Interview: Jack Straw

Jack StrawFormerly President of Leeds University Union and one of Britain’s most senior politicians, Jack Straw spoke to Beckie Smith about the Iraq war, student politics and being banned from the Union.

Speaking to me shortly after the launch of his memoir, ‘Last Man Standing’, Jack Straw he has the air of a well-practised politician – which, of course, he is. He is well-spoken and courteous, and more than once he asks whether I agree with him, with an air of polite interest. With this, however, comes a sense of professional distance and it becomes apparent early on in the interview that he is extremely guarded with the information he is willing to provide. He is not a man with a taste for sensationalism and each of his answers is measured and seemingly premeditated.

This can perhaps be attributed in part to events early on in Straw’s life, which caused him to detach himself emotionally from what was happening at the time. During a talk at Ilkley Literature Festival, the audience heard how Straw learnt to cope with difficult situations: “My answer to feelings, if they got too intense, was not to have them.”

Straw’s reaction to pressure in the early years of his career was to “get my head down and get on with it”. He says doing otherwise proves dangerous for a politician; “If you get spooked, the press will get you.”

His wariness of the mass media comes up several time though he is keen to assure me that he is “not asking for an easy time from the press.”

“The press are quite rightly going to pick on behaviour by politicians when it’s abject – a relatively small minority fiddling expenses, which was disgraceful, and poured opprobrium on the rest of us, who were not fiddling expenses. Or, to take a contemporary example, swearing at police officers – which is a very stupid thing to do. ”

“I’d ask for a better appreciation of politics and of how decisions are made, because it’s very easy being an observer; it’s much more difficult being in the heat of the kitchen.”

Because of this “routine denigration”, Straw says the fact that new candidates continue to put themselves forward is “quite a surprise”, but that “the quality of MPs has gone up” in the 33 years that he has held a position in parliament.

“The intake that came in 2010, on both sides, is of the highest quality I’ve seen of eight parliaments which I’ve sat in. For all the scandal about expenses, our politics is much cleaner and operates better than the political systems in many parts of the world.”

Straw began his political career while at the University of Leeds, where he studied Law. He was, in his own words, the “token socialist” until he found that he was “quite moderate” in comparison to many of the other students. He became immersed in student politics and was elected in 1966 as  chair of Leeds University Socialist Society.

When asked whether he knew that he wanted to  become a politician, Straw laughs. He tells me that a close friend  of his recently reminded him that when asked what he wanted to be once he graduated, he had replied “Labour MP”.  “I’d completely forgotten that”, he admits.

“It was a kind of distant aspiration… It seemed as distant as getting into the England football team just because you’ve played for the second team for the University. It was Leeds which really gave me the taste for politics and also suggested to me that I could do it, which was certainly an important thing to find out. I realised pretty early on that I wasn’t going to get into the England football team!”

While at Leeds, Straw was acquainted with two Leeds Student editors, though it was then known as ‘Union News’. The first, Reg Gratton, he got to know after an extraordinary encounter outside the Brotherton Library, while he was rather distracted.

“My mind was on the law of contracts, and why I hadn’t done more on the law of contracts in the three years that I’d been there.” Upon seeing Straw, Gratton announced – after some hesitation – “your father’s just married my mother”. “The only thing I could think of was to go for a coffee. And that’s how I got to know him.”

The second was Paul Dacre, the current editor of the Daily Mail. He describes their relationship as “a respectful acquaintanceship rather than a friendship”, saying “Our policies are different, but we’ve always got on well. It’s telling that 45 years later, these things still matter.”

Straw famously went on to be elected as the President of LUU in 1967, hoping to put in place a legal aid system – which he duly did – and give students a greater say in the running of the University. “I’ve even got my little manifesto somewhere,” he recalls. “It’s quite prosaic.”

“This was all part of this great cultural upheaval of the 1960s, and the sort of age of deference was breaking down.”

“Universities these days are much more student-orientated in the sense that they know that students are their customers, and they have to compete for them. That wasn’t the case when I was at university. The institutional view was that you were lucky to be there. You weren’t supposed to ask too many questions.”

Straw continued to ask questions as Deputy President and then President of the NUS. His campaign slogan and his goal was to make the NUS “respected but not respectable” and he credits himself with making the organisation a “proper union”.

Reflecting on his achievements in the organisation, Straw recalls “We stopped two things happening. One was the statutory control of student unions, when Margaret Thatcher was the Education Secretary in 1970. And we stopped the introduction of student loans. You may say, well, why didn’t I stop that several years later? But, well, circumstances had changed.”

Straw did, however, vote against the tuition fee rise to £9,000, saying that “few people in government think that was a good idea”. He maintains that it is “too early to say” what effects of the increase will have but thinks that it has “scared a lot of people off, because the headline is £9,000. There are a lot of bursaries and so on… but I think it is likely to have put off well-qualified students from low-income homes. Coupled with a separate but related issue with these extraordinary visa controls, I think it’s created a serious problem for universities [and] made the UK a less attractive place for high-grade university students from abroad.”

It was partly Straw’s policy on tuition fees that led to his ban from LUU in 2000. As Straw recalls, this was largely down to campaigning from “the Trots”. “They seized on a bill of mine, called the Immigration and Asylum Bill, and said this was a very hard measure so I should be banned.”

Students campaigned in objection to several of his policies, including the introduction of fees and immigration policy, and his life membership – granted to all sabbatical officers at LUU – was revoked. Straw remains unimpressed by the affair, branding the move a “juvenile gesture” and saying “in Stalinist fashion I was airbrushed out of the record.”

“I was sad that this decision had been taken and I was unsurprised when I found out where it had come from. I know it was the Trotskyist students and the Socialist Worker Party, people like that. Their politics have always been very negative. I don’t know if you’ve ever studied Trotskyism but it’s a philosophy that’s bound to lead to disappointment and failure. You’re not one yourself, are you?”

These are by no means the only controversies encountered by Straw during the course of his career; the most famous being his role in the war with Iraq. He is very clear that had he not supported Tony Blair, Britain would not have invaded. He says the decision is “a burden of responsibility I carry to my grave”.

“I am responsible, along with other members of the Cabinet, for the decision that Britain should be involved in that war, and I’m not backing away from it.”

This reflection was prompted by a comment from Blair soon after the decision had been made to take military action in March 2003. “Tony said to me that he couldn’t have done that without me. And in my book I reflect on the fact that was very generous of him, but it also reminded me of the responsibility that I bore.”

The suggestion that this decision provoked widespread criticism prompts a dry laugh from Straw. “There was loads. But look – I was foreign secretary, and if you make decisions like this you have to accept that they’re going to be controversial. There’s no way out of that, that’s just how it is, and you have to take your responsibilities.”

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