Self-deprecating but ready to settle scores
Jack Straw, Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor, Macmillan, £20
In one moment in this book, Jack Straw recounts how he told the cabinet that meeting Tim Berners-Lee was like meeting the man who invented the wheel, only for Ed Miliband to reduce those around the table to hysterics by asking ‘And what was he like, Jack?’ Straw has, indeed, been around so long that he could be regarded as Labour’s answer to Andrei Gromyko, and was just one of three of Tony Blair’s original cabinet to be in Gordon Brown’s last cabinet. He was on the frontbench for thirty years.
This book is generally short in bilious denunciation, and Straw’s tone is often one of rueful self-deprecation. He is, however, ready to settle some scores. If the obituaries after John Smith’s death praised him as one of the best prime ministers we never had, Straw believes that Smith’s ability to do the job would have been undermined by his drinking. The author explains the Police Federation’s habit of monstering home secretaries as a safety valve for having to deal patiently with unruly members of the public for the rest of the year. Also amusing is the way in which Straw reacts to being made foreign secretary by saying ‘F*ck me’. He was equally surprised to lose the post.
While he is careful to express his admiration for much of Tony Blair’s record, he is clearly still resentful at having lost a job he enjoyed so much. Much of his criticism of Blair, though, is rooted in genuine exasperation over policy. Straw’s account of the detachment between Blair and the mainstream of his party over his response to Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon in response to the killing of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah in 2006 reinforces the impression given by Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party that the conflict played just as large a role in Blair’s downfall as the Chanak crisis played in Lloyd George’s toppling in 1922. Straw’s own disillusionment sums up this estrangement neatly. His assertion that he had thought of himself and Blair as close may overlook Blair’s displeasure at the pleasure Straw took in the French rejection of the European constitution. Yet, as this memoir makes clear, Straw was, in many other respects, New Labour even before it became fashionable. His scepticism about some aspects of comprehensive education predated that of David Blunkett, he privately questioned the value of shadow cabinet elections as far back as 1986, and his call for the scrapping of the old Clause IV incurred John Smith’s ire.
It is, though, curious that an author who cheerfully confesses to being an anorak should make a number of factual errors. The 1992 General Election took place on April 9, not April 8, and the Greenwich by-election took place in 1987, not, as Straw states, 1986. Similarly, Gordon Brown’s much criticised visit to British troops during the 2007 Conservative Party Conference was to Iraq, not Afghanistan. This is, nonetheless, one of the best memoirs to emerge from the Blair and Brown years.
Richard Briand is a freelance writer
Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, John Smith, Lebanon, Tony Blair