before Theresa May triggers article 50 and starts the clock on Britain’s departure from the EU, Hague says she must be ready to find an alternative route should MPs attempt to amend or even delay her article 50 plans.

“Following the High Court judgment … there’s a possible scenario, that’s all, which leads to the Supreme Court upholding it, to parliamentary debates, to the government finding it is unduly constrained in what it wants to do to with the Brexit negotiations … and then there would be a case for a general election,” he argues. “I hope there doesn’t have to be one. I agree there shouldn’t be one and we should continue with the fixed term parliaments. But the strongest of leaders has to have a fall-back plan sometimes. Events can change.”

One man hoping events will change is Hague’s former despatch box sparring partner. Nearly a decade since he left parliament, Tony Blair has called for those opposed to leaving the EU “to mobilise and to organise” and has even suggested that his return to British politics is “an open question”. Is it really?

“I don’t think it’s possible to … reheat the old favourite dish as it were,” says Hague of a man he once described as “the most dangerous opponent the Tory party has ever known”. Yes, he says, “it’s tragic what has happened” to Labour and the party needs “somebody to lead a more social democratic form of socialism”, but there is no appetite for Blair: “I doubt realistically that that can be done successfully by somebody coming back from the past.”

Hague himself is perfectly happy in his present. He intends to write again at some stage, returning to his beloved 18th century once more, but for now is kept busy with his RUSI role, a column for the Telegraph, and a series of lucrative public speaking assignments across the globe.

The Lord Hague of Richmond is also a regular attendee of the Upper House and is an admirer of its collected expertise, even if he finds it “impossible to justify, logically or on any principle, how the house is now selected”.

Under Hague’s leadership in 2001, the Conservative party suffered a second consecutive crushing general election defeat. His political story could easily have ended there and then, with electoral failure and resignation. Instead he readjusted his ambitions, re-emerged stronger and rebuilt his reputation. So I wonder if he has any words for two of his close friends, David Cameron and Hillary Clinton, whose political careers have recently come to crashing endings.

“My advice is to really enjoy life once you’re out of political office,” replies Hague. “There are a few withdrawal symptoms and then you’re into a wonderful world. It’s a bit like you’re so focused on politics and government that the rest of the world is monochrome. A whole world of art, music, literature, films, gardens has gone into black and white in the background. When you leave, all the colour of that world returns and you see that this is what all the fuss is about. Be very positive about it. It can be an incredibly liberating thing to be free of political office and ambitions.”

Nearly 40 years on, what would the 16-year-old William Hague think if he could hear himself now?