When a veteran politician decides to retire, the period between the announcement and their departure from parliament can often be an interesting time. Not yet gone, but no longer yoked to the constraints of the party machine, many take it as an opportunity to reflect on their years in Westminster with a candour their career had never until then allowed. Free to ruminate on successes and failures, express regrets and draw lessons, they frequently turn out to be at their most likable during those final months. But not, alas, Jack Straw.
The funny thing is, I thought he would be. There’s nothing like a Tory-led government to make the memory of New Labour‘s faults fade, and I was feeling very benign towards him before we met this week. When Straw became home secretary in 1997, I was too young to remember the last time his party had been in power; he was the first Labour minister I ever met, and 17 years on, it was easy to feel sentimentally nostalgic about his time in office. Well, I won’t be making that mistake again. Lord knows why Straw agreed to give an interview, because he seems annoyed before I even sit down.
He greets me in his office with the sort of brusque, let’s-get-this-over-with expression you might wear for a policeman who has come to search your house. The 67-year-old first arrived in parliament 40 years ago as an assistant to Barbara Castle, and was elected to her old constituency of Blackburn when she retired in 1979. The decision to leave at next year’s general election was reached, he explains, by his “head rather than the heart”, because he couldn’t be sure that his health would sustain him through another parliament. “Other MPs are fine into their mid-70s,” he observes, “but the way I’ve been a constituency MP is to work very hard, and with a very high work rate as well. I just wasn’t certain I was going to be able to do that, so there we are.”
Looking back, would he say that Labour had achieved more or less than he had hoped when he first became a minister in 1997? He mutters something inaudible – then: “Sorry, I’m not being patronising – it’s an interesting question,” which, of course, makes me wonder what he said, but he is already off into a great long list of all the ways his constituency has improved: a new hospital, better GCSE pass rates, a refurbished town centre, upgraded rail services.
“And, the other absolutely critical thing, which you can’t measure by pointing at buildings, is that we treat each other now in our society in a different way. If you are black or Asian, gay or lesbian, there’s no question your life has been transformed by Labour, and I’m very proud to have been part of that.” Labour also, he adds, “managed to change the behaviour of a generation of young people, and that’s principally why we had much less crime.”
The last claim might puzzle some readers, I suspect, particularly in light of recent doubts about the reliability of crime figures, concerns about a lost generation of Neets, and ongoing anxiety about anti-social behaviour. He’s confident that standards of behaviour in young people have improved?
“Yes, they have, why do you think they haven’t? I mean, youth justice changes, which indeed I introduced 15 years ago, have been a success, which is why you never read about them. People’s behaviour on public transport, people’s behaviour at football games – brilliant.”
Tony Blair and Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, in Downing Street in 2004. Photograph: Kieran Doherty/ReutersI wonder if he shares many Labour voters’ dismay at the speed with which what had felt, under Labour, like a progressive national shift to the left has already been reversed. Public attitudes towards benefits claimants, Europe and immigration, for example, have hardened dramatically since Labour left office – and not even under a Tory government, but a coalition. Some of the ugly outrage sparked byChannel 4’s Benefits Street, for example, would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
No, he says, people were already worrying about “scroungers” back in the 70s – an anxiety “to which I was not unsympathetic” – and anyway, “I don’t think you could make 2010 a point where the benefit system started to be toughened up, because quite a lot of the changes happened under us. And I was in favour of the changes we were making.” As for Europe, if there’s a referendum in three years’ time he’s quite sure Britain will vote to stay in. But Labour are going to win the 2015 election, so it’s probably not going to happen anyway.
Had his party done a more robust job in opposition of defending its record, perhaps Straw would be open to a more nuanced or reflective appraisal of Labour’s legacy. Its failure to do so has frustrated him, which is understandable, and probably goes some way to explaining his brittleness. But when we come to the one criticism Straw himself volunteered last year, he doesn’t seem any more keen on having a conversation about it.
It was widely reported last November that Straw regretted the 2004 decision to allow Eastern Bloc EU nationals into the country without imposing transitional controls – a “spectacular mistake”, in his words. I ask why he hadn’t pointed out instead that those EU immigrants paid far more into our system than they took out. “Well, I did say that.” The quotes about his regrets were taken, he explains, from his weekly column in the East Lancashire Telegraph, in which he also cited a recent report confirming the net economic benefit those immigrants bought – but of course only his regrets were reported in the national press. “Dan will pull it off from my system,” he says, without even glancing up at his young aide, who hurries to the computer to print it off.
The point is, he says, that if they’d known the numbers were going to run into hundreds of thousands, Labour would not have allowed them all in. But if they were economically beneficial, I ask, why not? “We could have done, but I’m just telling you Decca, we wouldn’t have done, right?” he snaps. For what reason? “Because there was a short-term cost in terms of dislocation of people’s communities.” He agrees with Nigel Farage, then, that some things – “I’m not remotely saying that,” he interrupts.
Isn’t Straw simply saying that some things matter more than money? “No, I’m not.” But I thought he’d just said that although there was an economic benefit to the eastern Europeans’ arrival, this was outweighed by the social dislocation that – “No,” he interrupts again crossly, “I’m not remotely saying that. I’m astonished that you should suggest that.”
Now I’m confused. If he’s saying that the stability and feelings of the community were more important than economic benefits, surely that’s the same point Farage made when he argued earlier this year that some things matter more to the country than money.
“That’s not remotely what … Look, I’m resistant to the calumny that what I’ve been saying is anything remotely where Nigel Farage is.” But he still hasn’t explained the difference. “Well, I’m sure you’ll make that point in the piece,” he huffs. Then, “Well, some things do matter more than money. That’s a self-evident truth, I would have thought.” Yes, I agree, and I think Farage does, too. “Look, I haven’t got exactly what Farage says, but I’m not remotely, and neither is the Labour party, in the same position as Farage on this, all right?”
Jack Straw dancing with the Duchess of Kent at a Leeds university union dinner in 1968One of Blair’s former speech writers claimed a few years ago that the relaxing of immigration controls had been part of a deliberate agenda to create greater diversity, which the government concealed from the public. “Right, well, it’s not true. I mean, Dan’s been through all the papers, haven’t you?” Dan nods dutifully. “It’s not remotely true, and if you look in my book you’ll see that we got this home office … pass me the book, Dan.”
I’m beginning to feel rather sorry for Dan. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an assistant treated so imperiously, and every few minutes Straw issues another offhand instruction to Google this or look up that, and has him endlessly paging through the index of Straw’s weighty 2012 memoir, Last Man Standing. Rather than say what he thinks, Straw prefers to read out something he has already said in the past – but if I’d been after an anthology of things he once said I could have got that off my own computer. I wish poor old Dan could just sit down and do the crossword or something.
Last autumn Straw accused the Guardian of “arrogance” and “adolescent excitement” in publishing Edward Snowden‘s revelations about mass surveillance. To critics of Straw’s role in the Iraq war, this might sound like what therapists call projection – but I ask if he considers Snowden a traitor to his country. “Look, it’s a matter for the American courts to decide what offence he has committed.” Was Straw surprised by any of the revelations? “I do not comment on national security matters.” David Blunkett has said he was sometimes uneasy with the requests made by security agencies to ministers, so I wonder if Straw ever shared this disquiet. “Look,” he sighs, “I haven’t spoken to David about what he said. But our agencies operate within a strict legal regime, and it has been strengthened in the last 20 years.” I try a few more questions, and each time he sighs, half-laughs, and repeats, “I never comment on national security matters.” He does want to point out that the Snowden revelations have generated “little public concern on this side of the Atlantic,” but when I ask why he thinks it has been so much greater on that side he retorts: “I don’t profess expertise on the other side of the Atlantic.”
I’d almost forgotten what New Labour ministers used to be like. Most politicians approach an interview with a prudent degree of caution, but that’s not the same thing as communicating an internal commentary of contempt with impatient little private laughs, and beginning almost every sentence with “Look”. If Straw wants to make the current Labour regime’s style look like a tremendous improvement, then he certainly succeeds.
He’s scrupulously complimentary about Ed Miliband; the 50p tax rate is an excellent policy, and Straw would “probably” have proposed theenergy price freeze – “or something like it. I’m not absolutely certain I would have done, but probably.” On Gordon Brown‘s leadership he is less complimentary. “Well, I think I would have done a better job. I’m not sure I would have done a better job at managing the financial crisis – but in terms of running the government, yes, I would have done a better job.” And of running the country? “Yes, I meant running a country, you know, I’m not bad at that.” He can’t remember the last time he spoke to Brown. “I mean, that’s not because I cease to be social, because I’m a gregarious guy. But he’s just not around.”
Before I leave, I ask what he feels, looking back now, he was worst at during his career. “Worst at?” Yes, what does he look back at and wince? “Well, the worst day of my career was in October 1995 when I screwed up in a major debate about Derek Lewis. I was bad at that, but I got better.” He pauses. “I mean, what else do you have in mind? What’s available on this charge sheet?” That’s up to him to say. “Bad at?” he ponders. “I don’t know. I mean, I think there’s … I think … I don’t often think I’m really bad at anything.” He searches his mind.
“Doing the diary. Yes, I think it’s frustrating for people who are trying to get me to – well, I’m very good at decision-making, apart from some aspects of the diary. Is that right, Dan?”
“I think that’s fair,” murmurs Dan. “OK, then,” Straw nods.