Goodbye to Jack Straw

Will we miss him? I won’t.

First Alistair Darling and now, surprise, surprise, Jack Straw. From the BBC website:

[The] former Labour cabinet member Jack Straw is to step down from his current role, ending 30 years of front-bench politics.

The Blackburn MP has held many of the top jobs in British politics, including foreign secretary and home secretary.

Elected to parliament in 1979 as the member for Blackburn, Straw was a campaign manager for Tony Blair's 1994 Labour leadership bid and then performed the same role again for Gordon Brown in 2007. He was one of only three people to have served in the cabinet continuously from Labour's victory in 1997 until its defeat in 2010 (the other two being Brown and Darling). He was once described by Sky's Adam Boulton as "the longest-serving British cabinet minister since Gladstone" and by the Evening Standard's David Cohen as "the longest-serving cabinet minister since Lloyd George", but both descriptions, as the Indie's John Rentoul has noted, are factually inaccurate.

I can't say I'm going to miss Straw. Nothing personal -- in fact, I'm a fan of his son (and potential replacement in Blackburn?) Will -- but, for a start, he is one of the so-called greybeards whom I blame, along with Geoff "I Want to Make Money" Hoon, for wrongly persuading Brown against going to the polls in the autumn of 2007. Labour would have won then, rather than lost in May 2010.

He is also a classic Labour tribalist who was a roadblock to electoral reform during the party's 13 years in office. I remember bumping into him outside the conference chamber in Brighton in September 2009, after Brown's speech, in which the then prime minister revealed that he had converted to AV only (rather than full proportional representation, as Alan Johnson, John Denham and other pluralists in the cabinet had been urging him to).

Straw couldn't hide the smile on his face as he briefed reporters. I suspect that even now, he is delighted at the prospect of Labour campaigning for a No vote in next year's AV referendum, due to the Lib-Con coalition's outrageous decision to bundle together electoral reform with the so-called equalisation and reduction in the number of Commons seats.

But there is one issue which, more than any other, will stain Straw's reputation for ever, and for which I, and others, will never forgive him. From the BBC again:

As foreign secretary, he played a central role in the decision to commit British troops to the US-led invasion of Iraq and in unsuccessful attempts to secure a second UN resolution on the eve of war.

In evidence to the Chilcot inquiry in January, he described his decision to back the 2003 war as the "most difficult" of his career, describing it as a "profoundly difficult political and moral dilemma".

In his evidence to the Iraq inquiry, Straw also admitted that he could have stopped the war if he had opposed the invasion in cabinet, but he chose to remain loyal to Tony Blair. In recent years, the former foreign secretary has tried to portray himself as some sort of reluctant supporter of the war, if not a sceptic. And yet, as a producer on the Jonathan Dimbleby programme between the years 2002 and 2004, I remember Straw appearing several times on the show to passionately, cogently and, of course, disingenuously promote, support and defend that disastrous and disgusting decision. But it does seem that, in private, he had his doubts (see the Downing Street memo for the Straw quote on the case for war being "thin"). Thanks for sharing those doubts with us, Jack, and with parliament and the UN Security Council.

Oh wait a minute . . . you didn't. So shame on you. And goodbye.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.