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by Mandy Rhodes
01 July 2013
Interview with Jack Straw

Interview with Jack Straw

In April 1993, Jack Straw, MP for Blackburn and then shadow secretary of state for the environment, was aware that a young student by the name of Stephen Lawrence had been knifed to death at a bus stop in South London.

He is also now acutely aware that this would have been treated as ‘just another murder’ of a black teenager had it not been for one thing and that was the tenacity of Doreen and Neville Lawrence. They knew their son’s killing was racially motivated and that the police were failing to properly investigate because of one thing – the colour of Stephen’s skin.

Their fears were realised when in July 1993, the Crown Prosecution Service abandoned, before trial, charges against five suspects in the Lawrence case because of ‘insufficient evidence’ and similarly, a private prosecution brought by Doreen and Neville failed to secure a prosecution in 1996.

“With the benefit of hindsight,” says Straw, “this private prosecution was an error, though I understand why, in their desperation, the Lawrences pursued it. At that time, the ‘double jeopardy’ rule meant that there was no possibility whatever of having the same suspects retried, even if new evidence came to light.” The Lawrences, however, did not give up and they refocused their energies on the need for a full public inquiry into the failures of the police investigation into their son’s death.

They were faced with a Conservative Government of the day, led by John Major, that refused to take them seriously and which appeared to baulk at the very notion that the police could be considered to have acted in a racist manner.

However, on 13 February 1997, the inquest into Stephen’s death returned a verdict of unlawful killing as the result of an unprovoked racist attack. The next day the Daily Mail, in a scorched earth approach to justice, carried photographs and names of the five original suspects along with the now celebrated headline: ‘Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us’.

The radical approach caught the attention of Jack Straw, for while the Labour Party had a long held antipathy towards the Daily Mail, Straw had been at university with the editor, Paul Dacre, and he respected him as an “extraordinarily thorough” journalist, with a “healthy scepticism of officialdom, the police included”.

Coincidentally, Dacre also had a passing acquaintance with Neville Lawrence who had done some work on his house for him.  

Straw knew Dacre would not have carried such an inflammatory story had he not been confident of his facts and this thinking was compounded for Straw by the fact that he had also had a visit from Doreen Lawrence pressing for an inquiry.

A few months later, the Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, won the general election by a landslide and with Straw now ensconced as Home Secretary, he was determined – which he credits to Doreen’s persistence – to establish an inquiry.

'I was always very strongly in favour of devolution and I still am'

The Macpherson report into Stephen’s death was published in 2009. It made 70 wide-ranging recommendations including a formal definition of ‘institutional racism’ and importantly, that the rule of ‘double jeopardy’ should be modified to allow for further trials in the event of new evidence being uncovered.

It was hailed as a landmark in terms of race relations. Presenting the report to the House of Commons, Straw said: “I want this report to serve as a watershed in our attitudes to racism.

I want it to act as a catalyst for permanent and irrevocable change, not just across our public services but across the whole of our society…We must make racial equality a reality. The report must mark the beginning of that process, not the end.”

And in January 2012, nearly 19 years after Stephen’s murder, and 13 years after the publication of the Macpherson report, two of his killers were eventually convicted of his murder.

Straw says that today he still gets stopped in the street and thanked for setting up the Lawrence Inquiry. “These are humbling moments,” he says. “If it proves to be the only thing for which I am remembered, it will be enough.”

However, just a week after we had sat down in the House of Commons to talk about his wide-ranging political career and in particular, his key role in the process of Scottish devolution, allegations emerge that undercover police officers were asked to spy on the Lawrences in an effort to find evidence that could be used to publically discredit them and their campaign. This was a clear slap in the face for Straw and impugned the integrity with which he had approached the inquiry and he was clearly furious at the claims.

He says the inquiry remains the thing that he is most proud of and he has now referred the allegations to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

“The Metropolitan Police were under a very clear obligation to make a full disclosure of everything they knew, however embarrassing, to the Macpherson Inquiry,” he said.

“They were also under an obligation to make disclosure to me because I was the police authority at the time. They failed to do either and they are culpable for that failure, and it’s because of this failure that we now need a full, independent investigation into what happened and who authorised this, and why the information about this was excluded from the Macpherson Inquiry.

“You can’t have any kind of moral compass if you decide it’s right and proper to target the victims of the most serious crime there is, of murder, rather than to target the potential suspects and criminals who committed the murder,” he added.

Speaking to Straw and reading his deeply revealing autobiography, Last Man Standing, you become increasingly aware that the Lawrence case encapsulated what motivates his politics: a deep-seated desire to iron out inequality, a fundamental distaste for injustice and a forensic interest in the cause of right or wrong – all often fuelled by personal knowledge or events.

Straw played a key role in most of the major groundbreaking political decisions of the last Labour Government.

His legacy is still felt today whether that be over controversial issues like the invasion of Iraq, on releasing Pinochet, on human rights legislation or with the fallout from the Lawrence Inquiry or in the shaping of devolution and the march towards the independence referendum, he has been there, in the front row.

He is undoubtedly a political survivor, perhaps because his politics were forged in childhood when he felt such revulsion for any injustice.

In his book he describes a moment when, as a bright 16-year-old, working-class kid from Essex, who had won a place at the direct grant funded Brentwood School as a boarder, he saw his first dead body – a fellow pupil who, at 15, had gassed himself for fear of being expelled from school for being gay.

The tragedy had been preceded by an event 10 months earlier when the headmaster had expelled two boys who had been caught engaged in a homosexual act.

Straw says that although the headmaster was a caring man, a liberal man, he had taken the view that while homosexuality was a crime, which it still was, then both boys needed to be treated appropriately and they were sent home in disgrace.

Straw argued against the decision, saying that the expulsion would not stop homosexuality but would mean that other boys would “bottle it up”. And his fears were realised 10 months later with the younger pupil’s suicide. That base injustice fuelled Straw’s later efforts in government to change legislation around the age of consent so it was the same no matter what your sexuality.

“Ever since that Monday morning in May 1963, when poor Robertson lay dead in my study because he was ‘queer’, I have had the most powerful conviction that crimininalizing people because of their sexuality is a stain on any civilised society,” he says.

It is Straw’s often disarming and detailed description of the personal relationships that are so frequently behind his policy and politics which is such an engaging facet of a man who has been a political constant and, perhaps unfairly, viewed as less charismatic than those that surrounded him in the New Labour tsunami of 1997.

But then, Straw was there before most and already an old hand.

He was elected in 1979 for Blackburn and ultimately became one of the longest serving ministers in the history of the Labour Party. He spent 13 years in office, as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor.

He presided over some of the most radical legislation in terms of societal and constitutional change and he sat around Blair’s famous kitchen Cabinet with all the big beasts of recent Labour history.

“I’d always been prone to ‘impostor syndrome’ and felt what I had achieved was bound to be taken away from me.”

His early political life followed the classic path of the modern career politician: president of the National Union of Students; political adviser to Barbara Castle – who said she appointed him for his ‘guile and low cunning’ and then for Peter Shore, who was Secretary of State for the Environment; elected to local government where he was on the old Inner London Education Authority and ultimately its deputy leader before inheriting the Blackburn seat from Castle in 1979.

By all accounts, he is a good and committed local MP in a seat which is now about a quarter Muslim, and despite the furore that emanated from his comments in his column in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, which he still writes, about community relations being made harder by Muslim women wearing the full veil, he is deeply committed to equalities and the rights of all views to be expressed in a democratic nation.

Indeed, as a former Home Secretary, he has some sympathy for the current government in dealing with the sensitivities following the recent Woolwich terrorist attack.

I ask him if he thinks governments have been too slow to act in terms of community relations and integration but also in recognising some of the risks.

“Whether we have been too slow or not, I don’t know,” he says. “But we do need to be open about this and whether there is a connection between Islam and terrorism, we need to say first of all, that in the history of all religion, religions have been used to justify violence against others. That was notoriously true of certain Christian religions and for some centuries, you saw it all over what is now the UK and across Europe from the 30 Years’ War through to the Spanish Inquisition so this is not unique to Islam. We have seen it with other religions too; Judaism and the creation of the State of Israel but at the moment, this phenomena of extremists using the holy texts to justify violence is most marked in Islam and is a concern for everyone but of most concern for the people that speak for that faith and particularly for the leaders who need to adopt a position of challenging this perversion of their religion.

“And of course what people like Anjem Choudray [the so-called Muslim hate preacher] say is offensive in a general sense but we have laws that cover incitement to religious and racial hatred and if he or others offend that legislation then they will be charged but we have to accept that we live in a democracy and people are allowed to say things that all kinds of people may not agree with but that is the essence of a democracy – it’s not just about giving power to the majority, it’s also respecting the view of minorities.

“What I don’t want to end up with in response to current actions is a situation like that created by the Thatcher government in the 1980s when they took all kinds of illiberal decisions, like preventing Sinn Fein in particular being heard on radio or television because that kind of response simply acted as a recruiting sergeant.” As well as being a close observer of society’s struggles, Straw has been at the ringside of Labour’s self-inflicted internal boxing match from the early 1970s until its reinvention as New Labour and is well placed to offer some insight – not all of it attractive. He is not shy about revealing the frailties of others; he describes John Smith’s ‘Olympic’ drinking and asks whether “someone that dependent on alcohol [would find it possible] to determine, in advance, when he needed to be sober” and questions whether he had the character to be Prime Minister. He describes moments where Smith’s outbursts of temper matched only that of his own father, causing him to just “close down” as he would as a child.

He says of Mo Mowlem that her office floor “was littered with her underwear, and who might, if you were unlucky, suddenly decide, in the middle of a conversation, to change some of it”.

And he talks in great detail about the Blair/Brown relationship, which he clearly saw as dysfunctional and his assessment of Brown’s time as PM was that he “struggled with the burden of that office” and “often resorted to behaviour that was simply unacceptable.”

And of himself, he says: “I’d always been prone to ‘impostor syndrome’ and felt what I had achieved was bound to be taken away from me.”

And that is a fascinating analysis of his own insecurities and reflects the fact that Straw was the product of what was clearly a difficult marriage and an eventful childhood.

He writes vividly about listening to his parents fight and talks wistfully about escaping to the quiet of the surrounding woods – an image he resurrects when he talks about difficult confrontation in his political life when he would simply “close down”.

His father was largely absent and wrestled with his own demons – he was a conscientious objector in the Second World War, although he didn’t seem to uphold his own standards of pacifism in relation to physical or verbal abuse in his own home – Straw describes lying in bed as a child, listening to insults being traded, pots being thrown and doors being slammed.

Straw once found his father slumped at the kitchen table having unsuccessfully attempted to gas himself and also saw him beaten up by his uncles, after wrongly accusing his mother, their sister, of being unfaithful.

His father eventually left the marital home when Straw was 10 years old and the two did not see or speak for another 10 years when bizarrely, an acquaintance at Leeds University stopped Straw to tell him that his mother had just married his father.

The shock announcement did open up relations and father and son were ultimately reconciled. But clearly, his upbringing had an effect on him and he admits that he has had therapy to deal with some of those resulting issues.

He has been described before as ‘the decent man of politics’ and I ask why that should be seen as so unique in the world of elected politics.

"There was lots of debate about having a separate oil fund but Denis took a traditional Treasury view, which was that you shouldn’t hypothecate taxation.” 

He laughs: “I don’t know why people called me that because on the whole, people do get on and survive if they treat other people with respect and that doesn’t mean that I can’t be tough on people or get aerated, as they would say in Blackburn, but I do think you need to treat people with respect and also their arguments with respect.”

But it is also true that Straw sometimes talks and writes as if he was an observer rather than a participant but then, that could also be the result of his difficult past rather than from a sense of abdication from responsibility or absolution from difficult issues, like the invasion of Iraq that he ultimately supported but his own family opposed.

I tell him that the political relationship that particularly interests me, given where Scotland now sits in terms of the independence referendum, is the one between Derry Irvine, who was Lord Chancellor, and Donald Dewar, who was Secretary of State for Scotland, during the devolution negotiations.

The pair had not spoken for 20 years because Irvine had run off with Dewar’s wife and yet these two had to sit round a table in the Cabinet Committee on Devolution to Scotland, Wales and the Regions (DSWR) and hammer out a deal for Scotland.

“Well,” he sighs. “It wasn’t a relationship at all – they hadn’t spoken for 20 years. Basically, it meant it was very difficult for the committee to function properly because Derry was almost paralysed from being an active chair.

“I was always very strongly in favour of devolution and I still am but I think we should have examined its detail more and for practical reasons, I do not think Derry should have been in the chair of that committee, which meant it wasn’t very functional.

“Aside from the personal pain which both must have felt, this had a serious political effect too.

"It constricted Derry’s ability to be an effective chairman. It was therefore that much harder for the committee to resist Donald’s increasing appetite to shift as much power as he could north of the border without addressing any of the difficult consequences of such a move – particularly those relating to money.

“I was concerned that in the settlement which was negotiated, the voice of the Union was insufficiently expressed and that is certainly true on the issue of financial responsibility. If that power to raise income tax by 3p had been left to me, the policy would have been the same but the drafting would have been different in terms of the exercise of reserved powers and in trying to ensure that the great power that the Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament had would be balanced by also having more responsibility.

"How did you moderate the reliance on the block grant, for instance? Most federal systems in other countries have an arrangement by which the federal government is able to grant funding to component authorities but in return for a particular policy and that’s not there in ours and it’s those sort of things that concerned me because you have to balance power with responsibility.”

Listening to Straw describe the discomfort that was clearly felt around the DSWR committee table, I do question why Irvine and Dewar were even allowed to continue leading the negotiations given their difficult personal circumstances. Surely a government should be ‘man’ enough to face up to these issues and make other more practical arrangements?

“Well, Derry was the Lord Chancellor and he was in a very influential position at the beginning of the government and I don’t think anyone had actually thought about the difficulties that might arise,” he says.

“I had put a lot of effort into getting the devolution settlement right but I was also Home Secretary and very, very busy; there was loads on, lots of legislation, lots of things going on, and I basically had a lot on my plate and so just that really, it was allowed to happen…”

I suggest that that ‘relationship’ between Irvine and Dewar could have so clearly altered the course of history and I just wonder whether Irvine was being as rigorous as he might have been.

“No, look, the thing that most altered the course of history was Donald’s death and quite clearly Scottish politics would have been a very different beast had he lived.”

Straw describes Dewar as wanting to be both an arch Unionist and the King of Scotland and I suggest that is a paradox many Scots are feeling now; wanting to be both Scottish and British.

“Donald’s ambitions only gradually dawned on me because he was a wonderful guy and a great friend of mine but he was also so very powerfully in favour of the Union and so I hadn’t quite spotted his ambition to run Scotland but he did have that and I agree it is quite a paradox to want the two things.

“He was the dominant figure in terms of Scottish devolution and he was brilliant at it and Scottish politics would be very different, and internal Labour politics would, had he lived, been even more than a match for Alex Salmond.”

Reflecting on the febrile nature of today’s referendum debate, I ask Straw what he remembers of the feeling around the ‘79 referendum but also why Labour even supported devolution.

“Interesting question…why did we back it… it seemed a sensible and principled thing to do and quite a lot of people south of the border forget that Scotland’s merger with England and Wales in 1707 was a union of crowns and the establishment of a unitary state but was not a merger of Scottish institutions, so the settlement was, in a sense, unbalanced because you had separate ecclesiastic institutions, separate educational institutions and separate judiciary but no separate legislative body on internal matters to Scotland so there was a genuine democratic deficit because separate legislation for England and Wales was hotly fought out here but legislation for Scotland, well, we all thought, ‘well fine, we’ll all go home’ or we would do it under secondary legislation so there was this democratic deficit and everyone recognised it.

“But, as you know, the 1979 referendum turned out to be a travesty because of the Cunningham amendment and he was a Scotsman representing an inner London constituency and was just a contrarian and just cussed.

"Politics of the last 35 years would have been very different had that decision, which was in favour of devolution, been allowed to stand.” I refer Straw to my earlier interview with Denis Healey, the former Chancellor who told Holyrood that governments of the day had ‘underplayed’ the value of the oil discoveries to halt the rise in support for the SNP and independence.

“I don’t really recognise that but there was another debate going on within the Labour government in the late 70s about whether there should be an oil fund and Peter Shore, for whom I worked, believed there should have been and I have long believed that just as the Norwegians have done – although the benefits of oil have lasted longer than people believed and now the north west looks as if it will be the hydrocarbon centre of the UK, eclipsing oil with shale – it just would have been sensible.

"There was lots of debate about having a separate oil fund but Denis took a traditional Treasury view, which was that you shouldn’t hypothecate taxation.”

I wonder if he ever detected a feeling, either then or now, that Westminster just gets irritated with Scotland and its constant struggle with what it wants to be.

He laughs. “Irritated…surely not, Mandy!

Look, people from every part of the country get preoccupied with what is going on in their part of the country and because the Scottish Government has been in a flux in a way it has not been in other countries, Scots are bound to have been preoccupied about it and similarly, with the rise of the SNP, there has been a greater level of introspection by the other parties including the Labour Party and that is just one of those things.

It’s an inevitable consequence of this greater dynamic in Scotland than elsewhere.

“With a bit of luck, if there is a ‘No’ vote in the referendum there will then be a period of stability in the relationship, just as after the 1975 result there was stability in terms of our relationship with the EU for a while because even though there were arguments with the EU – particularly with Thatcher towards the end – the question of whether we should stay in or come out has only been talked about again in the last four or five years.

“I would be sorry if it was a ‘Yes’ vote because I think Scotland adds something to the Union and while I recognise this is a matter for Scots, I think Scotland would be diminished by going independent. It is very hard for small countries and in some ways, I think Scotland has had the best of both worlds, up until now.”

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