Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor, By Jack Straw
A man of no little importance
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Sunday 14 October 2012
There are two kinds of politician: risk-takers and survivors; those who advance by judging when to go out ahead of party or public opinion, and those who advance by being clever enough, and making few enough mistakes, that they are still standing while others fall back. Jack Straw is proud of being in the second category.
Actually, Straw is unfair on himself. He did take risks, most notably calling for the rewriting of Clause IV of Labour's constitution before Tony Blair did, which caused John Smith, as Labour leader, to lose his temper. Towards the end of his career, Straw also took a risk in describing the veil as a "visible statement of separation and difference".
But his style was generally that of the cautious administrator. As a reforming Home Secretary, he made some differences that are notable only by omission. "There's little comment these days about the youth justice system," he says, and he is right. He overhauled the system, doing boring things such as getting police and social services to work together in youth offending teams. He brought in Asbos, sorted out the crisis in the Passport Office, and turned around the rising trend of asylum claims he inherited from the Conservatives.
Yet this book is no dull ministerial CV. One of Straw's virtues as a politician was that he was one of the few interviewees who would, at 8.10am on the Today programme, answer the questions and engage in the argument. No surprise, then, that he is a good writer, with a nice line in understated wit. He even reports a sighting of that rare beast, Ed Miliband's sense of humour. When Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, visited the Cabinet, Straw said that it was "like meeting the man who invented the wheel". Miliband interjected, "And what was he like, Jack?"
I had no idea that Straw's early life was so difficult, and he tells the story well. He does his bit for promoting understanding of mental illness by admitting that he saw a therapist for much of his adult life. And the strength of this memoir is that it reflects his character: serious about public policy; grounded in his early life in Essex and the lives of his constituents in Blackburn; obsessed with detail.
This last is expressed in one of the joys of this book, its footnotes. These old-fashioned adornments ought to be easier in the age of computerised page layout, but have sadly declined. Straw's include one on the Poisson distribution, which helps explain, for example, why the "cock-ups, crises and fiascos" that hit the Home Office would bunch together rather than being evenly spaced.
You might think, after all the memoirs of the New Labour years, that it would be hard to add much that is new. Yet each different voice adds a different perspective, and this is one of the best and most distinctive. Straw has ensured that he will go down in history as more than a footnote.
John Rentoul's Tony Blair: Prime Minister is published by Little, Brown
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