7 November 2012

Climbing the éminence grise pole

Jack Straw, born in 1946, became a Labour MP in 1979. In 1997, after 18 years representing Blackburn in NW England as an opposition MP, he became Home Secretary, then successively Foreign Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary. He was one of only three MPs, all men, who served throughout the Blair and Brown cabinets but he never reached the very top of Disraeli’s ‘greasy pole’, the Prime Ministership. He returned to the backbenches in 2010.

The initial impression that Jack Straw’s recently published autobiography, Last Man Standing – Memoirs of a Political Survivor, makes is discouraging. Not only is it later on the scene than other reminiscences from New Labour (eg Blair, Mandelson, Darling), but also longer, at well over 500 pages.  The table below may be useful in explaining the organisation and emphasis of the book.  The chapters are broadly chronological in that Straw deals in turn with his occupancy of the Great Offices of State (once-great offices of a once-great state might be more realistic) and the one not-so-great one. However, within both his Home Office and Foreign Office periods, successive chapters deal with major themes. Each chapter has its own chronology but inevitably these overlap, an arrangement which sometimes takes the reader forwards and then back in time, and also leaves occasional references to Straw’s personal and family life out of sequence.

For many readers the first group of chapters (A), which explain how Straw arrived in the corridors of power just 10 years after leaving school and became an MP five years later, will be among the least familiar and most interesting. He gives the impression of having been hard done by at the direct grant school, Brentwood (a town in Essex near London), which he attended as a boarder and anyone would sympathise with the situation which led to his disappointing A level results.

Brentwood not having delivered him to Oxbridge, Straw studied law at Leeds, which probably turned out to be a better base for his rapid rise through student politics and return to London. He acquired a national position of sorts as president of the NUS (National Union of Students, an organisation probably being taken far too seriously at the time). After this his rise seems irresistible in hindsight, but it must have required considerable personal effort. Within a few years he took on a councillorship in inner north London, as now an incubator for aspiring Labour politicians, then deputy chairmanship of the long-departed Inner London Education Authority and also passed his Bar finals with high distinction. 

Anyone who has read Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Sweet Tooth, will be struck by the authenticity which Straw provides, no doubt unintentionally, to the author’s account of working life in MI5 in the early 1970s as seen through the eyes of a young woman graduate, Serena Frome.  they quote. (page 83)
In his NUS days, Straw found himself calling on the Education Minister, possibly passing real Serenas on the way in:
Bizarrely the headquarters of the Department of Education, which we occasionally had reason to visit, was on the upper floors of a Mayfair building whose main occupant was the Security Service (MI5). Aside from the careful security at the front entrance, the ministers' doors were always open - including that of the Secretary of State, Ted Short. (page 76)
Unsurprisingly the authorities seem to have sucked their teeth when they had to vet Straw as a SPAD to a cabinet minister. Ironically, MI5 would become one of his responsibilities as Home Secretary 23 years later.

Soon after, aged only 28, he was to be offered the post of political adviser to Barbara Castle at the Department of Social Services, years before the term SPAD (special political adviser) was to acquire its current notoriety.  From this point, the story becomes more familiar to anyone who read the profiles of Straw which appeared during New Labour’s heyday. He inherited Castle’s Blackburn seat and spent 18 years in opposition (B) before joining Blair’s cabinet and surviving until Brown’s departure in 2010 (C, D, E, F). Most of the subjects which he covers are the ones to be expected like Iraq and Iran, the latter comes with a helpful primer. Others may have been forgotten: the Pinochet extradition; or failed to enter public consciousness at all: the 2002 India-Pakistan crisis. He points quite rightly to his successes like the Human Rights Act and the Lawrence Inquiry and accepts his share of responsibility for things that seemed right at the outset if not subsequently, like EU immigration, Iraq, and the Freedom of Information Act.

But what is missing? Quite a bit. For example, there is no mention of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 when Straw was Home Secretary. Anyone seeking Straw’s opinion on big issues like climate change, Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilisations’, India’s becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council, how China may choose to exercise its global power, the value of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, and the continuation of our EU membership (though Straw is clear about the desirability of Turkey joining) is likely to feel disappointed – but, to paraphrase Alistair Campbell, he doesn’t do “world view”. There is little indication as to what he wants to do next, either. His opinions about the current Labour leadership are as anodyne as you would expect from an expert political survivalist, and his assessments of Blair and Brown are distinctly more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, although he is sharp enough about some figures from his past like Denis Healey and John Smith. 

Is Straw an éminence grise, or grey eminence, as he is sometimes described?   Not literally: since his early career he has not been a ‘power behind the scenes’, but on the contrary very clearly on the front bench of politics. Perhaps such a title may become apposite eventually, but he is yet to join the Lords or become the principal of an Oxford college (or both or whatever) and assume the role of occasional honoured adviser, like, say, Lord Heseltine. For now, it’s more appropriate to see Straw through the eyes of the artist Emma Wesley who painted him as Lord Chancellor (below right):
Jack Straw is also a portrait of a man doing his job. Here, however, the subject looks off into the middle distance and the reference to Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More raises questions about the role of Lord Chancellor. I have long been fascinated by the folded piece of paper that More holds in the portrait and, when I was commissioned to paint the present Lord Chancellor, realised it was the perfect symbol of the power such men hold over pieces of paper which translates, of course, into direct power over our lives. This power is represented in the portrait by the lock and the portcullises on the chairbacks.
Lord Chancellors by Hans Holbein (1527) and Emma Wesley (2009)
So who should read this book? Anyone who wants an objective overview of the period of Labour government from 1997 to 2010 could do a lot worse than read Andrew Rawnsley’s Servants of the People and The End of the Party. But at the next level of detail, among the personal memoirs, as opposed to diaries like those of Alistair Campbell and Chris Mullin, Last Man Standing is more agreeable to read than Blair’s A Journey or Mandelson’s The Third Man, not least because Straw comes across as more down to earth and approachable. Inevitably, there are the limitations which stem from autobiographical self-selection as opposed to a third party’s more objective choice when given the run of the same archives. Where Straw’s records and papers will finish up – Leeds, perhaps – and whether he will, by then, be a figure seen to merit a serious independent biography, only time will tell.


In a post not long after this one appeared in its original form, I did a 'stocktake' of the first two years of this blog.  One issue which I identified was that of some of the posts being far too long - originally this one was about 4000 words, a lot more than the 500 recommended in a recent article on blogging!  The version above, after substantial pruning is nearly 1300 words - probably still more than enough.

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