The other Mr Straw

This family campaigner learnt his values the hard way - at home. Jack O'Sullivan meets the Home Secretary's brother
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Indy Lifestyle Online
HE looks alarmingly like his older brother. Those severe, angular features, the same steely, greying hair, that firm, squared off finger making points with the determination of Thomas Gradgrind. And, likewise, there is some of the Dickensian teacher's grimness lingering around a lean figure, which seems to say that life was not always so easy.

Ed Straw, the Home Secretary's younger brother, is setting out his prescription for better relationships and better parenting. National TV should, he argues in a detailed and influential report, have to devote two hours a week to the subject. A huge campaign should be waged, equivalent to the drink-drive campaign in its capacity to change attitudes. Proper support and advice for couples and families could save the Treasury pounds 4bn a year - the cost, he says, of broken families.

But what is he like, this prophet of marital bliss, whose family connection has prompted such attention to his message? Will Ed turn out to be aa repeat of the naff Terry Major-Ball, whose filial shadow haunted our own former Prime Minister?

The form is not good. Only last year, as Jack Straw frog-marched his 17-year-old son, William, down to the police station over allegations of supplying cannabis, Uncle Ed's history was dragged up. Ed had been "an enthusiastic user" of dope back in the Sixties, claimed a fellow student.

In fact, Ed Straw is probably as respected in his field as brother Jack is in the political world. A partner at Coopers & Lybrand, the management consultants, he has run unsuccessfully for the chairmanship and specialises in media businesses. His expertise in relationships springs ostensibly from being chairman of the trustees of Relate, with which he has been involved for 12 years. But his authority comes from being trained in a hard school - the Straw family.

When Ed Straw was eight and Jack was 11, their father left home. They saw him again a couple of months later. Ed was 43 when they next met. "Thirty-five years is a long time not to see your father," he explains. "At some level I put my father into a box labelled `Does not exist'. I look back now and realise that was totally the wrong thing to do, but it was a way of coping with a situation, which I persisted with when I got older."

Why, I asked, had his father not seen him for so long? Ed, now 49, chooses his words kindly. He seems a warmer, less wary figure than his brother. Perhaps it's not wearing glasses. Or not belonging to the Labour Party. Or maybe the dope softened him up a bit all those years ago. "I think," he says, "people underestimate the emotional roller-coaster that the non- custodial parent goes through when seeing their children fleetingly.

"As a consequence, a lot of fathers find the easiest option is to separate completely."

His parents had never enjoyed a good relationship. "It started during the War. Like a lot of people, they went into it with great hope, but it got more difficult from then on. The only way to describe it is as `high in conflict'. It was not physically violent - but words can be just as hurtful as physical violence. There were five children, which just added to the burden of the relationship."

His father remarried a woman who already had children. He worked in insurance and eventually became a technical librarian at Stansted airport before retirement. Some money found its way back to the Straw children, but their mother, a nursery teacher, raised them alone in a council house in Essex. Jack, Ed and their younger brother, Willie, all won scholarships to an Essex boarding school.

"Our mother," he says, "was a classic single parent with five children living in a council house long before we knew there was such a thing as single parents. It was completely novel. But we just got on with our lives." Did Jack, I wonder, play a fatherhood role as the eldest of the three boys? "No, that wasn't the dynamic we had. I tended to pair off more with Willie, and younger sister, Helen, while Jack paired off with our eldest sister, Sue."

Are they close now? "To be honest we get on with our lives. We were once described as `good brothers'. We like each other. We both have families and our families see each other from time to time."

You cannot, however, avoid reading a little filial tension into some of Ed Straw's outspoken statements on the failures of the state to rehabilitate youngsters who go off the rails. On the vicious circle of domestic abuse, crime and then state punishment, he declares: "You could not do more for ensuring the continuance of domestic violence if you tried. Yet members of the Government defend it."

And he regrets unwillingness to tackle family problems more imaginatively. "The Government is scared witless. Given the background, they are hardly going to say, `How about a back to basics campaign'. It is a poisoned chalice, and so arms-length organisations are needed to do this work."

Ed Straw now sees his father regularly. "I spoke to him last night," he says. Ironically, just a year after meeting up with him again, Ed Straw's own marriage broke up, after he and his wife had had three children, now aged 22, 20 and 17.

But this time, the outcome has been different. The children stayed with their mother, but their father has a home 200 yards away. "Far from losing touch, I feel that we are now very close."

So what made his own marriage flounder? Ed Straw is as magnanimous to his ex-wife and he is to his father. "I think I was a far better natural parent than I was a natural partner".

Perhaps all this history hardly recommends Ed Straw as someone with the answers for a country which has the highest divorce rate in Europe. But you have to give him credit for his openness. He even admits that, when his own marriage got into trouble, he did not call on the services of counsellors, nor indeed of Relate, with which he had already been involved professionally for several years. Like most people who need such help, those who need it most find it hardest to ask. Even when they are as knowledgeable as Ed Straw.

Relative Values: Support for Relationships and Parenting by Ed Straw is available for pounds 4.95 plus 60 p&p from Demos. 0171 353 4479.