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Memoirs of a Political Survivor.
“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.