Profile: Jack Straw - The man who will send Pinochet home

Sion Simon says that it is absurd to believe that the Home Secretary is worried about outraging the Labour left
Click to follow
WE ARE told that the Home Secretary is in the throes of an agonising dilemma. He has an ageing Latin American dictator on his hands that he just can't seem to offload without upsetting someone. The Americans, the Chileans, the Spanish, the Foreign Office and Labour's modernising advance guard all want former Chilean dictator General Pinochet sent home. But if Mr Straw this week refuses the Spanish request for Pinochet's extradition, he will incur the wrath of liberals everywhere.

Hatred of Pinochet was a sacred cause for left-wingers during the 1970s. "El pueblo unido, jams ser vencido," we used to chant outside some embassy or other, tears visibly running down our faces as we lit candles and sang songs about Victor Jara's hands.

So poor Jack is riven between a natural inclination to take advice from the world foreign policy elite, and an understandable desire to avoid being the most hated Home Secretary in liberal England - a betrayer of the tortured and the disappeared - since Michael Howard. How can he reconcile the two? And what malign fate that this crisis should present itself just as he is beginning to be tipped for the top. As he wrestles with these terrible imponderables, his thoughts must constantly turn to that ominous line from Zola's L'assommoir: "One more hour of happiness flown away, and the last for sure".

Obviously, this is nonsense. To believe even a fraction of the current "Straw on horns of sharp dilemma" hype is to fail to understand the first thing about either the Home Secretary or the New Labour government of which he is emblematic. Jack Straw would no more extradite General Pinochet to Spain than he would lie about his age - 52 - in order to be the oldest swinger on a Club 18-30 holiday. The notion that he has been losing sleep over the possibility of causing outrage among the Labour left is absurd. There will barely ever have been a doubt in his mind that, one way or another, the old dictator would have to be sent home.

The popular picture of Mr Straw frantically grappling with the two sides of an unanswerable question is particularly inaccurate because it will not really have been his decision. Although ultimate power in extradition cases is vested in the Home Secretary, and although Downing Street has stressed that the judgement will be Mr Straw's and his alone, it is inconceivable that below-stairs soundings were not taken to ascertain the Prime Minister's view.

For his part, Mr Blair is even less inclined than Mr Straw to allow the liberal instincts of Labour activists and MPs to dictate the party's policy. Furthermore, he is determined that nothing shall ever be done which might give the impression that Labour is left-wing; and particularly not that New Labour is in any way related to the British Labour Party of the 1970s and 1980s. So even if Salvador Allende had been Jack Straw's brother-in- law, the overarching imperatives of a government that takes symbolism very seriously would still conspire to send Pinochet home.

The Home Secretary's rise to prominence under Blair can be partly explained by his being one of the few Cabinet ministers who is truly comfortable with New Labour's ultra-pragmatic, anti-sentimental maniere de vivre. Under Blair's spiritual predecessor, Mrs Thatcher, it was men like the saloon bar Mussolini, Norman Tebbit, who prospered because they were instinctively in tune with a new kind of government and its singular leader. In the Blair government so far, only Straw sings the ideological doo-wops with any conviction.

Yet he is not generally perceived as the conservative authoritarian that his pronouncements seem to suggest. Like all politicians, the persona he presents to the public is a one- dimensional compilation of those aspects of his character and beliefs which he considers it is in his interest to emphasise. That artificial "politician-person" then develops an independent existence in the minds of the television-watching electorate.

But the real Jack Straw is an unusually complex politician. The instant reply of one senior Labour figure of Straw's generation, now close to Blair, when asked for an opinion of the Home Secretary was: "Right-wing bastard. I've always said he was a right-wing bastard, so I'm not surprised at this constant stream of rubbish about family values."

This view is echoed by liberals throughout the land. Ever since Straw began consciously to define himself as one of Labour's "modernisers" after the 1992 election defeat, he has been alienating the left. The nation's social workers winced when the then Shadow Home Secretary came out against "squeegee merchants". Labour traditionalists had been equally incensed in 1993 when Straw wrote a pamphlet proposing that the People's Party should scrap Clause 4 of its constitution. John Smith, whose relations with his then local government spokesman became extremely strained during his time as leader, gave Straw a furious dressing-down for even mooting an idea that was to become the totemic centrepiece of the Blair leadership only two years later.

In office Straw has continued to outrage civil libertarian opinion, though it often seems to be more as a result of his headmasterly line in authoritarian sermons than anything he has actually done. He shocks the left with talk of curfews for children, but there still don't seem to be any. He prefaces the launch of the White Paper on the family with a few outrageous comments about the supremacy of heterosexuals. But there's nothing about that in the document itself. In office, he never quite condemns those prison ships, but they seem quietly to drift off the horizon. Ask yourself in what way you observe the world to be different because of an illiberal act of Jack Straw's.

It is presumably this paradox that sends people off on the wild goose chase of his apparently "radical" political beginnings. Having become President of the National Union of Students in 1969, pictures of the day show him wearing a classic revolutionist's overcoat and thick, dark, left bank spectacles. He looks the perfect "Tune in, turn on, drop out" early 1970s Trotskyist. In fact, he was nothing of the sort. As a youngster he was more influenced by the Communist Party, with its emphasis on discipline, authority and long-term strategies. Straw still claims to have worn a tie every single day of his student career.

On the other hand, while he was not a layabout, the young Straw was certainly a leftist. He was a typical member of the broad left grouping that one of his colleagues from those days described as "reluctant Bennites who became enthusiastic Kinnockites". His relationship with Kate Hoey - now one of his junior ministers, best known for her advocacy of fox-hunting and Ulster unionism, but then in the International Marxist Group with the likes of Tariq Ali - was as close as Straw ever got to the dilettante Trotskyism with which so many of his colleagues dabbled in the 1970s.

The pathway from those days to his appointment as Home Secretary is classical. After the NUS, he qualified at the bar, then became a special adviser to Barbara Castle in 1974; born and raised in Essex, he inherited her Blackburn seat in 1979; went on to the front bench in 1980; entered the Shadow Cabinet as a leading young Kinnockite in 1987; and the rest is recent history.

Along the way he married; and then remarried for the long-term to his second wife, Alice Perkins. She is a very senior civil servant in the Department of Health who lists her husband as one "John Whitaker Straw". By all accounts they are a textbook family, with last Christmas's "drug- dealing son" sturm und drang being handled so well it probably won Straw more acclaim than anything else he has ever done.

But the key point about the Home Secretary is that all his instincts and emotions are overshadowed by his utterly managerial approach to decision- making. Which is also one of the reasons he has been more successful in government than in opposition.

Combined with an easygoing, likeable television persona, strong discipline and the requisite ruthlessness, it also bodes well for his political future. On the other hand, there will always remain an extent to which super-pragmatism is unsettling in a Labour Home Secretary.

General Pinochet presumably sees himself as a rational man once obliged by difficult circumstances to use unpopular means - subordinating the rights of the individual to the common good - to achieve necessary ends. With him and the Home Secretary so constantly juxtaposed in our minds at the moment, one cannot help but hope that Jack Straw never feels compelled to start being as tough as he talks.

Sion Simon is associate editor of the 'Spectator' and a 'Daily Telegraph' columnist.