In his new memoirs, Labour Party grandee Jack Straw talks about a life in British politics stretching back to his defining years at Leeds University. Chris Bond met him ahead of his appearance at the Ilkley Literature Festival.
HAVING spent 13 years at the top table of Government, former Leeds University student Jack Straw is better positioned than most to comment on the trials and tribulations of running a country, and while some politicians who have held high office are happy to slip into quiet retirement, he still has something to say.
Most political memoirs tend to be either badly written or as dull as dishwater but his autobiography – Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor – is neither.
Straw, who is appearing at the Ilkley Literature Festival tonight, talks candidly about growing up as one of five children in a council flat, his battle with depression and the devastating loss of his first child at just six days old.
He talks, too, about his political career, explaining the rationale behind his support for the war in Iraq and lifting the lid on the fierce rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
He says: “I didn’t see any point in writing a memoir without being straightforward about my views and experiences. You have to pull your punches in some areas and I sought to be considered in my judgements about people, but I also thought it’s really quite important, as a matter of record, that people should know what it felt like to have these experiences”.
You don’t survive more than a decade in government, including four years as Home Secretary and five as Foreign Secretary, unless you are a shrewd operator and Straw has repeatedly shown that he can bend with the political breeze, even when it whips up into a storm.
It was during his time at Leeds University, where he studied law, that Straw started to flex his political muscles. He first arrived at Leeds in 1964, and writing in his book he speaks fondly of his time there. “Leeds University was a liberation. For the first time since leaving primary school, I felt socially at ease. I loved the place, learnt some law, and had a great time.”
He hadn’t been there long when he and a group of fellow students made the local news for heckling the then Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home when he gave a speech on the steps of Leeds Town Hall. “It was a very exciting time, there was a lot going on in the world and Leeds United were doing very well. Although I watched more Rugby League up at Headingley because that was cheaper,” he says.
Straw became increasingly active in student politics and the debating society where he first honed the skills that would help him in the cut and thrust of the House of Commons. He went on to become president of Leeds Student Union, a high profile role for a youngster and one which saw him given the dubious honour of dancing with the Duchess of Kent at the union’s 1968 annual dinner and ball.
“It was an important period for me because I learned the ability to run things, which is what you do in the Students Union.”
Straw was elected chair of the Leeds University Labour Society at the 1966 Annual General Meeting, but later the society changed its name to Leeds University Socialist Society and withdrew its support from the Labour Party (a separate Labour Club was later formed by supporters of the Labour Party in Leeds University Union).
Ironically, given the fact that he would later become Foreign Secretary, Straw was incorrectly alleged by the Foreign Office to have disrupted a student trip to Chile to build a youth centre there. He was branded a “troublemaker acting with malice aforethought” by the Foreign Office.
In a complete reversal of fortunes the Leeds University Union Council recently reinstated Jack Straw’s life membership of the union, as a previous motion had removed his life membership and led to the removal of his name from the Presidents’ Board owing to disagreement with his involvement in anti-terror legislation
In 1979, just over a decade after leaving Leeds, he became MP for Blackburn at the age of just 32. But it was another 18 years before the Labour Party finally returned to power. Since then, Straw has faced plenty of tough decisions, none more so than making the case to go to war with Iraq. “I believe the decision I took was the right one, at the time, based on the available evidence. But I pose the question in the book and answer it – whether if we knew then what we know now, would I have voted for the war? And the answer is of course not. The whole debate would have changed. But we didn’t know that and the great irony is Saddam Hussein had decided to do his very best to cover-up that he didn’t have WMDs [Weapons of Mass Destruction].”
He talks, too, about the rivalry between Blair and Brown as well as the latter’s leadership failings. “Tony knew how to be a leader and sadly we found that Gordon lacked that fundamental quality,” he says.
“Leadership involves intellectual qualities, which Gordon certainly had, but it also involves being able to organise and bring people together and gain their trust. You have to be able to cope on a day to day basis with the constant and multifarious demands on your time, to keep calm and a sense of perspective and some people can do it and some people can’t. Those of us who supported him found that he couldn’t really manage and I think the worst of it was he discovered that.”
Straw ruminates over whether he should have challenged for the leadership when Blair stepped down. “I wouldn’t have won against Gordon. On the question of would I have liked to be Prime Minister? The answer is ‘yes.’ But would I have liked all the hassle of getting there? ‘No.’ In the end because I didn’t want it enough I didn’t stand.”
In 2010, he supported David Miliband during Labour’s leadership election with Andy Burnham as his second choice, hardly a ringing endorsement for the man who finally got the job, Ed Miliband. So does he now believe the younger brother is up to the job? “I liked Ed but I didn’t think he was ready for the job and for the first year I worried that I might be correct in that judgement, but in the last year I think he has hit his stride and found his voice.”
Looking back over his own career, he says that setting up and implementing the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry is his proudest political achievement. “There was nothing in our manifesto about that but it was of absolute profound importance and if I did just one thing that would be enough.”
On the downside is a review of the Hillsborough disaster he ordered in 1997 that failed to expose the police cover-up. “I regret the fact that it didn’t ‘get to the bottom of things’ which is what I thought it would do, and what I think the judge thought it would do. But it didn’t and the families have had to wait 14 years and that is a matter of great regret.”
Given everything he’s been through, then, would he embark on a political career if he was starting out again today? “Yes,” comes his instant reply. “It’s full of risks, there are periods when it’s very disappointing and you have setbacks, but I feel fantastically lucky and really fulfilled as a result of what I’ve been able to achieve, far more than I thought I would. By the time I was at Leeds and became president of the union I thought I might be able to make a Labour MP, but I didn’t have an ambition beyond that.”
And how does he think history will look back on the Labour government of which he was such an integral part? “There will always be a question mark over Iraq and, therefore, over Tony and me in particular. But in terms of our domestic record I think people will look back in a benign and approving way because we changed our society for the better.
“We changed the way black and Asian people were treated in our society, how gay and lesbian people were treated, how women are treated. We are light years away from where we were in the mid-90s and that’s because of a Labour Government. We also lay the ground for getting crime down, we made improvements in education and in the Health Service.”