The autobiography of Jack Straw – an MP for thirty-three years and at the heart of government throughout the longest-serving Labour administration in history
As a small boy in Epping Forest, Jack Straw could never have imagined that one day he would become Britain’s Lord Chancellor. As one of five children of divorced parents, he was bright enough to get a scholarship to a direct-grant school, but spent his holidays as a plumbers’ mate for his uncles to bring in some much-needed extra income. And where did he end up ? He spent 13 years and 11 days in government, including long and influential spells as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. This is the story of how he got there.
It was Barbara Castle who appointed Jack Straw as her special adviser at the social services department in 1974, she said she wanted him for his “guile and low cunning”. Straw went on to be a Labour frontbencher – in either the cabinet or shadow cabinet – for 23 consecutive years. In all that time, he resisted categorisation into any of the party’s many strands of opinion and faction. Remarkably thirteen years later, he managed Tony Blair’s leadership campaign. Thirteen years after that, he managed Gordon Brown’s.
He was privy to most of the serious plotting against Brown and even emerged as the favourite not only to succeed the failing leader but to deliver the bad news to him. To dismiss Straw as an unprincipled and narrowly ambitious politician is to miss the point. Straw is tribal Labour; his maternal grandfather was a Transport and General Workers’ Union shop steward, his mother a Labour councillor. At 13, he decided, while delivering leaflets in pouring rain during the 1959 election campaign, that he’d like to be an MP. The abiding principle of Straw’s life is that Labour should be in power.
The big philosophical issues of politics – the role of the state, the limits of markets, the merits of egalitarianism – are scarcely on Straw’s radar. Big pictures and big ideas are not for him. His habit is to amble along in roughly the same direction as everyone else. Still an MP, Straw voted for David Miliband as Labour leader, as most Labour MPs did, but now, like most Labour MPs, thinks Ed has “shown himself to be decisive and … made some difficult moves well”.
These memoirs are better written than most. There is ample gossip and genuinely funny stories, for example, when the Labour government won a Commons division on top-up university fees by just five votes, Straw warned Blair not to push his luck too far. “‘Jack,’ he replied, with blue eyes blazing, ‘I’m always lucky.'”
The most absorbing part of the book concerns his traumatic childhood and early adulthood. He recalls, without self-pity, how his parents quarrelled bitterly and eventually parted; how, aged nine, he saw a maternal uncle beat up his father and, next day, found his father attempting suicide; how he was initially so unhappy at boarding school (to which he won a free scholarship) 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 chronic tinnitus after an ear infection. Depression led him to consult a psychoanalyst whom he still sees occasionally.
The secret of what makes Straw tick may lie in his school holidays, when he worked for his uncle as a plumber’s mate. He learned “to cut, bend and solder pipes, and much else”. That was how he approached government and policy-making: he aimed to keep the water flowing and the boiler flues clear. He was New Labour’s safe pair of hands, its trusty plumber, a much more competent than average minister. But it isn’t a plumber’s job to worry about the architecture.
Now – isnt that part of our problem too as individuals and groups?