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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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