Straw’s “Last Man Standing”: the fond politician
Jack Straw’s autobiography, Last Man Standing, has been well-recieved, and justly so. At the risk of being patronising or condescending, it’s worth saying that it is a touching book. I fancied myself admiring its author. I had to remind myself that it might be – perhaps had to be, was perhaps inevitably – a touch self-serving. Here’s a little unpicking of all that….
It took me a long time to grow to like the public Jack Straw (the only one I know), but I was almost there by the time he left office, and this book seems like confirmation. The process was a little like that of coming to admire Tony Blair. As the Iraq war loomed, the two men took what I thought was the right path, and anyway it was certainly the brave one. (Though Straw, I thought, over-hedged his bets, and still does. I prefer the case for war that didn’t depend on Saddam having WMD, or on UN approval.) Before that, they had both dared to be socially conservative about anti-social behaviour on council estates.
So much for admiration. As to likeability, around Tony Blair, there was always an air of actorly unreality: he was all sorts of different people, and one wasn’t at all sure that he wasn’t a sort of ghost. The Straw thing was different: he seemed to be a sort of Spart in shiney shoes. You remember Dave Spart? He was Private Eye’s chippy activist, forever locked in student politics. Indeed, Jack Straw cut his teeth in the National Student Union, and if the media portrayed him as a chippy lefty, the fair bit of the charge was that young Jack did not go out of his way to disabuse us. He writes about saying at the time that he wanted the NUS to be respected but not respectable: a neat formulation which could be taken in all sorts of ways.
To like Straw’s persona, one had to get past its shifts – its shiftiness, even.
The years roll by and it would take an insider of refined political taste to see that Jack Straw had always been a rather conservative figure of the left of the centre left, and heading midwards all the while. As a minister, he seemed to be a safe pair of hands. I don’t say that one suspected him of being a trimmer, or even of being a master of the greasy pole. But he seemed gabbily free of serious political intent as well as smoothly competent.
One way or another, Jack Straw has always invited a cynical view of himself. Even now, it’s reinforced by his “last man standing” tag. He still claims that being a survivor is the first rule of politics. Actually, of course, it is only the first rule of the professional politician and is only justified if the achievements are worth the compromises. Anyway, Jack Straw is not a convincing Cruella De Ville-cum- Machiavelli. “God stand up for bastards” is not a convincing selling pitch for him.
Indeed, in the degree to which Jack Straw stresses the managerial in politics, he sounds like a good Tory: a practical man not keen on the vision thing. In this, and in other ways, he eschews the usual Labour tropes of dissidence, complaint and the dreaming of dreams. He only really gets angry about gay-bashing of any sort, but especially from the old-right. His take on the business of rights – of identity politics and morals – is very modern, and – as David Cameron seeks to prove – it is classless and non-partisan at heart.
It in keeping with my early misreading of him that I had never known, or had forgotten, that Jack Straw quite early made the right modernising moves: of those who would become New Labour, it was he who first argued loudly and bravely against Clause IV. If he was making a mark, it was the right one; if this was a canny move, it was prescience of a high order. He was a Kinnockite and definitely not a Bennite. And yet he has never been known or celebrated as any kind of theorist or even a strategist for any Labour faction, and this book is in that traition. It is completely free of any sort of political philosophy, or generalisation.
It is, indeed, an oddity – and charming – because it is a rattling good account of the one-damned-thing-after-another life of a busy boy, youth, rising lawyer, husband and father as he becomes a serious politician, always told from his point of view, always personal. But if it is hardly ever lofitly thoughtful, neither is it any sort of confessional. There is no psycho-babble. He is hardly ever self-aggrandising, and in exchange seems to expect that we should at least grant that he doesn’t have to give us an ameliorative false modesty.
Given this hybrid elusiveness, I doubly want to pin down why I so warmed to the author. He writes well, and that helps. I’d say that Jack Straw has always seemed feline, and increasingly I saw that in a good rather than a bad light. Not so much a trimmer, then; more someone with an aversion to unecessary fights. Not shifty, so much as accommodating where possible. I always assumed he was ethnically Jewish, and in a good way: world-weary, a little sad, but realistic and indefatigable. He is wry, but not twisted up in irony. The book brings us his Jewish immigrant grandmother, and I find that a happy, nicely explanatory, bit of history. I don’t much care if it is racist to find it a warming insight. But if he feels Jewish or has any idea that such a feeling might in general exist, Jack Straw doesn’t say so. He had a childhood which bordered on the troubled, but he doesn’t bleat. Materially and socially, the boy Straw was shifted about in an amorphous zone which had notes of the middle class (a teacher mother) but could sometimes dip down into the lower middle class and beyond, where serious insecurity loomed. He went to a state boardng school: it is a perfect case of his social indeterminancy. In a very telling passage we learn just a little about favoured and unfavoured council estates in the 1950s and ’60s: his was the latter. It wasn’t gang-ridden, so far as we know, but it was no paradise. Jack Straw doesn’t complain, or look within himself for present signs of past difficulties. He doesn’t milk his childhood as an explanation for his espousal of ASBOs beyond a hint he at least knew whereof he was legislating. So both the story and the telling of it are involving.
Jack Straw is a Londoner and a southerner: he has lived in Pimlico for much of his professional life. He is unabashed in his affection for his Blackburn constituency, perhaps especially its football and its immigrants, but he is not mawkish about either. If he finds the North redemptive, and there are hints he does, he lets us draw the conclusion. I have always thought that his habit of regularly standing on a soapbox and engaging with weekend shoppers was brilliant and right. It is wholly admirable. He kept it up all through his ministerial years, and not least when prosecuting the most controversial war of modern times. He doesn’t over-promote his originality in the matter.
There is a lot more on the credit side. He has always liked and worked with some Tories. Without labouring the point, he seems to have worked out how to be a successful busy father. Without fuss, he took Anglicanism seriously. He had the wit to love the funny and moving side of the high offices he held. He proclaims himself a happy dresser-up. He reserves his few strictures mostly for lefties who scuppered Labour’s chances. He understands and appreciates the nearly physical toughness that his constituency allies occasionally brought to bear on opponents. He understands the spiritual and other merits many people find in Islam, but is unsparing about its illiberalism.
I suspect that Jack Straw is temperamentally a situationist: he takes people, places and circumstances as he finds them, seeing the best in them, and getting the best out of them for himself, his cause, his family and his friends. That is, I have always thought, a side effect of boarding when young: one looks after number one, but is inculcated into ideas about honour and duty. He is partisan, all right, but can never stay blinkered for long because he keeps coming across compelling people and ideas from the other side. I also suspect that he could never have been Prime Minister because he was insufficently ruthless, and perhaps because (this may be a wholly false impression) he has very little interest in economics, or in the brutal business of rationing welfare. He writes of Tony Blair’s cool blue eyes, and seems surprised by the Prime Minister’s effortless cruelty toward an unecessary colleague.
One suspects that Jack Straw could not have calculated and manipulated human relationships on the scale required to build a party or a Cabinet. It is of a piece, though, that he builds strong friendships and loyal teams around his person and the offices he holds. The habit seems transferable to the internatinal stage. In the Iraq business, he had what one senses was an important inner club, the not-Neo Conservative Condi Rice and Colin Powell. He was not America’s poodle, or even Tony Blair’s, but he was – one senses – happy to go where that very particularly totemic pair were prepared to go.
On way or another, if Jack Straw had a definite bias in his biggest job, it was that he had a lot more sympathy with the Palestinians than with the Israelis. That presumably lines up with all sorts of perceptions (not always unreasonable) about US policy and modern history. But it also fits with what one suspects is Jack Straw’s deepest inner voice: a lurking 1960s liberationism.
None of that is to say that Jack Straw can’t do Big Picture in a cool way: he is a mostly-sound activist on constitutional and parliamentary reform. He may have seemed to be Tony Blair’s gofer at the Home Office, and in the run-up to Iraq. But the position was more subtle than that, and besides it is impressive that he was not remotely daunted, so far as we can see, by these huge tasks.
One gets the impression that Jack Straw is very clever and could have been an intellectual if he wanted. (He has a hankering to fulfil his mathematical bent.) In this autobiography, he seems to have wanted to show what it was like for him to be a politician and servant of the people and state. He brilliantly gives us enough of the personal to be engaged and understanding, but seems to do so partly because that’s the way to see what instiutions are like and how they work. One can’t see the machinery of politics and government if one doesn’t see the flesh and blood which fuels and greases it. In Jack Straw’s case, he seems to have brought an affectionate nature to his work, and this nature informed the way he held office. One suspects – he doesn’t stress this – that people’s loyalty to him came laced with fondness, and the combination made the work much more bearable.
This is a marvellous book.