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COVER STORY: Careers that made history

October 14, 2013

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Politicians who have been in power usually pen their life stories because they want to remind the world of their successes or erase the blots on their career. In offering readers his 582-page memoirs, Jack Straw apparently has both objectives in mind.

A Labour MP for 34 years, member of the British Cabinet for 15 years, and the last Labour minister to hand over charge after the latest Tory victory, Straw has been no ordinary political survivor. He has reason to be satisfied with his work as British Home Secretary and to some extent as the Foreign Secretary and he obviously wishes to be acquitted of the charge of paving the way for the Bush-Blair war against Iraq.

As a young man, Straw was a doughty fighter for a place in the sun. Coming from a poor and broken family he learnt to overcome hardships and aim high with the same confidence he displayed when climbing chimneys to clean them. The public education system helped him complete his academic career and as a young Labour enthusiast he formed the right associations — loudly proclaiming his enmity of communists, contempt for Trotskyites and hostility towards celebrities like Tariq Ali.

Entering the Commons in 1979 as the MP from Blackburn, a seat gifted to him by Barbara Castle on her retirement, Straw gave much thought to Labour’s plight during Margaret Thatcher’s era. Eventually, he started the movement to rid Labour of its commitment to nationalisation of enterprises and services, and instead adopt an election-winning ideology, a feat Tony Blair accomplished and as a result became recognised for outfitting Labour in Ms Thatcher’s discarded clothes.

On becoming Home Secretary in 1997 in Blair’s first government, Straw wanted to be tough on crime and its causes and at the same time protect the human and civic rights, especially from the overwhelming power of the state. He says: “The right to a quiet life, to freedom from crime, and prejudice, is fundamental to our ability to exercise our positive freedoms. I wanted to make a difference to reduce the number of people whose lives were disrupted by crime, but also to do all I could on a socially liberal agenda, to make it much easier for black and Asian people, for gay and lesbian people — and for women — to live their lives to the full.”

How Straw dealt with the case of Stephen Lawrence’s murder and Pinochet’s successful evasion of extradition to Spain, as well as his handling of judicial reform, human rights law, and the Freedom of Information Act make interesting reading. Time has yet to pronounce on the validity of his claim that the Pinochet case “established, beyond question, the principles that those who commit human rights abuses in one country cannot assume that they are safe elsewhere. That will be the lasting legacy of this case.” Nevertheless, Straw’s performance as Home Secretary was impressive, given the priorities Blair had set for his administration. There is quite a lot Pakistani ministers and politicians in power can learn from the British conventions discussed in these memoirs. The day Straw became Home Secretary, his department gave him six files to prepare him for the job: ‘A guide to the Home Office,’ ‘The first fortnight,’ ‘The first three months,’ ‘Constitutional issues,’ ‘Europe’ and ‘Background Briefs’. This is just a small example of a methodical approach to governance.

In Britain, the bureaucrats in ministries are not replaced after a change of the ruling party. Rather, “they stay at their desks, transferring their allegiance seamlessly from their old boss to the new one.” Pakistani students of governance may see in this design the possibilities of ensuring the continuity of the system as well as its protection from politicians’ whims and the consequences of reliance on personal favourites. The first issue taken up by the Labour government was to draw up a programme to implement its election manifesto. Legislative proposals based on the manifesto enjoyed greater respect in the House of Lords than other bills.

Pakistani readers should also be interested in learning from Straw about Pakistan and India almost going to war over Kashmir in 2002. Straw visited Pakistan and was not taken in by the official spokespersons’ explanations. Worth noting is Straw’s comment on Pakistan’s poorer showing than India’s after independence: “[Pakistan’s] democracy, its society is deeply fractured. The army, not the people, is sovereign. Intra-communal violence, much exacerbated by extremist Islamist groups, is a cancer debilitating the nation.”

His last word on Kashmir is: “A plebiscite on Kashmir’s future has never seemed a more distant prospect. Life for all on both sides of the Line of Control can improve markedly when that reality is digested, but only then.”

Jack Straw’s tenure as Foreign Secretary in the second Blair government was quite eventful. Indo-Pak tensions apart, there was the question of Turkey’s application to join the European Union, the Middle East imbroglio and the cycle of intrigues against Iran. He remembers the day, September 25, 2001, as when “the scales fell from my eyes; the day the Israeli hawks tried to bully me.” Straw believes the Israelis were behind his removal from the foreign office and it caused bitterness between him and Blair.

But it is his role in making the Iraq war possible that haunts Straw. Bush depended on Blair for ordering war against Iraq and Blair depended on Straw to get the Commons vote in favour of the war. Straw says: “I could have prevented the United Kingdom’s involvement in the Iraq war. I did not do so. I chose to support the war.” The explanation is spread over one of the longer chapters of the book, and Straw does not win the argument. Eventually, he falls back on the theory that the ends justify the means. Ends such as that the Iraq war prevented Libya from acquiring nuclear weapons!

Straw succeeds in retaining reader interest by not limiting his narrative to politics. He never forgets his family, his children’s adventures, the Blackburn Rovers (the football club), the problems of the sizeable Asian community (including voters of Pakistani and Indian origin) in his constituency, and the geography of the Westminster complexes.

Though Straw travelled up the Labour’s ranks, he did not make it to the top. An Economist columnist had said in 1999 that Straw as prime minister could not be ruled out. But while Blair and Brown both chose him as manager for their campaigns for election as leaders of the parliamentary party, he never stepped up to claim the leader’s mantle. He said he was not ambitious about being prime minister. Maybe he is right or perhaps he owes his survival to his habit of staying in the queue and not disclosing his ambition till he gets the prize.

Many, including Blair, have written of Labour’s journey from Gaitskell and Wilson to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Straw’s account throws much useful light on the British Labour Party’s transformation — however one may look at it.

The reviewer works for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor (Memoirs) By Jack Straw Macmillan, London ISBN 144722275X 582pp.