Greasy Pole: Jack Straw – getting to know you
You know Jack Straw. The one who always sits on Gordon Brown’s right at Prime Ministers Questions. Composed, dapper. Careful hair, expressionless eyes. Unmoved by the rowdy disorder around him. Alone among the servile front benchers working on his papers, jotting down a note or ticking a box. The very image of a Minister of the Crown exuding confidence that after the next election he will be back on that bench – perhaps even the one responding to brickbats from the opposition. It was not always so. Old photographs tell of a different someone – a young student experimenting with a variety of clothes and hair styles, whose eyes swivelled behind thick-framed glasses. Before he apparently took advice from an image consultant to help him up the greasy pole Straw was a student activist to satisfy the most expectant lefty. His 1966 elevation into the chair of the Labour Society at Leeds University was with the support of the Communist Society there. Abruptly he was rewarded by a Foreign Office denunciation as a “…chief troublemaker acting with malice aforethought” for disrupting a student trip to Chile. A couple of years later, by now President of the Student Union, he spear-headed a four day occupation of the university in reprisal for alleged security checks on the students. And again when a passionate speech of his on a conference resolution was apologetically interrupted by the – bewildered – chair reminding him that he was supposed to be speaking for the other side. Which, without so much as a tremor of embarrassment or apology, he did. Yes – you know Jack Straw.
You might not know (although you should have had your suspicions) that from his teens Straw nurtured an ambition to be a successful politician, using the name Jack rather than John in salute to the 14th. Century peasant leader. In 1974, after a spell as President of the National Union of Students, he began to work for Social Security Minister Barbara Castle – whose plans to restrict the unions, set out in the infamous In Place Of Strife, virtually finished her chances to be Labour’s first female leader. Straw was well placed to succeed her in 1979 as MP for the safe seat of Blackburn. Conforming to the principle, popular among Labour MPs, that support for the local football team is essential to maintain a healthy majority, Straw had to wear a scarf and wave a rattle for Blackburn Rovers. Whatever this did for him on the terraces of Ewood Park the impression he made in Parliament was uneven; the infinitely nasty Tory MP Alan Clark sneered “I remember ‘slapping him down’ when I was a junior employment minister and he was a backbench socialist ‘trying’ to find his way”.
But Westminster is no place to be sensitive about such slights. After a string of Shadow posts Straw’s place in a future Labour government looked safe when Blair gave him the job he had relinquished when he became party leader – spokesman on Home Office affairs. The plan was that he would carry on where Blair had left off, expunging the impression that a Labour Home Secretary would be soft on crime. Quickly justifying his leader’s confidence in him, Straw set about doing what had been assumed to be impossible – promoting the impression that there could be a Home Secretary more authoritarian and punitive than the detested Tory Michael Howard. To this end, at one time or another, Straw has bellowed out tabloid-attractive policies such as locking up people who have not committed any crime but who may do so because they are classified as suffering from a “personality disorder”; or curfew orders designed to keep under-16 year-olds off the streets; or drives to suppress “aggressive beggars, winos and squeegee merchants”. Unsurprisingly, Margaret Thatcher was numbered among his fans: “I trust Jack Straw. He is a very fair man” was how she put it while many others agreed with lawyer Louis Bloom Cooper that he was “…the most reactionary Home Secretary we have had”.
Ever anxious to still any doubts about him going soft on crime, Straw recently grabbed the headlines by overturning a Parole Board recommendation to release Ronnie Biggs, the last of the Great Train Robbers. The usual reason for such a decision is that the person concerned is likely to be a danger to the public by committing further serious offences. But Biggs is said to be frail and sick, unable to walk or talk or feed himself, which is done through a tube into his stomach. So Straw had to come up with some other justification – that Biggs is “wholly unrepentant” and “outrageously courted the media” about his escape to Brazil.
Well, if we are looking for repentance we might have expected Straw to regret his ready acceptance of the government’s lying excuse for attacking Iraq, with all the consequent destruction and killing, for in January 2003 he wrongly asserted that the Blix report “contains the clearest possible evidence that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction…Several thousand rockets are unaccounted for”. Does he regret his decision to allow General Pinochet to return to Argentina, although he was wanted elsewhere for trial for thousands of people being tortured and murdered, on the grounds that the dictator was too sick to stand trial? What does he think now about his rejection of an asylum application from an Iraqi man with the advice that “we have faith in the integrity of the Iraqi judicial process and that you should have no concern if you haven’t done anything wrong” ? And will Alistair Campbell have to flee to Brazil now that Straw has ruled that “outrageously courting the media” constitutes a reason for him to lock you away?
You should get to know Jack Straw, for what he has promised and what he has done and failed to do, for he may soon realise his dream to stand in triumph on the steps of Number Ten proclaiming his pledges and his excuses. Then you should turn and trust yourself to do all that is needed and proper for the world.