In the autumn of 2002, Jack Straw would often receive a call from Downing Street at around 11pm. The switchboard operators would tell him the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, had rang and asked Straw to call him back on a secure line. Powell had his own line because he didn’t want anybody in the State Department to listen to what he had to say. “And then we would sort of download – there was nobody else we could talk to in the world,” Straw, 75, recently told me from his home in Oxfordshire. “My wife – and we actually got on with him extremely well anyway – nicknamed him the other man in her life.”
It was an unlikely friendship – Powell a Republican general from Harlem, New York, and Straw a former Labour home secretary and NUS president who’d grown up in the shadow of Epping Forest in Essex. The calls became more frequent as the negotiations for UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which compelled Iraq to disarm, intensified. Straw got into the habit of calling Powell after church on Sundays. The pair didn’t only become friends: they worked together to counter the more bellicose tendencies of the Bush administration. Indeed, as Simon McDonald, Straw’s principal private secretary at the time, recently told me, they often seemed more aligned with each other than with their bosses.
The war that followed came to define New Labour’s foreign policy and left nearly half a million people dead. Despite supporting the invasion at the time, Straw described it as a “war of choice” and admitted “it would have been better in retrospect if we’d left Saddam there – [even though] probably more people in Iraq would have ended up, I’m afraid, incarcerated or dead.”
Nineteen years on, Straw believes the war’s hold on international politics endures, not least in the case of Ukraine. “It would have been a factor in [Vladimir] Putin’s misjudgements,” he said. “The Iraq War split the West – it led to a split right down the inside of the European Union… and it also opened up great divisions inside each country as it did in the UK.”
Liz Truss, the current foreign secretary, said last month in Washington DC that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February was a “paradigm shift on the scale of 9/11”. Straw went further. “It’s more significant and more long term,” he said. “9/11 was a desperate shock,” but he argued that Russia and China were already aligned against the “idea of mad Islamist terrorists”. By contrast, the war in Ukraine has triggered an ideological shift. Straw pointed to Germany’s decision to drop its long-held pacifism and increase its defence spending to more than 2 per cent of GDP.
This shift has occurred in the UK too. In her speech, Truss proclaimed that the “era of complacency is over” in a clear criticism of prior British foreign policy, including her own party’s. While David Cameron recently said there was “no naivety” when he dealt with Putin as prime minister, Straw believes there was an overwhelming “intellectual arrogance” that sustained economic growth would turn countries such as China and Russia into open democracies. That has not come to pass.
After holding four different cabinet positions over 13 years in government, Straw still believes that foreign secretary is a fundamentally different role to the rest. When in a domestic position “you’re a kind of decision-making machine – or you should be. And some of those are executive decisions, some of those are decisions about what goes into legislation.” Whereas foreign policy is about influencing events that are “ultimately beyond your own control, or your country’s control”. That makes building personal relationships – such as with the US secretary of state – essential.
“When you pick up the telephone or get your office to make a bid to book a phone call, the foreign minister or the secretary state on the other end needs to feel that it will be a call worth taking. And that comes through experience – experience of the character of the people.”
Fostering relationships takes time and Straw is worried that the high turnover of foreign secretaries in recent years will prevent those relationships being built. For this reason, Straw hopes Truss will stay in the role for a while. He pointed to comments from Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was imprisoned in Iran, that she’d seen five foreign secretaries over the course of her six-year incarceration. “That’s hopeless. I mean, it’s completely hopeless,” Straw said.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was eventually released in March after the government agreed to pay a nearly £400m debt dating from the 1970s. “It’s a very shameful tale.” Straw argued the debt should have been paid during the coalition government years, and he wishes it had been paid when he was in government. Why weren’t they? Straw said he only ever saw a couple of pieces of paper mentioning the debt and never saw anything substantive. The matter was kept very close to the chest of the Ministry of Defence, he said.
He also queried why Iran never raised the issue with him. “I went there five times, for Pete’s sake. It was never raised with me – I don’t know why. But if they had raised it with me and said this is really important and we’d like to see this paid, I would have got on and dealt with it. And we actually could have paid it then because there are no sanctions of relevance. So I feel very frustrated.”
In 2001, Straw was the first British foreign secretary to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution and, as he writes in his book, The English Job: Understanding Iran and Why it Distrusts Britain (2019), he became “fascinated, bewitched, infuriated, perplexed by this singular country”. Straw had a good working relationship with the Iranians and he kept in touch with them after leaving the Foreign Office. “There was a sort of tacit agreement between myself and David Miliband [a successor as foreign secretary] that whilst he had some difficulty in formally seeing the then [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad[‘s] ambassador, it was okay if I did – so I did.”
Straw now spends most of his time chairing a youth hub in his old constituency (Blackburn, where he was MP from 1979-2015) and relearning the piano. He sees it as a relief to have avoided the House of Lords even if he was upset when Ed Miliband chose not to nominate him for ennoblement.
“Ed Miliband is not somebody whose political position or career I admire,” he said criticising Miliband for “taking the leadership from his brother” when he “couldn’t possibly make a success of it”. He holds Miliband responsible for Labour’s collapse in Scotland. “He failed more catastrophically than I’d ever thought he would, not least by his insane cosying up to the SNP,” he said trenchantly. “We had 41 seats in Scotland, and Ed Miliband left us with one.”
Despite his subsequent praise for Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership and other members of the shadow cabinet, he’s grateful to be able to “get on with the rest of [his] life”.
“I don’t miss it at all, interestingly.”