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3 December 2009

The great survivor

As Labour prepares for the general election, Jack Straw talks candidly about his relationship with G

By Jason Cowley

For a politician who, because of his wiliness and longevity, has been entangled in the defining crises of the New Labour years – the illegal invasion of Iraq, the machinations between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the hardening of our all-pervasive surveillance society, the Afghanistan war – it seems appropriate to find Jack Straw holed up in the Orwellian Ministry of Justice as we approach the end of this government. This is the old Home Office renamed and remodelled, a charmless 1970s-era concrete monolith, a statement of architectural gigantism in the hard modernist style. (I understand that the name Ministry of Love was considered and rejected by Straw.) The only surprise is that it is located at 102 Petty France in St James’s, rather than 101.

Straw is in a jaunty mood as he hurries into his ninth-floor office, with its fine views across St James’s Park and into the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The New Statesman and the Economist are prominently displayed on his magazine rack and on the wall above his desk is a framed photograph from 2005 of Straw and Condo­leezza Rice on the pitch in front of 80,000 spectators at an American football match – a reminder, if any were needed, of how close New Labour was to the George W Bush administration. He is, he says, “coffee’d out this morning”, but drinks a glass of water and begins to eat an apple, which he munches hungrily throughout the first part of our interview – even, somewhat bewilderingly, consuming the core.

There has, inevitably, been much discussion in his office about the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. A friend of the Justice Secretary had told me that “Jack did all he could to prevent the Iraq war. He was very close to Colin Powell, and agreed with his position.” Now, bound by the principle of collective responsibility and preparing to testify before Chilcot in January, Straw says, “I don’t want to give a running commentary on the evidence, but, when the time comes, I will give my evidence robustly. I will advocate and defend the position that we took. Iraq is now an emerging democracy. Would it have been better if Saddam had stayed? He could have stayed there if he’d complied. But he didn’t.”

What is his biggest regret as the foreign secretary during the run-up to and execution of the Iraq war? Straw pauses, looks suspiciously at my tape recorder. “Regret,” he says, “regret is a loaded word. I regret the loss of life but I also say this: the fun­damental point is that Saddam was required by that major Security Council resolution [of 8 November 2002] to comply with what the Council had said and he failed to comply. Everybody on the Security Council, even at its meeting in March [2003], believed that Saddam did possess WMDs; it’s not an academic point, he had this stuff. What happened to it?”

Does he think the government, wittingly or unwittingly, exaggerated the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?

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“I’m clear that the case we made was a case based on evidence that was available worldwide, which was about Saddam’s non-compliance with Security Council resolutions and his continued failure to comply. That’s the central issue . . . I am comfortable with the position I took. I’m not going to reverse it.”

This is not his natural idiom: this is the opaque language of the lawyer’s brief.

In recent months Straw has objected to being called, by the New Statesman, a “reactionary” on matters of constitutional reform. We have spoken about this on several occasions and, to be fair, he has done more than any other politician in recent decades to reform the House of Lords and to introduce a new elected second chamber. His white paper of July 2008 set out how an elected second chamber might work, and reflected those areas where there was cross-party agreement. In the New Year, he will publish draft legislation on an elected second chamber, ahead of a manifesto pledge “to complete the reform of the Lords” and, as he says, “effectively replacing it. I hope the other parties will do the same.”

Supporters of proportional representation, such as the Compass group, believe that, following its landslide election victory of 1997, Labour squandered a historic opportunity for a progressive realignment of British politics. On electoral reform, Straw is cautious: he supports the Alternative Vote (AV), which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, but nothing beyond it. “AV is more important now because British politics has moved to being a genuine multiparty system.”

There are those in the cabinet who would be bolder and embrace Alternative Vote Plus (AV+), which would allow for a second vote for a top-up list of MPs and combines the greater fairness of proportional representation with the stability offered by majoritarian systems. But for Straw, “first-past-the-post helps to maintain the constituency base of our democracy. The question is, how do you improve and reinforce the legitimacy of the people who are elected? You do that through AV, because [under this system], by a process of elimination, you have to end up with a candidate who commands 50 per cent of the vote, plus one. I resent the view that you can only be a radical if you favour PR. Proportional representation can produce circumstances in which small minorities have disproportionate power.” So it’s not the tyranny of the majority he fears, but “the tyranny of a small minority.”

The plan now is “for paving legislation for a referendum on electoral reform to be held after the election, offering a choice between AV and first-past-the-post”. This hardened position would force David Cameron, were he to become prime minister, to repeal it.

Falling turnout at elections concerns him, as it should, as do people’s growing feelings of disenfranchisement and alienation from mainstream party politics. He supports, in principle, compulsory voting. “I’ve never raised this before in this forum but I’ve been thinking a lot about it. The only way you could introduce compulsory voting is by having a referendum in favour of it. Up to now, we’ve taken the view that if people have a right to vote, they also have a right to abstain. But voting is a civic duty and generating debate about whether people should be required to vote is one way of [reminding them of that duty].”

In an interview in last week’s New Statesman, Seymour Hersh, the celebrated American investigative journalist, described British libel laws as “chilling”. We have created a climate in which very rich people are able to use our libel laws to persecute, bully and suppress, in which law firms such as Carter-Ruck, operating on a “no win, no fee” basis, are emboldened, and in which libel tourists luxuriate and flourish. Straw told me he is determined to introduce immediate and substantive reform. He is drawing up proposals to “introduce a radically reduced cap on the level of excessive success fees in defamation cases”. He would not confirm what the exact cap will be, though reformers hope it may be as low as, say, 10 per cent. At present, success fees can be as high as 100 per cent of costs. “Our libel laws are having a chilling effect. By definition, it’s not hitting the most profitable international media groups, News International or Associated Newspapers, though it’s not good news for them. It is hitting the press vital to our democracy but whose finances are much more difficult, and that includes magazines, one or two of the nationals, and regional and local newspapers. That’s why I will be changing the law on defamation costs . . . and I’m anxious to get ahead on this.”

“The whole thing has become a kind of sport. On costs, a combination of the way ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements work, which include huge success fees that the defendant has to pay as well as, after the event, insurance premiums – I’m concerned about all that. It is important that people are able to sue newspapers if they have been seriously defamed, but the terms of trade have been changed too much. On jurisdiction, so-called libel tourism – this is partly encouraged by the fees available to London-based lawyers and partly by the fact that it’s easier to win on substantive law here. We are looking at changing this as well.”

Most importantly, the reforms will be made “through secondary”, not primary, legislation.

In our last issue, Alan Johnson suggested the 2010 election would be a “watershed election”, comparable to 1945, 1979 or 1997. Straw dismisses this. “Each election is very important,” he says, laughing. “This one is also very important, because there is a lot riding on it.” He goes on to explain what is at stake. The arguments are familiar: the Conservatives’ economic policies and “fiscal tightening” that would exacerbate the recession, increase unemployment and “create a crisis in public services”, and their isolationism in Europe, which would damage Britain. “This is the first Conservative party that has decided to hobble itself on the pitch before the game even starts. If they don’t believe in the EU, they should follow the Ukip path and withdraw. That would be an honest position. But they have thrown away influence with their natural party allies, the likes of Sarkozy and Merkel.”

Yet the EU remains an elite project; the Conservatives’ alliances in Europe, however foolish they may be, are not a pressing issue for an increasingly sceptical British electorate; of more concern to them is the growing Budget deficit and Labour’s perceived profligacy.

Straw defends Labour’s spending on health and education as being necessary after the hardships and deprivations of the Thatcher years. But, he adds, “the rate of growth of public services is slowing very rapidly already. The deficit is going to rise significantly – that is this year’s and next year’s addition to the national mortgage. The total size of the mortgage, that is the national debt, at the end of this period, will be about the same as Germany’s and France’s, below that of the US and Italy, and much lower than Japan’s. These levels are sustainable. The public understands this, and the message will increasingly get through during an election campaign.”

So why then, if all of this is at least manageable and we are not in a state of national emergency, is there so much disaffection among Labour MPs? Why the pessimism? “I’m against defeatism of all kinds. Yes, the economic situation is difficult. On top of that, there’s the whole issue of the expenses scandal, which has been completely demoralising for some and disastrous for others. It has hit us as the governing party disproportionately. But there’s no reason to give in and accept defeat.”

It was said during the various insurgencies against the Brown leadership that Straw was poised and willing to stand for the leadership if the opportunity arose. In the circumstances, he would have been a good leader. Now, he says, “I am not and would not be a candidate for leadership in any circumstances.” What if the Prime Minister was toppled in one final push or became seriously ill? He repeats the same line.

He expresses empathy for Brown. “Working closely with him in recent times, I’ve discovered what a nice and decent man he is.” One reason the Prime Minister has had such difficulty connecting with the electorate is, Straw suggests, his shyness. “I’m an extrovert. Gordon is a nice man, but he’s shy. People occupy different points on the Myers-Briggs scale . . . Gordon’s diligence and energy are extraordinary. But, look, there are different personality types in politics. I’ve been struck in recent weeks that the real Gordon is breaking through.”

What of those who say that there are two Browns: Good Gordon, the stern Presbyterian moralist, with a profound concern for social justice and formidable understanding of global economics, and Bad Gordon, the raging, Lear-like autocrat, with his shadowy inner circle of dark spinners and traducers? Straw believes in Good Gordon, and later, when we speak on the telephone as he travels by Eurostar to Brussels, he tells me: “I’ve just been speaking to a group of about 2,000 sixth-formers. I was making the case for Gordon by saying that there was no other person in the G20 who could have made the correct calls that he did during the economic crisis. You know, I was struck by the positive response I got to this. I know elections are fought through the prism of personalities, but I do think people are beginning to see what Gordon is about.”

Straw was Brown’s campaign manager when he became leader, uncontested, in June 2007. Does he believe that a general election should have been called in early September of that year, from a position of relative strength ? “Yes, entirely in hindsight,” he says, “but I was not saying that [then]. Whether to call an election became an issue only at the time of the [Labour] conference. By that stage, Gordon had said he was there for the rest of the parliament. There was also something practical: if the election had been called then it would have taken place after the clocks had gone back in early November. The public don’t like elections being called unnecessarily. The public might have said: ‘You’ve got a majority, why don’t you use it?’ And for a prime minister to change in mid-government is nothing unusual. Eden, Macmillan, Callaghan and Major: it has happened four times in recent decades. The evidence also did not appear to be that we would have won with a good majority. These were the arguments.”

In October 1998, when Straw was home secretary, he authorised the arrest of General Augusto Pinochet and his extradition to Spain to stand trial for torture and human rights abuses. Pinochet was under house arrest in England for 16 months but, “In the end,” Straw says, “I was presented with medical evidence that he was not fit to stand trial, which I judged was so strong that if I’d ignored it I would have been subject to very adverse judicial criticism. The only thing I could do was release him.”

One wonders then, considering the Pinochet case, why the government is preparing to extradite Gary McKinnon, who hacked into US military and Nasa computers during 2001 and 2002, even though lawyers and doctors have said that McKinnon, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, is deeply vulnerable, sick and suicidal. “If McKinnon commits suicide this will absolutely finish New Labour once and for all,” the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson told me.

“As far as McKinnon is concerned,” says the Justice Secretary, “all I can say, and I haven’t seen the papers . . . is that I defend Alan Johnson’s judgement on this . . . The decisions to extradite have effectively been confirmed by the highest courts in the land. Alan’s discretion at this stage, in any case, is limited.”

This is problematic. In recent months, the British state has authorised, in different circumstances but because of medical advice, the release of two notorious prisoners: Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing atrocity, and the aged Great Train robber Ronnie Biggs. Both men were expected to have been dead by now. They are not. Medical evidence suggests that McKinnon will die in prison in the United States. The government is ignoring this evidence: McKinnon will be extradited. “I didn’t see the medical evidence on al-Megrahi,” Straw says. “But what I know is that predicting the death of someone is a very imprecise science. The evidence was very clear on Biggs, that he was about to die.”

He didn’t think that Biggs might have been pulling one last stunt? “Medics are always aware of that, which is why you get in tough medics. But the whole thing is imprecise.”

One recent Saturday afternoon, I visited Jack Straw’s Blackburn constituency. I have family in the north-west of England, and I know well the old mill towns of Preston, Bury, Bolton and Blackburn, with their attendant problems of high unemployment, urban decay and social fragmentation. There are large British Muslim populations in each of these towns and, to the occasional visitor at least, their separation from wider society becomes more obvious with each passing year – more girls and women are choosing to wear the hijab, niqab or burqa, young men are becoming more devout, and there is a sense of greater atomisation.

In central Blackburn, I visited what is known by some locals as the “Khyber Pass”, a parade of shops and red-brick terrace houses, owned mostly by Muslims. I asked some of those working in and visiting the shops about life in the town and about Straw. There is understandable resentment from these people, many of them third-generation Britons, at how they hear themselves being referred to as “them” or “they” – as being stigmatised, in effect, as the hostile Other. Across the divide, there is sadness at how some Muslims are choosing to reject western pluralism. Straw remains popular in the town – his majority increased slightly at the 2005 election, when nationwide anger about the occupation of Iraq was most intense – but some Muslim women have not forgiven him for describing the niqab, or full veil, as a “visible statement of separation and of difference.”

“I stand by those remarks,” Straw says now. “I defend the right of women to wear what they want, but equally I defend my right to comment freely and honestly on social issues.”

If some moderate Muslims are critical of Straw, there are those among the pro-Iraq war left (you might call them former liberals mugged by reality) who think he has appeased Islamists, refusing when he had the chance to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, the London operation of which was set up by Omar Bakri Muhammad, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who later went on to found al-Muhajiroun, or distancing himself from the work of the Muslim Council of Britain. “The Muslim Council of Britain is a good thing,” Straw tells me. “Iqbal Sacranie [the council’s former general secretary] is a good friend of mine. As for Hizb ut-Tahrir, I want to see the evidence that tells me the organisation should be banned. It’s absurd to say I’m soft on Islamism. To ban organisations, you first need evidence.”

On the issue of Switzerland’s outlawing of the building of minarets on mosques, Straw says: “This is preposterous, a form of religious persecution . . . we should be worried about. We have seen this kind of thing before in Europe, with the banning of the Star of David. We all know about the levels of anti-Semitism in the late 1930s and where that led us.”

I mention Straw’s position in relation to Islam – criticised by moderate Muslims but considered by some to be soft on Islamism – as an example of how, too often, he seems to find himself occupying a shaded, ambiguous space between conflicting standpoints, if never quite seeking simultaneously to hold two contradictory positions. His friends say that he opposed the invasion of Iraq and did “everything he could to prevent it”, and yet he did not resign in protest from the government, as Robin Cook did, and will go before the Chilcot inquiry in an attempt to justify retrospectively an illegal war in which he did not believe and about which he speaks, not with the zeal of a liberal internationalist or nation-builder, but in the evasions of opaque legalese.

On constitutional reform, he is a self-styled radical and yet he opposes proportional representation of a kind that, if implemented, would definitively break the two-party system and effect a progressive realignment of British politics. Although he was Brown’s campaign manager during the phony war of that summer, when no one emerged as a challenger, he has never been recognisably a Brownite – nor was he ever a Blairite. Once again, he sought to occupy the spaces in between.

Going further back, he was a revolutionary student activist who ended up cutting his hair and accepting, if not the inevitability of gradualism, then the compromises of power. Ultimately, Jack Straw is a survivor as well as a pragmatist: a good man who has ended up becoming a kind of political weathervane, always knowing in which direction the wind was blowing. You could call him a good politician.

However, by saying to me now, for the first time and despite mutterings that he was prepared to stand only a few months ago, that there are absolutely no circumstances in which he would consider running for the Labour leadership, he is accepting both that Gordon Brown will lead Labour into the next election and that he has personally reached the end of something important. He does not believe in defeatism, but perhaps, in quieter moments, he must contemplate what defeat would mean for him and the party he has served so loyally for so long.

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