I have followed Jack Straw’s career more closely than others because we attended the same school. I remember feeling strangely proud when he was appointed Foreign Secretary and later Justice Secretary. This stemmed from the realisation that we had sat on the same pews during school chapel, eaten lunch at the same tables, and since he had gone on to a life in politics, so too, perhaps, could I.
It is difficult to dislike Jack Straw. ‘I love politics, Parliament, my Blackburn constituency,’ is Straw’s first sentence in Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor. He has always been a reassuring figure, if perhaps a little dull. It is this intrinsic likeability that helps explain why he has been a political survivor.
Straw says the first rule of politics is to survive. He remained in top Cabinet posts throughout Labour’s 13 years in government, including spells as Home then Foreign Secretary, Commons Leader and finally Lord Chancellor. He earned the nickname Rubber Jack, the Politician who remained intact whatever was thrown at him.
The big philosophical ideas of politics are not Straw’s primary concern. He prefers to follow a crowd with his head down. Ahead of the 1959 election, aged 13, he wrote ‘to each of the main parties to ask for details of what they were intending to do.’ Though his love of politics is clear, what drives him is less apparent.
For example, Straw has always been a Eurosceptic. In 1975, he helped organise the ‘No’ campaign in the referendum on the Common Market. But when he was Foreign Secretary, Straw not only opposed a referendum, he advocated a European Constitution and described the EU as a ‘noble institution’. Straw was simply putting survival before belief. ‘What is the point in being in politics and not saying what you think?’ Straw himself observes. This is a question he dodged whilst in office.
Straw the Man
An absorbing aspect of Last Man Standing concerns Straw’s troubled childhood. He grew up in Loughton, Essex, in a large but unhappy family. He notes, ‘I cannot recall any occasion where I witnessed any tenderness between our parents.’ His father was violent with Straw’s mother and sister, and, in turn, was beaten by Straw’s uncle. When Straw was nine, he discovered his father attempting suicide. His parents divorced soon after. Straw was then sent to board at Brentwood School. He was so unhappy there that he ran away three times in one week.
Later, Straw’s first wife developed anorexia and their child died at six days old. Straw himself suffered tinnitus after an ear infection. In the early Eighties, he sank into serious depression ‘accompanied by terrible nightmares.’ He underwent psychoanalysis, twice a week for ten years. ‘For all my apparent success, I’d always been prone to impostor syndrome and felt that what I had achieved was bound to be taken away from me,’ he writes.
I wanted to know who Jack Straw really is, coupled with a good dose of scandal. But beyond his unhappiness at boarding school, there is little about Straw the man. He remains reserved, his feelings buried.
He does, however, give great insight into life as a Cabinet Minister. We learn what the Private Office is like, the Ministerial car drivers, and the role of Cabinet Committees. We also find occasional humorous details about colleagues. The floor of Mo Mowlam’s office ‘was littered with her underwear’ and ‘if you were unlucky [she would] suddenly decide in the middle of a conversation to change some of it’. Tony Blair had ‘a clean-shoe fetish’, ‘the most extensive shoe-cleaning kit I’d ever seen’. Straw even displays admiration for Ann Widdecombe, ‘a woman possessed…a terrier with my ankles in her jaw.’
The Shadow of Iraq
The autobiography’s section on Iraq is disappointing. Straw’s explanation of how he reached his decision to support the invasion is unconvincing. There is little about the thought processes that led Straw, whose father had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War, to support this controversial engagement. This is all the more frustrating because Straw – the man of details – would undoubtedly have sensed that the invasion was flawed.
Perhaps there were no thought processes. Straw is a reactive politician, not a reflective one. There has always been a lack of passion in his politics. By his own admission, due to his difficult childhood, he has always tended to bury his feelings. Unfortunately for the reader, Straw’s memoirs are in a similar style.
On Brown and the Leadership
According to Straw, Tony Blair encouraged him to stand for the Labour leadership. ‘I had thought about it quite a bit,’ he writes. ‘I reckoned that I could do much of the job. I could certainly have run the government properly. But I wasn’t sure I could do it all.’
Straw writes that Gordon Brown did not have the necessary qualities to be Prime Minister, and that Brown himself quickly realised this. But Straw calculated that Brown, who was ‘consumed by this one ambition’, would win the leadership, even if he did stand. Once again, Straw’s focus was political survival, not political glory. There was no room for passion in his politics.
Though it does not offer any great revelations, Last Man Standing is eminently readable. It is engaging and often humorous. Straw was Labour’s safe pair of hands. He was not a big picture man. He survived due to his ability to bury his feelings, his likeability, and his role as the consummate anorak.
One can’t help expecting more from Straw, clearly a decent man, particularly over issues such as Iraq and extraordinary rendition. Straw preaches that a politician should say what he thinks, but rarely did he do this in practice. His silence and lack of passion can be frustrating, but Last Man Standing does throw a little light on why Straw is the man he is.
Straw played the political game well, without necessarily winning it. Then again, that was never his aim.
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