Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Last Man Standing by Jack Straw

Memoirs of a Political Survivor.

JackS“President Bush had made his ‘axis of evil’ State of the Union speech the day before. There were the inevitable questions from the British press pack: did I agree that Iran, Iraq and North Korea did form an ‘axis of evil’? If so, why had I not said so before? If not, wasn’t I insulting our closest ally? It was the usual ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ stuff.

The truth was I though that it was a terrible conception. What point was the president trying to make? Was this an exclusive list? Was there come connection between these three countries that we’d all missed? Had the diplomatic consequences, especially on the relatively moderate Khatami government in Iran, been thought through? Now that he had suggested a link, at least in terms of threat, between the three, how was he going to explain it if he took action against only one? But I wanted neither to praise the speech nor to damn it. It was time for some unbearably boring quotes. Thank God for the compound sentence; the subordinate clause. I was Mogadon, free, without prescription.” (p. 366)

I am not an overtly political creature. I always vote. I take a reasonably intelligent interest in what happens in Westminster,  but I look on politicians in much the same light as income tax and dental treatment: an essential part of life, but not one I particularly want any more to do with than is absolutely necessary.

My approach to Jack Straw’s autobiography was therefore one of curiosity about a man I’d always liked (or, at the very least, found a lot less obnoxious than most of his colleagues) rather than a burning desire to have my opinions of him either confirmed or confounded.

He comes across in print very much as he does in life – as shrewd, engaging but private man who is both careful and skillful with words:  and there are a lot of words in this book  – 180,000 according to an interview in the Lancashire Telegraph, written in an astonishing 5 months. Last Man Standing – a reference to the fact that, as Lord Chancellor, he was the last member of the outgoing Labour government to officially relinquish his post – contains no headline-grabbing revelations or admissions, still less any out-and-out character assassinations or back-stabbing, but Jack Straw still manges to convey exactly what he thought and thinks of people, often with a devastatingly understated phrase like “we did not appreciate each other” (of the Blackburn Labour Party chairman at the time), or his two-word assessment of Charles Clarke as a “quixotic contrarian”.

He talks touchingly – and a little painfully – about his childhood in Essex as one of five children of a violent and eventually  fractured marriage and the almost total disappearance from his life of his father when he was still at school; a loss he obviously feels keenly even to this day. It was probably then, as an unhappy little boy trying to cope with living within a stormy and unsettled family, that he learned to guard his thoughts and his words and keep his head down  – an instinct that was to serve him well in his 13 years (and 11 days) in government.

He developed an interest in politics at a very early age.  Delivering Labour Party leaflets at the age of just 13 during the 1959 election campaign he pragmatically decided  that being an MP was probably a lot better than being the poor bloody infantry in the pouring rain.  (In fact, as he’s always been an enthusiastic doorstep canvasser and firm believer in the eusefulness of the  soapbox, he’s subsequently done more than his fair share of slogging around in downpours.)

An exceptionally bright child, he gained a boarding scholarship at Brentwood School, from which he ran away repeatedly before finally settling down, and was in due course accepted at Leeds University to study Law. It was there that he took his first small step up the ladder of student politics when he was elected secretary of the debating society, having successfully defeated the motion ‘this House believes that politics is a waste of time’. The Presidency of Leeds Student Union followed and shortly thereafter, the Presidency of the National Union of Students.

It was during those years that his politics developed. Although never in the Communist Party he freely admits it was a major influence on him and that the Labour Left at Leeds “worked as part of a broad front with the CP […] fighting the destructive politics of the various active Trotskyist groups” – experience which came in handy in  later years, during the Labour’s prolonged struggles with Militant Tendency.

After qualifying as a barrister he practised for just two years before politics claimed him forever. He contested the safe Conservative seat of Tonbridge and Malling at the 1974 General Election,  but had to wait until 1977 to realize that childhood dream of becoming an MP, when his mentor and friend the redoubtable Barbara Castle decided not to stand for re-election, creating a vacancy in Blackburn – a place he has an almost palpable fondness for and has served faithfully ever since, including the years he was Home Secretary and then Foreign Secretary.

The bulk of the book is taken up, unsurprisingly, by his years first in opposition and then in government … and eye-opening much of it is too. Jack Straw is a man with a dry sense of humour and a well-developed eye for the absurd who has a very firm handle on his own strengths and weaknesses. He’s a self-confessed anorak  – a numbers  man who likes nothing more than grinding the details to find dust – making him a bit of a natural for the Home Office. His descriptions of how Whitehall functions and the relationship between the Home Office and Number 10 were a revelation to me. During the Pinochet controversy, when Spain applied to the UK for the extradition of the (supposedly ailing) Chilean dictator, Straw proved himself to be very much his own man:

“My permanent secretary brought a message into one meeting. ‘I’ve just had a suggestion from Number 10. it’s a third way. They think we might use the good offices of the Vatican.’ I knew the Vatican had written, and in what terms. But as far as I was concerned, this was a matter for determination in this life, not the next, I blew a raspberry and moved on.”

He was Foreign Secretary when the Twin Towers fell and his description of those nightmarish days, weeks and months are vivid but somehow guarded. He chooses his words carefully and whilst explaining in some detail why he believed the war with Iraq was justified, I was left with the feeling that a lot was left unsaid – even allowing for the restrictions of the Official Secrets Act. An anyone hoping for elucidation of the question of “rendition” should look elsewhere, because his only comment on the subject is:

“Nor was it ever our policy to be involed in the unlawful removal of suspects from one jurisdiction to another.”

But for all the circumlocations, carefully phrased ‘body swerves’ (his own words … and something that he admits to being very good at) what emerges from Last Man Standing is a portrait of a decent, hardworking and likeable man who has always done what he considered to be right and shown himself willing to put his own head on the block if he has to.

He is loyal to those he has served, coming close to hero worship for Barbara Castle, but is clear-sighted about the failings that were to fell both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He is convinced that the former moved him sideways from Foreign Secretary to Lord Chancellor – the “parking lot reserved for Foreign Secretaries with opinions of their own” – because of jealously over his high profile and obviously happy working relationship with Condoleezza Rice, which he referred to dismissively as ‘the Jack and Condi Show’, and it is, indeed, hard to explain otherwise why he should have  reshuffled a man who was such an effective and well-respected Foreign Secretary.

The book takes us down dozens of entertaining by-ways – from the Deputy Chief Whip who reinforced a point by getting him in a corner and grabbing him by the crotch to the bemused Russian Ambassador Yuri Fedotov who, during a visit to his Blackburn constituency in the maelstrom of press attention that erupted over Straw’s comments about the  full Muslim veil, was found wandering down a shopping street ‘as though in search of refuge’.

It’s a weighty book, but written with a sure hand and a lightness of touch that both surprised and delighted me. I knew I liked him before I started reading. I know now why I like him. Our politics don’t exactly coincide, but we do share a concern for justice and fairness in society. We also seem to share a sense of humour and an appreciation of the endless uses that a fine command of the English language can be put to:

“A negotiation like this is as much a matter of who stays alert the longest as who has the better case, I judged that if I could get most delegates to a state of catatonic exhaustion then a consensus might follow.”

A policy, I should add – that he didn’t extend to his memoirs …


Pan MacMillan. 2012. ISBN: 978-1-4472-2275-0.  582pp.

8 comments on “Last Man Standing by Jack Straw

  1. kirstyjane
    January 17, 2013

    I knew I disliked him before I read this review — for various reasons you mention and some you don’t — and that hasn’t changed, nor would his humour or command of the language change that. Nice review, though.

  2. Melrose
    January 17, 2013

    Thank you for this review, Moira, but Jack Straw to me doesn’t come across as decent, fair or for justice, and it is a book I would never choose to read. The whole debacle surrounding the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq means that there are several politicians I wouldn’t give any time to, and who make me feel completely queasy, and feel they should be taken to account for their actions, and Jack Straw is one of these politicians. Robin Cook was no doubt a pragmatic politician when he had to be, but, even for him, Iraq was a step too far. Just reading about Straw makes me feel quite ill…

    Sorry for the strong feeling this review has evoked about the man.

  3. Kate
    January 17, 2013

    He comes across as so guarded, you/one/I can’t see or hear anything through his words except a desire not to be caught out and pinned down. I don’t have a problem with this, that’s his world, but it does not make the book sound, well, interesting to read (unless really into spotting weaselling political syntax). I’ve only read one political biography (Hillary Clinton’s), which was written by her tame research committee: the whiff of caution and self-preservation in Last Man Standing smells exactly the same.

    But, yes, good review! I learned what i needed to know …

  4. Lisa
    January 17, 2013

    Really interesting review, Moira. Not my usual fare at all but you made me want to read it. 180,000 (guarded) words seems excessive, though.

  5. Hilary
    January 17, 2013

    I thought this was a good review, too, giving a fair assessment of what is in this for the reader – thanks, Moira.

    I think what intrigues me is to speculate on two things – firstly, is this the memoir that he would have wanted to write, and if not, what that would have looked like; and secondly, what effect a politician is seeking to achieve by publishing a memoir so soon after leaving high office. There must be some intention to crystallise some impressions at an early stage in the formation of the historical record. I wonder how effective this might be? Perhaps a friendly local historian could offer a view …

  6. Moira
    January 18, 2013

    I was struck by how soon after leaving office he wrote it, too … almost as if he wanted to get the first shot in or – as you say – crystallize some details while they were still fresh in his mind.

    And yes Kate – part of the interest is in reading between some of those carefully phrased lines. This probably isn’t – as I more or less said in the review – a book for anyone seriously ‘into’ politics – it’s much more suited to folks like me who are fascinated by the behind-the-scenes stuff. His descriptions of the day to day business of being Home Secretary … including a vivid description of the office, the staff and his First Day at Work … and then Foreign Secretary are particularly gripping. Being FS is a particularly poisoned chalice, of course. The travelling is completely knackering and disorientating and it’s a job where you pretty much can’t do it right.

    And what he doesn’t say is as eloquent as what he does say … like the single comment on ‘rendition’, which leaves you saying to yourself … “Well, it may not have been policy, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen …” – or his comments about Dr David Kelly. He says that Dr Kelly was the single biggest influence on his decision that Saddam posed a serious threat to international security … and then just says he ‘tragically died’ – with no further comment. The ‘No Entry’ sign is up …

    It doesn’t actually FEEL like 180,000 words Lise – if that’s what made it through the editor – although at over 550 pages, one suspects so.

    But it is indeed tempting to speculate what he would write if he was completely free to do so … when there was plainly more he could have said …

  7. David Sage
    January 19, 2013

    I don’t completely agree with the guy but I’m always interested to get some insight into why particular decisions were made. Writing him off as Melrose did, saying “wouldn’t give any time to” seems pretty closed-minded. Don’t you want to understand things you disagree with?

    I agree with Moira, there’s plainly more we could hear from Straw if he was free to write it. Maybe one day it will all come out and then we can actually judge.

  8. Melrose
    January 19, 2013

    I think if you want insight into why Jack Straw made certain decisions, you will wait a long time to hear it from the man himself, David. And, if you ever do, it will be a very sanitised version to ensure he won’t get himself into any kind of trouble. I was very aware at the time of Jack Straw’s participation in what some people consider war crimes, and am capable, based on that intense time of political observation, of deciding whether or not to give time to someone Kate describes as “so guarded, you/one/I can’t see or hear anything through his words except a desire not to be caught out and pinned down”, which I did – no, he’s not.

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This entry was posted on January 17, 2013 by in autobiography, Entries by Moira, Non-fiction: memoir and tagged , , , , , .



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