‘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.

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