WHEN he looks out of the window of his home in the Peak District where he spends most of his time these days, Roy Hattersley, retired peer and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, tells me he can see stone cottages, a village green, and a war memorial. All the props and ornaments, in other words, of the traditional English village. So familiar, so comforting.

And yet, the question in 2019 is how misleading a picture is that view from his window? Does England even feel like England anymore?

“As a country?” he asks in that familiar voice once so exaggerated and mocked by Spitting Image. “There has never been a time when we’ve been more confused. There’s never been a time when we have done what I believe we are doing now, which is imposing on ourselves a massive, self-inflicted wound. Leaving the European community, in my view, is deeply damaging to Britain’s future. Leaving it without an arrangement, without a treaty, is even worse. It’s doubly damaging. It’s almost inconceivable that we have got ourselves into this position.”

Welcome, in other words, to Brexitannia. Monday afternoon in the Peak District. On the TV, England are losing the First Test against Australia. The worry is that’s not all the country’s losing. Where stands England? (We’ll get to Scotland later.)

Read More: Alison Rowat on Scottish Labour

Hattersley is 88 now. He retired from the House of Lords in 2017, but his lifelong interest in and passion for politics (he first stood, unsuccessfully, for parliament in 1959) remains intact. And he is as engaged in the principal issue of the day as the rest of us. Not that he is any clearer as to what is going to happen.

“It’s very difficult to predict what this Prime Minister will do because he has said so many different things. He talks about leaving at any cost. He talks about there being a one-in-a-million chance of a No Deal Brexit. I don’t think he knows. I don’t think anybody knows. I think we’re flying blind and I think that is deeply dangerous for the country.”

And how does he feel about that? “Exasperation and anger and in a sense, fear. Not for me. I’m 88 and I’m comparatively prosperous. One of the things that irks me particularly about leaving the Community is that it won’t be people like me who will suffer. It will be people at the bottom of the heap. It will be the disadvantaged and the dispossessed. It will be generations in 10-or-20-years’ time. We are mortgaging the future of the least well off, and that’s alien to all I believe in.”

And where in all this does his own party stand? Whither Labour? Does he know? “No. One of my complaints is we have failed to adopt a serious position over the great issue of our time, perhaps the great issue of the century; where Britain’s future lies. Our party doesn’t have a firm position in either direction.”

Note that “we”. Hattersley remains a Labour man through and through. He is probably best known for his time as the party’s deputy leader through the 1980s when Neil Kinnock was trying to return the party to power during the Thatcher years. He was always seen to be on the right of the party, although today he declares himself a “radical socialist”. And he was critical of the Blair government at the turn of the century. The question today is what he feels about the party now.

Later this week he is in Scotland to tell us. He is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to talk about the future of the party he has served for so long. What he’s actually going to say, though, he’s slightly reluctant to tell me.

“There are a number of things the Labour party has to do to recover and get itself back into the mainstream of politics,” he argues. “But I’m not going to tell you what they are. Otherwise, no one will come.”

For a few minutes we circle around the subject. Is the leadership part of the problem, I ask? “Yes. And I shall deal with that.”

Can that be changed? “You are going into forbidden territory,” he says, laughing.

Well, would it be fair to say that Corbynism is a kind of mirror image of Blairism, both movements in their own way deeply inimical to what the Labour party should stand for?

“No. I had very many reservations about New Labour because I am a radical socialist and I’m not sure they were. I believe in equality and I’m not sure they did. Some people will blame Corbynism on New Labour and the Third Way, but I don’t believe they are responsible for it. I believe that Blair’s was a good government that made one terrible mistake with Iraq. But, my word, if Tony was leading the Labour party now, I think it would look very different.”

The ultimate question that must be asked, I suggest, is what Labour stands for now. “You are asking the fundamental question I’m addressing on Thursday. What is the Labour party for? And I’m going to say we haven’t made it clear what we’re for. We were always, since our foundation, reluctant to talk about the principles, the ideology. We’d just rather get on with it. And now is a time when we have to define what we are for, what we are about.”

Whatever his opinion of the current Labour leadership (and I think reading between the lines it’s probably clear by now) Hattersley thinks there is no shortage of talent on the Labour benches. “The parliamentary party is more full of talent than any time in my political experience. Night after night you put Newsnight or Channel 4 News on and some backbencher you’ve never heard of – quite often a young woman – will speak with immense ability, grasp, confidence, understanding. The parliamentary Labour party is full of people of very high quality. They need to say what we stand for.”

When it comes to Scotland, he is, as you might expect, a Unionist. “But I understand part of the reason for Scottish nationalism. And part of the reason is not just the desire for independence. It’s that the Scottish National Party filled the radical vacuum that was in part left by Blairism. The Labour party lost some of its radical edge and the SNP took over. So, if we had a genuinely radical Labour party – not an extreme Labour party – I think Labour would do much better than it is doing in Scotland.”

That may be wishful thinking on his part. But then, as he says, he can recall a time when Scotland had no Tory MPs. Hattersley’s political life covers most of the post-war period and the shift from welfare state consensus to the confused, atomised, political present. He was born in 1932 and served as the MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook from 1964 to 1997.

He also had, as politicians of his era did, a hinterland. Hattersley has also been a successful writer. In his last book, Catholics, published two years ago, he revealed that his mother Enid O’Hara, ran away with a priest, Frederick Hattersley, two weeks after he had officiated at her wedding to another man. It’s a remarkable revelation. Did learning his father’s story change how he looked back on his own life, I wonder? He thinks not.

“I wish I had known about it because my father and I were very close. But he was a very self-effacing, retiring, shy sort of man and I would have liked to known about this heroic moment in his life when he did this, in my view, wonderful thing. And it makes me unhappy because I think he didn’t tell me because he thought I would be ashamed of him. In fact, I would have been very proud of him and I wish I had known about it.”

When he was 18 Hattersley read a book about equality and it changed his life. Politics suddenly seemed a worthy ambition. The frustration may be that, after serving in the Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan governments in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, he spent the rest of his political career in opposition as Labour toiled during the 1980s and early 1990s.

What he did achieve in that time was to see off Militant, one of the things, Hattersley says, he feels most proud of. “For two or three years, two or three of us, two of us really, John Smith and me, spent our time going around the country saying the Labour party is better than it sounds. Speaking out for the real Labour party in the country. And somebody needs to do that again. Because some of the old people, literally some of those expelled years ago, are now back with card-carrying Labour membership doing the damage they did before. So, we must go over all that ground again. And I hope some people will emerge who will do it.”

John Smith’s untimely death in 1994 left us pondering one of the great what ifs of modern British politics. What if he had lived to lead the Labour Party into the 1997 general election? Hattersley is in no doubt.

“If John had lived, we would have had a proper Labour government. He would have won the election. He probably wouldn’t have won it with as big a majority as Tony. Tony reached middle classes that John probably wouldn’t have reached. But he would have certainly won the election. And not only would Britain have changed, the world would have changed, too. We wouldn’t have had Iraq. The damage that was done to Britain and the world from John Smith’s death is incalculable.”

Roy Hattersley will discuss “The Labour Party’s Future” this Thursday at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, at 1.30pm.