‘Wisely I decided to say nothing’

Ross McKibbin

  • Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor by Jack Straw
    Macmillan, 582 pp, £20.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 1 4472 2275 0

Jack Straw was one of the longest serving ministers in the history of the Labour Party. He spent 13 years in office, as home secretary, foreign secretary, leader of the House of Commons and justice minister. His book’s title, Last Man Standing, derives from the curious rule by which the lord chancellor (which Straw became in 2007, at the same time as being secretary of state for justice) is the last member of an outgoing government to resign. But it could as well be called ‘The Making of a Politician’: some of the most revealing passages deal with his childhood and early life. He was the product of a broken marriage, with a largely absent father (a conscientious objector in the Second World War) and a disturbed education – he ran away three times in one week from the school to which an Essex County boarding scholarship took him. He managed to do well enough in his A-levels to get into Leeds University to read law, where he got a predictably disappointing degree. Both his parents were, in different ways, politically committed and Straw as boy and student had intense political interests. School and university provided opportunities not so much for learning as for trying out practical politics. His early political life followed the classic path of the modern politician: a member of the broad left; CND; the ‘major influence’ of the Communist Party; the constant struggle against the Trots; political networking; president of the National Union of Students; political adviser to Barbara Castle and then Peter Shore (there are shrewd portraits of both); local government (he was elected to the old Inner London Education Authority and became its deputy leader); Labour candidate, first in a hopeless seat, then the safe Labour seat of Blackburn, which he inherited from Castle and has held since 1979. He has been a very successful local MP in a seat which is now about 2o per cent Muslim, and his account of his relations with the Muslim community is one of the most interesting parts of the book. His political progression was not entirely seamless. At one point it looked as though he might have to earn a living in the ordinary world, so he read for the Bar, whose exams he took seriously, and where he undoubtedly would have been successful.

Although he at first seemed to align himself with the broad left, voting for Tony Benn in the extremely close Benn-Healey deputy leadership contest of 1981, for example, he seems to have taken a New Labour position almost before such a thing existed. As shadow education minister in the late 1980s he was not, by his own account, an enthusiast for comprehensive education. He has no ‘problem’ with people who send their children to private schools. Many of his ‘close friends’ have done so. He merely thinks that those who use private schools should not criticise state schools, which I suppose is the least a Labour education spokesman could say. He thought too many supposed enthusiasts for state education actually sent their own children to private schools, which some no doubt did, but most didn’t; he thought standards in many comprehensive schools poor and teachers unwilling to admit this (he isn’t a fan of the NUT); he was a supporter of Kenneth Baker’s 1988 Education Reform Act, even though it was a dog’s breakfast, because it introduced a national curriculum and student testing. He early on argued for the elimination of Clause IV, partly because it was anachronistic, partly because he decided it hadn’t mattered much to the Labour Party’s founding fathers anyway. (Both things are more or less right.) It is probably because John Smith, who led the party from July 1992 until his death in 1994, would not be prematurely enrolled in New Labour that the depiction of him here is so bleak. The man who might have led Labour to victory, thus bypassing the possibility of a Blair leadership, is not the one we see here. What we get is a man with a temper who drank too much; who never supported the necessary reforms; who lacked ‘courage’. Straw argues, probably correctly, that as a Scot, raised in a political tradition that was steadily deviating from England’s, and where Labour remained dominant even as Thatcherism conquered the South, Smith could not understand that what worked for Scotland did not work for England. Tony Blair, of course, did.

Straw does not conceal his admiration for Blair or his sense of obligation to him: Blair made Labour acceptable to England, won three elections and gave Straw his great ministerial opportunities. Eventually they drifted apart, or rather Blair drifted away from Labour, but to Straw his achievements are undeniable. Blair made him home secretary and Straw’s tenure of this office demonstrates all the ambiguities of New Labour. He was responsible for incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law – it was John Smith who made the original commitment – and this legislation is among the great achievements of the Labour government. He appointed the Macpherson inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder, which understandably is one of the things he is most proud of. His record on race, as on gay rights, has been consistently liberal. On the other hand, though he was no longer home secretary when the Freedom of Information bill was passed in 2005, he did his level best to obstruct it, and even the weakened legislation that went through is too strong for his liking. And then there is crime and terrorism. Straw suggests that under the rather fuddy-duddy Tory home secretaries of the 1980s, who believed little could be done about crime, things got out of hand. Michael Howard’s tough regime and then Straw’s were necessary to get matters back under control.

Yet the fuddy-duddies were on the whole right: imprisoning everyone does not work. Howard set out to exploit the assumption that Labour was vulnerable on crime by perpetually raising the stakes; Straw followed him all the way. The huge increase in the prison population is as much Straw’s responsibility as Howard’s. Nowhere does he acknowledge this. He even writes with some pride of the resolution he and David Davis proposed, and which the House of Commons carried, criticising the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which held that depriving prisoners of the vote was a denial of their human rights. Straw stood to gain nothing politically from this resolution: he was by this point out of office. His action wasn’t opportunistic; it was disinterested, which makes it worse. Prison does many bad things, and one of them is to weaken the social sense of people whose notions of citizenship are often already inadequate. Encouraging prisoners to vote is one of the few ways that a social sense might be strengthened. This points to a more general phenomenon. New Labour attitudes to crime and terrorism evolved from a necessary opportunism – they had to seem ‘tough’ for electoral reasons – to an authoritarianism which became second nature. Straw is very coy about his own role in all this, particularly his involvement in ‘security’ legislation, some of which was too much even for Parliament, and did a lot to damage the reputation of the Blair and Brown governments.

After the 2001 election Blair decided that Robin Cook was insufficiently on message and replaced him with Straw, which meant that Straw was in the Foreign Office throughout the Iraq War. It would be testing for any autobiographer to explain this away, and Straw makes the best case he can for Britain and himself. He insists that Britain’s participation in the war was justifiable on the basis of what we ‘knew’, and claims he would do the same again. He denies the significance of the September Dossier of 2002, which claimed that Saddam could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of the order being given (the only mention of David Kelly is in this passage), though he says he was ‘incandescent’ about the inaccuracies in the ‘dodgy dossier’ of February 2003, so put out his own dossier, which emphasised the extent to which participation was justified by existing UN resolutions, quite apart from what the government thought it ‘knew’. For Straw the war was defensible; what happened afterwards was not. The après-war was a disaster of America’s making; or of one part of the American administration: he excludes Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice from blame. John Bolton, however, is one of the few people in public life he says he would ‘be happy not to see again’.

At the time it was thought that Straw wasn’t as gung-ho as Blair. He says that he felt a ‘powerful sense of loyalty’ to Blair which constrained him. This is a good lawyerly defence of his actions but it’s not very convincing. Even at the time what we ‘knew’ was in dispute and, as Straw admits, there was no serious evidence that Saddam had anything to do with al-Qaida. The argument that the war was good but the (American) postwar bad isn’t very strong. One went with the other. In any case, as we have learned, the British occupying force wasn’t completely without blame for the postwar mayhem.

Straw’s and Blair’s attitudes soon began to differ more generally on the Middle East. Straw was closer to Arab and Turkish opinion than Blair (Straw describes the Saudi foreign minister, slightly alarmingly, as ‘wise, shrewd and compassionate’, and he worked hard for Turkey’s admission to the EU). Above all, they began to differ over Israel. Blair held increasingly to the American view and Straw records that in 2006, after he had made some accommodating comments about Hamas, the Israeli government was on to Number Ten ‘in a flash’. Blair told Straw that he was too sensitive to the views of his ‘Muslim constituents’. ‘I felt like making some sharp comment back,’ Straw writes, ‘about his “Jewish backers”; about not judging me by his standards. Wisely I decided to say nothing.’

It has often been argued that Gordon Brown and his cronies effectively forced Blair out by making his life intolerable, but Straw suggests that Blair arranged his own ‘martyrdom’. Of one exchange in the House of Commons he writes: ‘Like the majority of the PLP, as well as most Liberal Democrats and many Tories, I was appalled that, more than he’d ever done before, Tony was acting as a back marker for the Israelis. Gradually all the anger, which I’d managed to bolt down since Tony had moved me without good reason, welled up.’ Blair’s worldview was no longer that of the Labour Party.

Straw had been moved, ‘without good reason’, to the job given to all off-message foreign secretaries: he was made leader of the House of Commons. Straw certainly saw this as a demotion, as Robin Cook had done. Yet it could have been a powerful reforming post. It is the closest we come to a minister for constitutional affairs, but few have done much with the post. Straw at least got the House to vote in favour of a predominantly or wholly elected House of Lords. As foreign secretary he had voted against an elected Lords – ‘not one of the prouder moments of my career’.

When Brown became prime minister in 2007 Straw became minister of justice and lord chancellor. His description of Brown’s government is pretty much that of everyone who worked in it: at his best Brown could be very personable; during the financial crisis he performed very well; he was politically a big man. But under him Number Ten was chaotic while Brown himself was surrounded by ‘disreputable conspirators … who fed his suspicious tendencies and gradually separated him from the senior people in his cabinet’. How and why, Straw says, ‘such an otherwise charming, witty, intelligent man could have allowed this is quite beyond my analytical skills’. (Since Straw speaks well of Ed Balls and Ed Miliband they are presumably not among the conspirators.) The Ministry of Justice was a hived-off bit of the Home Office that dealt with prisons and prisoners, security and judges, an area where Straw had not distinguished himself as home secretary, and where he failed to distinguish himself once more, moving heaven and earth to make sure that the prisons were stuffed beyond capacity for the 2010 election – which did Labour no good at all. (He neatly implicates Maria Eagle, who was then prisons minister, in this.)

Had the book stopped at the 2010 election the picture we would have of Straw is of a capable and effective minister, a trimmer, unlikely to put his head above the parapet and adjusting easily to changed circumstances. He ran the leadership campaigns of both Blair and Brown and concedes that some of his friends thought he was a ‘political tart’. If you really disliked him you could call him, as Matthew Norman did in the Independent, ‘an utter disgrace to every high office he has held’. But it could be argued that the way Blair and Brown ran their governments excluded Straw from doing anything more constructive. Straw, for all his faults, is a man who believes in government as an orderly process which follows rules. Neither Blair nor Brown thought that way. Straw argues, for instance, that the casual way the Ministry of Justice was created was outrageous. He proposes that the powers of the prime minister should be limited and strictly defined by legislation, as should the relations between the executive and Parliament; that legislation should be more closely examined by statutory authorities before it comes to Parliament; that the number of ministers should be significantly reduced. He notes that as parliamentary select committees become more important – as they almost certainly will – MPs will be less anxious to have ministerial careers. The chairs of the more powerful select committees already at least match many ministers in authority. There will be immense opposition to Straw’s proposals: the inertia of the system is almost limitless.