June 11, 2001
The general election has been held and, outside the turmoil in Northern Ireland only 21 out of 641 seats changed hands, just over 2% of the seats. The thumping Labour majority has been returned and though, for various reasons, the Conservative Party may be in a stronger position than in 1997 it is still bad news. The other news is that the Conservative leader William Hague has gone, his likely replacement being the suspiciously funded Michael Portillo. Furthermore, Ireland voted no to the European Nice treaty, a verdict that will be overturned in due course.
However, I am supposed to ruminate on British foreign policy. The Conservative leadership election and the temporary discomfort of the European Union are important matters to be returned to in later columns – if we don’t do something wacky like invade Zimbabwe first. However, there is a rather important even if deadly dull issue, who is Foreign Secretary. Robin Cook has been sacked, four years too late. His replacement is Jack "Boots" Straw, and it is not good news.
Jack Straw first appears on the national stage in the late 1960s, as head of the National Union of Students. Although a Labour man through and through, he captured and maintained his hold on this far left body with the aid of the Communist Party, an association which he has never regretted or even explained. After a fairly long stint as a professional student he went to law school and then became a parliamentary researcher for the hard left Labour MP, Barbara Castle – whose seat he inherited. During this time he was a councillor on Islington in charge of the housing policy (this was before Tony Blair moved to the benighted borough) when he made national headlines with his decision to ban pets from all council housing. At the same time he was responsible for a "municipalisation" policy whereby the council would buy every house in the borough that came on the market with the explicit aim of ending private ownership of housing in the borough. This position went far beyond Karl Marx, who limited himself to common ownership of the factors of production, distribution and exchange. This policy was an abject failure as the council lost track of its vast holdings, allowing squatters (who often had political links with the local Labour parties) to move in and take over these expensively acquired houses for nothing.
Jack Straw has genuinely left his socialist roots behind; this does not make him a better person. His family has a worrying capacity to find themselves on the wrong side of the law. After more than a year of being the drug dealer of choice at his local school, Pimlico Comprehensive, Jack Straw’s son – William – was caught in a press sting where he sold marijuana to a couple of reporters. Our Jack, seeing some easy publicity from this, took his son down to the local police station to have him arrested. The full intention was to publicly give William a minor conviction (which would be wiped from his record when he turned 18 in less than a year), and make our Jack seem a paragon of virtue and right. Unfortunately, this would not go to plan. William had a place in Oxford University, and the college authorities publicly warned that he would be denied a place if he was found guilty of dealing drugs. So suddenly, the Metropolitan Police, who at the time answered only to the Home Secretary – a certain Mr. Straw – decided not to press charges. This was not a matter of mere possession, or of "scoring" some soft drugs for friends, these journalists were complete strangers. Any normal, unconnected member of the public would have been facing prosecution. Any normal member of the public would have been guilty of choosing the wrong parents. Then there is his brother. Repeatedly his brother has been accused of child abuse – he has even confessed to it. His brother also gets favourable police treatment and a press silence that would not be extended to close relatives of dissident politicians. Selling drugs to children or sexually abusing them are terrible crimes, except when you are related to the minister in charge of law enforcement.
An interesting view on Jack Straw’s moral bearing is the way in which he became front runner to become Foreign Secretary. The previous favourite had been Peter Mandelson, an openly homosexual former member of the Young Communists who at the same time was accepting CIA money. Peter Mandelson was Blair’s favourite, although whether this was just political can not be addressed here. Peter Mandelson is an incredibly reckless creature and would be easy prey for anyone who held enough information. Enter the Home Secretary, Jack Straw. Peter Mandelson had been accused of getting a British passport as part payment for a cash injection into one of the Governments grand projects, the Millennium Dome. Peter Mandelson panicked and did not tell the full truth to Parliament and was in danger of making Alistair Campbell, the brutish alcoholic who runs the Labour press operation, look (more of) a fool. All of a sudden the Home Office, which runs the passport agency, suddenly had a fit of conscience and told the world the truth about Mandelson’s enquiries. It didn’t turn out to be the whole truth, just the bits of the truth that were most damning to Mr. Mandelson, but it was perfectly timed, Mandelson resigned – never to become foreign secretary. Instead, the front runner was Jack Straw, the Home Secretary. How cozy.
Jack Straw’s appointment has been greeted with enthusiasm by many otherwise sensible people because of his perceived hostility to Europe. This would be folly. It must be remembered that Blair’s first cabinet contained another prominent sceptic, a man who had consistently campaigned against the EEC, Robin Cook. Like most people who are clever without being wise, Robin Cook went native in his new surroundings – the historically Europhile foreign office. Ironically one of the most passionate Labour pro-Europeans, Gordon Brown, ended up in the historically Euro-sceptic Treasury and became – shock – a Euro-sceptic of sorts. Is Jack Straw a man of principal, moral courage and intelligence capable of standing up against the constant pro Europe pressure from the Foreign Office mandarins? I do not have much hope.
There is similarly no chance that Jack Straw will prove to be critical of America. In his early parliamentary years, he proved critical of America, but there was an alternative; the Soviet Union that funded his Communist Party allies. This has gone now. Europe is not yet ready to get into pointless military engagements, and so our Jack will show the same uncritical attachment to America as the former leftist Robin Cook did. On human rights, Straw has already shown himself willing to sacrifice individual rights on the altar of the "cause," as the illegal detention of General Pinochet showed.
Jack Straw is from the same sort of background and can be expected to do the same sort of things as Robin Cook. However, he is more dangerous. Robin Cook was unstable and took solace in the bottle, whether whiskey or pills. He also looked deeply abnormal. Jack Straw is a normal person. He can explain the absurd and obscene in terms that people can relate to and trust. Things can only get worse.
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