Interview: Jack Straw

The elder statesman of the Brown government is pressing ahead with radical reform of the UK constitu

It's hard to imagine, but Jack Straw clearly fancies himself as a character in Life on Mars, the hit retro cop drama in which a politically correct police officer from the present is transported back to the time of Ford Capris and the three-day week.

With the unions threatening a winter of industrial strife, Straw sprinkles his conversation on the eve of party conference with ominous warnings that the Labour movement must not return to the era of mutually assured industrial destruction. He comes to the interview straight from negotiations with the Prison Officers' Association, whose one-day strike in August raised the spectre of public sector unrest and reminded Straw of his long-haired youth. "We won't do ourselves any good if we get into the situation we got into in the 1970s, which I witnessed . . . It's a Life on Mars story," he says.

Don't let the tailored suits and cufflinks fool you. The Justice Secretary is a creature of glam rock. He can, he says, vouch for the accuracy of Life on Mars, as he lived through that era, first as a young barrister, and, from 1974, working for Barbara Castle, then social services secretary. Straw found himself a back-room boy during some of Labour's darkest days in power (just as David Cameron did on the Conservative side during Black Wednesday two decades later). He even remembers the pay formula won by the trade unions ("n+1"), which, he explains, was one percentage point above inflation.

We suggest that reminding the unions of the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent has become a little tired. "But I've never said remember the Winter of Discontent," Straw responds. "What I've said to them is remember the mid-1970s rather than the end, because that's what's burnt on my brain - the experience of actually being in government as a special adviser in that period and seeing where we ended. On one level, the circumstances aren't remotely the same, because public finance and the state of the British economy is completely different. But what that experience taught me was how important it was to get on top of any indications of inflation and do it quickly."

Straw insists he is keeping up a dialogue with the prison officers, but he makes clear that the overall settlement is non-negotiable. The best he can offer is more flexibility about working conditions and modernisation agreements, and he also promises to do more to raise the status of prison officers so they are seen as key public sector workers in the way that teachers, nurses and police officers are. Whether this will be enough to keep the POA membership at work is another question. He talks about dealing with prison disputes as a Groundhog Day moment.

Indeed, much of Straw's in tray marks a return to two of his former jobs, as home secretary and foreign secretary. Immediately after the interview, he is off to Brussels to discuss aspects of the new EU constitutional treaty. Straw has the air of a man who has been there and done it all, so it is impossible not to quiz him on American sabre-rattling over Iran.

He is keen not to tread on the toes of his successor, but he makes clear that the new-found cooling towards the Bush administration extends to the next potential war. "I think David Miliband has made it clear . . . military action against Iran is not on the UK's agenda." Straw has consistently hinted that he would not support military action in Iran, and he was one of the architects of the three-nation talks with Tehran, involving Britain, Germany and France. "Of course I'm an interested person; how couldn't I be an interested person?" Pressed spe cifically on reaction to a US military strike, he says: "That would be a bridge we'd have to cross. I'd make my decision at the time."

We put to him the assertions made by David Manning, Tony Blair's former foreign affairs adviser and the outgoing ambassador to Washington. In last week's NS, Manning claimed that Blair never wanted to go to war in Iraq and that the British had been misled by the US government on the postwar reconstruction. His remarks have been greeted with some scepticism, but Straw says Manning's description of events is largely accurate. "I never had the least impression that Tony was somehow gung-ho for a war and that the whole thing was cooked up, because it's simply not true."

European poetry

At 61, Straw is the elder statesman of the cabinet, one of the few members of Gordon Brown's team more senior in years than the Prime Minister himself. He is quite relaxed about admitting to differences with cabinet colleagues. He defends his support for the Muslim Council of Britain, whose near monopoly on dialogue with ministers was challenged first by Ruth Kelly, when she was communities secretary, and then by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary. "I think they have a fair point in saying they should not be ignored because they are representative of most of the mosque associations in the country," he says. "Sometimes I agree with them and they with me, and sometimes we have very spirited disagreements, but they are part of civil society."

Throughout Blair's fraught final years in charge, Straw was seen as the Eurosceptics' fifth columnist in cabinet. It was he who in April 2004 bounced the then PM into a U-turn on the EU constitution and agreement to a referendum. Where does he stand now? Even if, as some people argue, the new treaty is 95 per cent the same as the old one, this is not an argument for a plebiscite, he says. "It depends how you work out your 95 per cent . . . because the difference between good and bad poetry is the 5 per cent. Sometimes it's the 1 per cent." The difference, he argues, can be found in the greater clarity of the updated document over the role of a new EU foreign affairs chief, plus clearer opt-outs protecting the UK position in a number of policy areas and a less prominent role for the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. So why did he buckle last time around? He produces an ingenious construct. "We had to have a referendum last time because of the extent of the clamour. I never accepted that it was justified in terms of what the constitution would do." This seems an odd thing to say when a significant number of Labour MPs, the unions, the Conservative Party and 60,000 signatories to a Daily Telegraph petition are calling for a referendum. We ask how loud the clamour has to be this time before the government changes tack. "I think the case is much weaker than it was."

The job of justice secretary, created after the splitting of the Home Office in two, could be seen as a fringe post. But Straw sits at the Prime Minister's left hand around the cabinet table, suggesting that the man who organised Brown's leadership campaign is also de facto Deputy Prime Minister. That he has been given the crucial job of pushing through Brown's constitutional reforms reinforces his status. His role early on during the Blair administration in drawing up the Human Rights Act made him the obvious man for the job. "The principal difference between where we were ten years ago and where we are today is that this is explicitly about reducing the power of the centre and the executive vis-à-vis parliament."

The details of the government's plans for constitutional reform have been well rehearsed (controls on the prime minister's power to declare war, ratify treaties and dissolve parliament; new oversight for the intelligence agencies; a UK Bill of Rights; a statement of British values). Straw rules out a written constitution, at least in the short term. "I'm not against a written constitution, but I think you've got to get the building blocks in place before you get there. In any case, I think it has to be done through parliament ultimately and a referendum."

Another reform missing from the government's plans thus far is changing the way the House of Commons is elected. Straw, like Brown, remains adamant that the link between MPs and the constituencies they represent should be maintained. He remains unconvinced, therefore, by arguments for proportional representation. But, he says, he would favour a move towards the "alternative vote" system (AV) where people mark a list of candidates in order of preference. This ensures that each constituency MP eventually gets the support of a majority of voters.

His undisguised support for AV gives at least a hint of the direction of travel of the Brown government. "I happen to think that first past the post or AV, which is a variant of it, is fairer. The alternative vote has many attractions, including the fact that you have to get 50 per cent plus one in that constituency, therefore you have a greater legitimacy."

Jack Straw is not a man who readily admits he was wrong. On Iraq, on championing the Muslim Council of Britain, on his dealings with the prison officers, he is unrepentant. But on one matter he is prepared to admit that mistakes were made: in not properly selling the Human Rights Act to the British people. This has allowed hardliners, such as the retiring former home secretary John Reid, and their supporters in the right-wing media, to depict it as a criminals' charter.

"Entirely in hindsight, I should have brought out [the fact] that every right is balanced out by a responsibility or duty," he says. "I should probably have gone into more explanation about the benefits to British citizens, not just to those who behave badly, although we all have that potential."

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood