Book reviews: 'In politics the first rule is survival'

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 27 November 2012 in Culture
Keith Simpson MP reviews Jack Straw's memoirs and a political diary of Britain

This article is from the December 2012 issue of Total Politics

Reviews by Keith Simpson, Conservative MP for Broadland and PPS to William Hague

Jack Straw, Macmillan, £20

There’s a close-up of Jack Straw on the front cover of his autobiography. He’s staring straight at you, like one of those mugshots in police files – apt, given his time as home secretary. And the title of his memoir is also apt, because Straw has been the Molotov or Gromyko of the modern Labour party. Active as a member since the 1960s, he has survived numerous changes of leader up to Miliband, and the ideological divisions and fanciful theories, from Militant Tendency to the Third Way.

This is one of those rare political memoirs, self-deprecating and amusing, which are very readable, revealing much about the author’s private and public lives and offering shrewd observations about opposition politics and the pressures of ministerial life.

Straw is keen to demonstrate that politics should be a high calling, and is determined to celebrate politics. He emerges from the pages as a very professional politician, fascinated with the applied end of politics and government, and, in his own words, a real “anorak”. It was more than ambition that took him into politics: it was also a desire to make a difference, and he comes across as a practical progressive, whether on gay rights, racism or the reform of Parliament.

He reveals quite a lot about what makes him tick. He writes about his parents’ broken marriage, difficulties at a selective boarding school, his later “imposter syndrome”, depression and the sudden onset of deafness in one ear. His first marriage failed, partly as a result of the death of a daughter, but his second marriage and relations with his two children have been more enduring.

At university, he learnt a lot about the vicious, divisive nature of leftist politics, about polling and canvassing, and that, combined with other ‘dark arts’, got him elected as chairman of the NUS. He became a researcher to Barbara Castle, who admired his “guile and low cunning”. In 1979 he was to succeed her as the MP for Blackburn.

Throughout his long parliamentary career, even as a cabinet minister, Straw nurtured his constituency and drew strength from his visits. His political support and commitment meant he was able to see off challenges from militant and later anti-Iraq War protest votes.

Eighteen years in opposition after 1979 taught him that it is a thankless task. Straw managed to survive the splits and proved himself a useful frontbench spokesman. He makes clear his criticism of John Smith as leader, while comments about Smith’s drinking and temper have won him few friends north of the border. There’s the unanswered question of why Smith didn’t like him – perhaps too devious?

In the event, Smith’s death in 1993 was Straw’s great opportunity, and he hitched himself to Blair’s star, becoming his campaign manager for the leadership. Reward came in the form of appointment to shadow home secretary, and he was able to ally himself with Blair without attracting the fatal enmity of Brown. The writer is quite honest about his humiliating performance against Michael Howard at the despatch box in 1993 over a crisis in the Prison Service. Blair stood by him, but Straw never forgot the experience.

He writes, “In politics the first rule is survival”, and he followed it, despite crises over law and order and immigration. He flags up his opposition to Scottish devolution and the failure to think through the unintended consequences of Human Rights and Freedom of Information, candidly acknowledging his part in the latter. He takes the opportunity to criticise colleagues, usually in an indirect way, describing Charles Clarke as a “very bright man” but “also a quixotic contrarian”, and later John Reid’s “ill-judged” comment about the Home Office being “not fit for purpose”.

After the 2001 election, Blair moved him to the Foreign Office, perhaps out of a combined need for someone who was a “safe pair of hands” and who wouldn’t challenge Blair as he became increasingly his own foreign secretary, a characteristic of many prime ministers. This period in his ministerial life has been the most controversial, with 9/11, the hunt for al-Qaida, the intervention in Afghanistan and, most controversially, his support for military action against Iraq. Straw doesn’t shrink from this decision, and believes that Britain and America were acting within UN resolutions.

While, however, he says he was critical of Bush’s ‘Axis of evil’ speech and claims he put forward his reservations orally and in writing to Blair, he was never prepared directly to confront. He explains that just as Blair tried to influence Bush privately but supported him publicly, so he did the same with Blair. But just as Blair was often outside the White House decision loop, so was Straw with the No 10 version. 

After the 2005 election, Blair ruthlessly demoted him to the job of leader of the house. Straw is still bitter about this and believes it was a punishment for falling foul of the Bush administration as well as Blair over his criticism of Israel and negotiations with Iran.

This may explain his crab-like movement towards the Brown camp and his appointment as Brown’s campaign manager for the non-leadership contest. His reward was to be appointed lord chancellor and justice minister.

Straw’s memoir ends with his role as an active backbencher and his thoughts on making government more accountable and Parliament more relevant. It’s a familiar theme of former cabinet ministers who were less keen when in office.

Events, Dear Boy, Events: A Political Diary of Britain from Woolf to Campbell, Ruth Winstone (ed), Profile Books, £25

As editor Ruth Winstone writes in her introduction, this is not a history of Britain in the 20th century, but an impressionistic view of politically-changing times as described through the pens, typewriters and word processors of over 70 – mainly male – diarists. Some are politicians, others are from the literary and artistic worlds, and nearly all of their diaries have been published. Only a few are by ‘ordinary people’.

Organised in chronological sections, each has a short editor’s introduction. Political diarists include Harold Nicolson, Duff Cooper, Harold Macmillan, Hugh Dalton, Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Paddy Ashdown, Gyles Brandreth, Alastair Campbell, Oona King and Michael Spicer. The “others” include Virginia Woolf, Malcolm Muggeridge, Alan Brooke, Cecil Beaton, Nella Last, Peter Hall, Michael Palin, Alan Bennett, Jimmy Boyle, Deborah Bull and Roy Strong.

The editor admits omissions, including well-known diarists like CP Scott and Anthony Powell, but this is a personal selection and gives a multi-dimensional view of British history over the past century, from the profound to the ridiculous. It would have been helpful if Winstone had included an op-ed on why these notables kept diaries and when they wrote them. For instance, some are written or dictated a week after the event described, while others are based on contemporaneous notes.

Winstone observes in the final section, post-2007, that the political diary may well have reached the natural end of its literary life with the growth of the blog, Twitter and the thread, which are instantaneous and public – she includes extracts from the Conservative blogger Iain Dale.

Events, Dear Boy, Events, a compilation of some of the best observations of political moments, can be read at one go or dipped into at leisure. It’s a good introduction to the fuller published collections.

Tags: Book Reviews, Issue 53, Jack Straw, Keith Simpson MP

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