Book review: Last Man Standing by Jack Straw

Last man standing
Last man standing

‘I love politics, Parliament, my Blackburn constituency,’ declares Jack Straw, one of the last Labour government’s most commanding figures and safest pair of hands, in his engaging and clear-sighted biography.

For the first time in his long career, the boy who grew up as one of five children of divorced parents in a council flat in Epping Forest and rose through the Westminster ranks to become Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor, reveals the private face of the public politician.

Straw, who took over his Lancashire constituency from esteemed Labour minister Barbara Castle in 1979, paints a fascinating picture of his childhood and parliamentary years with a wry, self-deprecating brand of humour, an innate humanity and an almost forensic eye for the small details that bring to life the period so vividly.

Ever the consummate politician, Straw presents his experiences in the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown with honesty and fascinating insight but without ever abandoning his trademark caution and carefully measured diplomacy.

Born in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, in 1946 and brought up in Loughton, the young Jack was alive to politics from a very early age. Intelligent and aware, he reveals the pain behind the break-up of his parents’ marriage which saw his father’s abrupt departure from the household, leaving his mother alone to bring up her five children.

Straw won a scholarship to a direct-grant grammar school, but spent his holidays as a plumber’s mate for his uncles to bring in some much-needed extra income.

He studied law at Leeds University where he was elected chairman of the Leeds University Labour Society and went on to practise criminal law before launching his political career in 1971, serving on the Inner London Education Authority.

After winning the Blackburn seat for Labour in 1979, he soon became an opposition spokesman on Treasury and economic affairs and housing and local government until winning promotion to the Shadow Cabinet in 1987.

After Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997, Straw spent 13 years and 11 days in government, including long and influential spells as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary.

In Last Man Standing, he tells the story of how he got there, offering a unique insight into the complex, sometimes self-serving but always fascinating world of British politics and revealing the toll that high office takes.

We also learn of the enormous satisfaction and extraordinary privilege of serving both his constituents and his country.

‘British politics is hard,’ he observes. ‘It can be self-serving, petty. In reputation, politicians rank near the bottom, with journalists, estate agents – and bankers… I still think it’s great.’

Straw’s greatest gift both as a politician and a writer is his depth of historical knowledge which, allied to his 13 years at the heart of government, enables him to speak authoritatively on a range of issues affecting both Britain and his party.

He is also a true political survivor, intelligent and astute enough to know when to advance and when to withdraw. ‘I’ve been lucky,’ he says, ‘but part of that luck I’ve made.’

As a voracious reader of histories and biographies, he wanted to place his political work in the context of wider events and trends. ‘The absence of memory is one of the greatest dangers that our society, and our politics, faces today,’ he concludes.

A haunting truth from one of New Labour’s greatest survivors…

(Pan, paperback, £8.99)