Jack Straw is a supreme connoisseur of politics and his memoirs are for political connoisseurs: very much in character, crafted with literary elegance – erudite, forensic and fascinating. Always a consummate politician – possessed of “guile and low cunning”, as his old ministerial boss Barbara Castle memorably put it – his book is a tour de force through the fluctuating fortunes of the Labour party from the mid-1960s to the 2010 election defeat.
Our two stories ran in parallel, but on quite different trajectories, from youth radicalism to cabinet office. In his early 20s, Jack was the bright president of the National Union of Students when in 1969-70 the anti-apartheid campaign I found myself leading burst on to the rugby and cricket fields of Britain with direct action against all-white South African teams. He was supportive but careful to distance himself from our controversial militancy.
His account, laced with memorable anecdotes about Labour’s tortuous journey into self-destruction in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then eventual recovery and success in the 1990s, is a sound guide to outsiders wanting some insight into this crucial period. He is rightly generous to Neil Kinnock who, he remarks persuasively, would have made an excellent prime minister. But he also rejects the conventional wisdom on Kinnock’s successor, the widely admired John Smith, with whom he had a breach when he bravely argued for the abolition of the iconic Clause 4 of Labour’s constitution nearly two years before Tony Blair reformed it. Straw believed Smith was not fit to be prime minister. The reason, he rather brutally gives, albeit “with some trepidation”: Smith’s heavy drinking. Such frankness about senior colleagues applied also to the Commons office of Mo Mowlam, “whose floor was littered with her underwear, and who might, if you were unlucky, suddenly decide, in the middle of a conversation, to change some of it”.
He is also disarmingly but engagingly revealing about the pain of his father’s anger toward his mother (never witnessing “any tenderness between them”) and then his father’s abrupt departure, leaving her alone to bring up her children. An even more startling revelation – especially to those like me who worked closely with him in government – was: “I’d always been prone to ‘impostor syndrome’ and felt what I had achieved was bound to be taken away from me.”
He gives a real insight into being a cabinet minister – what the Private Office is like, the ministerial car drivers, the close protection officers, and the role of cabinet committees – laced with exquisite incidents that carry the reader along.
With an impressive grasp of history and a deep Labour party hinterland, he stood out among younger, more technocratic ministers. I found him commendably outspoken in cabinet, not least over the growing collapse in public trust suffered by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments. But then Jack also lost the trust of Blair because of his manoeuvring on Europe and a calculated shift of allegiance to Brown – to be arbitrarily demoted after five years as a respected foreign secretary, though his own explanation is growing differences over the Middle East.
As a formidable constant in top cabinet posts throughout Labour’s 13 years in government – home secretary, foreign secretary, leader of the Commons and lord chancellor – he is well placed to give his take on the dominant issues, including Iraq, and the frustrated plots of colleagues as Gordon Brown’s premiership disappeared into a quagmire. He ends with a hilariously self-deprecating description of getting lost on London’s buses and learning to drive again, after 13 years of being guided and transported by protection officers.
A big hitter with acute political antennae, he nevertheless gained a reputation for delivering legislation that bit back in unexpected ways; his well-intentioned but deeply flawed 2000 act reforming party financing a good example. A senior Labour MP was recently acclaimed by colleagues when he quipped sourly: “We need a one-clause bill to repeal all Jack’s acts.”
As a self-confessed “anorak”, Straw had a nerdish obsession for factual detail, which often got in the way of his ability to win an argument. But his photographic memory and prodigious appetite for devouring official documents left colleagues in constant awe. He was also good to work for, delegating well, listening and encouraging a team spirit.
Some memoirs by former Labour politicians generated headlines and big serialisation fees – promptly to disappear, quickly remaindered. This book will stand the test of time. Straw’s account of Labour’s journeys in and out of power over nearly five decades is a must for serious students of government and politics.