Regrets, he's had a few ...

July 17, 1998

Huw Richards talks to one ex-student union leader who is about to become president of his old university, Neil Kinnock

Neil Kinnock was famously the first of a 1,000 generations of Kinnocks to go to university. From September he can chalk up another achievement when he becomes president of the university he once attended, the University of Wales, Cardiff.

His memories of his first stint at the university are mixed. Looking back on his own student career he says: "I have always regretted it. I didn't apply myself and if any of my children had acted as I did, I would have been furious with them. I spent too much time on politics. The main purpose of my being at university was to get a decent degree and apply myself to work and I didn't do it."

A retaken degree in history and industrial relations and the presidency of the students union helped launch his political career, but also provided opponents with a running jibe at his expense.

Seated in a somewhat impersonal office in the European Commission's Westminster building, Kinnock, now 56, cuts a more relaxed figure than the tense, periodically explosive character who became familiar during his nine-year leadership of Labour in opposition.

Still, one can hardly spend a decade as the target of the endless, brutal, often downright abusive scrutiny to which he was subjected as Labour leader without it leaving some marks. He says of press criticism that "it perplexes rather than angers" him. "I can handle it so long as my family isn't dragged in. Then you feel so helpless about it."

Even so there is an edge of anger to go with the perplexity when he discusses the critics, not all of them on the right, who gave the impression that possession of a degree from Cardiff rather than one from the more traditional training grounds of British politics made him in some way unfit for high office. Kinnock awards them "a starred first in snobbery".

But if he is robustly critical of the press, he is steadfastly loyal to his successors at the head of the Labour Party. "The most important thing for any government in a democratic society is that it should have a sense of justice. And this one certainly does."

What does he feel he might have done differently while Labour leader? "I could say just about anything", he says good-humouredly, before going on to point to three areas of regret.

The first relates to the 1984-5 miners' strike. "I very much regret that I did not make clear my extremely strongly held private view that there should have been a one-man, one-vote ballot before the strike."

The second comes as something of a surprise to those who felt that he over-repressed his natural ebullience. "If I had realised quite how far a degree of relaxation and a sense of humour could be misrepresented, I might have been a little stiffer in manner." While opinion polls were giving him atrocious ratings as a potential prime minister, he did better in other polls. "If people were asked which politician they would like to have living next door I was always up at the top. I suppose people thought I'd be good at helping them if their electricity went on the blink. But then people don't vote for their nextdoor neighbour," he says. The final regret is that he did not push party reforms through faster.

He believes firmly that general elections are won from the centre. This begs the question of whether he regards his period of youthful rebellion as a backbencher under Jim Callaghan's government as misguided "Not at all. My two main rebellions were on points of principle and I think that in a parliamentary democracy, governments have to learn to accept the occasional rebellion."

His best remembered act of dissent came over the Callaghan government's devolution plans, where he was instrumental in the massive rejection of proposals for a Welsh assembly in the 1979 referendum. "Of course I'm in favour of decentralisation and devolution, but those plans were hopelessly flawed by applying them only to Wales and Scotland. This time round the assemblies are part of a more general pattern of devolution, and the most important thing in Wales is to make sure that it works."

Welsh identity remains important to him, "socially, culturally and in a sense politically - but never, ever as a nationalist. I have always been a vehement anti-nationalist".

He hopes to promote a positive image of the Welsh capital, via its university and its activities - proudly citing research assessment success and training programmes involving 10,000 working professionals in Cardiff and district as examples of its success.

And he denies being concerned about his place in history. "Politicians who are worried about their place in history can be absolutely lethal," he says, but declines to name names.

Indeed he cites them as one of his two pet political hates. "The other is the young person who asks 'How do I go about having a career in politics'? I always say 'You don't. You go away and do something useful, and then if you're lucky you might be selected for some sort of public office, but you can't see it as a career in that way." His successors in Cardiff's student union and political clubs will not be able to say that they were not warned.

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