Jack Straw

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Jack Straw

John Whitaker "Jack" Straw (born 3 August 1946) is a British Labour Party politician who served as their Member of Parliament (MP) for Blackburn Parliamentary constituency from 1979 to 2015. Straw served in the Cabinet from 1997 to 2010 under the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He held two of the traditional Great Offices of State, as Home Secretary from 1997 to 2001 and Foreign Secretary from 2001 to 2006 under Blair. From 2007 to 2010 he served as Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Justice throughout Gordon Brown's Premiership. Straw is one of only three individuals to have served in Cabinet continuously under the Labour government from 1997 to 2010.

After the Labour Party lost power in the general election, in May 2010, Straw briefly served as Shadow Deputy Prime Minister and Shadow Justice Secretary, with the intention to stand down from the frontbench after the subsequent 2010 Labour Shadow Cabinet election. He retired as a Member of Parliament in 2015.

Early life

Straw was born in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, England, the son of Joan Sylvia (née Gilbey)[1][2] and Walter Arthur Whitaker Straw,[1] an insurance salesman. Straw was brought up in Loughton, Essex, by his mother, on a council estate after his father left the family.[3] Straw was educated at Staples Road School, Loughton, then boarded at Brentwood School - at that time a direct grant grammar school.

Straw went on to read Law at the University of Leeds. He was alleged by the Foreign Office to have disrupted a student trip to Chile to build a youth centre. They branded him a "troublemaker acting with malice aforethought."[4]

Straw, a Marxist, was then elected President of Leeds University Students' Union]]. At the 1967 UK National Union of Students' (NUS) Conference, he unsuccessfully ran for an officer's position. In April 1968, he again unsuccessfully stood, this time for NUS President, defeated by Trevor Fisk.[5]

Leeds University Students' Union Council reinstated Jack Straw's life membership of the Union in 2007, given to all Presidents. A previous motion in 2000 had removed his life membership and led to the removal of his name from the Presidents’ Board owing to disagreement with his involvement in anti-terror legislation.[6]

Straw subsequently qualified as a barrister at the Inns of Court School of Law, practising criminal law for two years from 1972 to 1974.

Between 1971 to 1974, Jack Straw was a member of the Inner London Education Authority, and Deputy Leader from 1973 to 1974. Straw served as political adviser to Barbara Castle at the Department of Social Security from 1974 to 1976, and as adviser to Peter Shore at the Department for the Environment from 1976 to 1977. From 1977 to 1979, Straw worked as a researcher for the Granada TV series, World in Action.

Straw unsuccessfully contested as the Labour candidate for Tonbridge and Malling constituency in the February 1974 general election.

Member of Parliament from 1979-2015

Straw was selected to stand for Parliament for the Lancashire constituency of Blackburn in 1977, after Barbara Castle decided not to seek re-election. He won the seat in 1979 and held it until he retired. On 25 October 2013, Jack Straw announced that he would stand down as Blackburn MP at the next election.[7]

Shadow Cabinet (1987-1997)

Straw's first Shadow Cabinet post was as Education spokesman from 1987. In this role, he called on Local Education Authorities to give private Muslim and Orthodox Jewish schools the right to opt out of the state system and still receive public funds. He also stated that the schools should be free to enter the state system. His comments came at a time of great controversy regarding the funding of Muslim schools. Straw argued that the controversy arose out of ignorance and stereotyping about women's role in Islam, pointing out that Muslim women acquired property rights centuries before European women.

Straw briefly served as Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment under Labour Party leader John Smith from 1992 to 1994, speaking on matters concerning local government. When Tony Blair became leader after Smith's death, he chose Straw to succeed him as Shadow Home Secretary. Like Blair, Straw believed Labour's electoral chances had been damaged in the past by the party appearing to be "soft on crime" and he developed a reputation as being even more authoritarian than the Conservative Party Home Secretary Michael Howard. Straw garnered particular attention for comments condemning "aggressive beggars, winos and squeegee merchants" and calling for a curfew on children.[8]

Home Secretary (1997-2001)

Appointed as Home Secretary after the 1997 general election, On 31 July 1997, Straw ordered a public inquiry, to be conducted by an ageing judge Sir William Macpherson and officially titled "The Inquiry into the Matters Arising from the Death of Stephen Lawrence".[9] Its report, produced in February 1999, estimated that it had taken "more than 100,000 pages of reports, statements, and other written or printed documents"[10] and concluded that the original Metropolitan Police Service investigation had been incompetent and that officers had committed fundamental errors, including: failing to give first aid when they reached the scene; failing to follow obvious leads during their investigation; and failing to arrest suspects. The report found that there had been a failure of leadership by senior MPS officers and that recommendations of the 1981 Scarman Report, compiled following the 1981 race riots by negroes in Brixton and Toxteth, had been ignored and concluded that the force was "institutionally racist".[11] It also recommended that the double jeopardy rule should be repealed in murder cases to allow a retrial upon new and compelling evidence; in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, this became law in 2005. Straw commented in 2012 that ordering the inquiry was "the single most important decision I made as Home Secretary"[12], which doesn't say much.

Straw piloted through Parliament the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (England and Wales) which, under sections 28 to 32, includes what he decided was the meaning of "racially aggravated" offences. It is so all-embracing that almost anyone could be covered by it and become a potential criminal. This began the slippery slope towards Stalinist totalitarianism in "offensive" and "racist" matters that has been legislated upon again in 2003 (UK) and in Scotland twice since then.

In March 2000, Jack Straw was responsible for allowing former Chilean Head of State General Augusto Pinochet to return to Chile. There were requests from several socialist countries for Pinochet to be extradited and face trial for "crimes against humanity". General Pinochet was outrageously placed under house arrest while visiting Britain for medical treatment, while appealing the legal authority of the Spanish and British courts to try him, but Straw eventually ordered his release on medical grounds before a trial could begin, and Pinochet returned to Chile.[13]

Also in 2000, Straw turned down an asylum request from a man fleeing Iraq, stating "we have faith in the integrity of the Iraqi judicial process and that you should have no concerns if you haven’t done anything wrong."[14]

He brought forward the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, increased police powers against terrorism and proposed to remove the right to trial by jury in certain cases.[15] These policies won praise from Margaret Thatcher who once declared "I would trust Jack Straw's judgement. He is a very fair man." They were deemed excessively authoritarian by his former students' union, which in 2000 banned him from the building — a policy which lapsed in 2003. However, he also incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, finalising the de jure abolition of the death penalty with the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998.[16]

As Home Secretary, Straw was also involved in changing the electoral system for the European Parliament elections from plurality to proportional representation. In doing so, he advocated the use of d'Hondt formula as being the one that produces the most proportional outcomes. The d'Hondt formular, however, is less proportional to the Sainte-Laguë formula which was proposed by the Liberal Democrats. Straw later apologised to the House of Commons for his misleading comments,[17] but the d'Hondt formula stayed in place.

He worried, along with William Hague, about the possibility of English nationalism: "As we move into this new century, people's sense of Englishness will become more articulated and that's partly because of the mirror that devolution provides us with and because we're becoming more European at the same time."[18]

Foreign Secretary (2001-2006)

Straw appears at a press conference with United States Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice

He was instead appointed Foreign Secretary in 2001 to succeed Robin Cook. Within months, Straw was confronted by the 11 September attacks in the United States. He was initially seen as taking a back seat to Tony Blair in the UK Government's prosecution of the "war against terrorism". In late September 2001, he became the first senior British government minister to visit Iran since the 1979 Revolution.[19]

In 2003 the governments of the USA and UK agreed a new Extradition Treaty between them, intended to speed up extradition of terrorist suspects. The provisions of the treaty were enacted in the Extradition Act 2003. The treaty later attracted controversy with opponents alleging it to be one-sided: a British request to the USA needed to provide a prima facie case against a suspect while a US request to Britain needed only to provide reasonable suspicion for an arrest.[20] There have been a series of causes célèbres involving the treaty, including the NatWest Three who later pleaded guilty to fraud against the US parent company of their employers, and Gary McKinnon who admitted hacking US defence computers. An inquiry into extradition arrangements by retired Judge Sir Scott Baker reported in September 2011 that the treaty was not unbalanced and "there is no practical difference between the information submitted to and from the United States".[21]

In a letter to The Independent in 2004, he claimed that Trotskyists "can usually now be found in the City, appearing on quiz shows or ranting in certain national newspapers," and recommended "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder by Vladimir Lenin.[22]

In the 2004 Equatorial Guinea coup d'état attempt, Jack Straw was personally informed months in advance of the plans for the takeover attempt and failed to accomplish the duty under international law of alerting the country's government. The involvement of British oil companies in the funding of the coup d'état, and the changing of British citizens evacuation plans for Equatorial Guinea before the attempt, posed serious challenges for the alleged ignorance of the situation. Later on, British officials and Jack Straw were forced to apologise to The Observer after categorically denying they had prior knowledge of the coup plot.[23][24][25]

In the run up to the 2005 general election Straw faced a potential backlash from his Muslim constituents over the Iraq War – the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPAC) attempted to capitalise on anti-war sentiment with 'operation Muslim vote' in Blackburn. In addition, Craig Murray, who had been pushed out of his job as ambassador to Uzbekistan, stood against his former boss (Straw was head of the FCO) on a platform opposing the use of information gathered under torture in the "War on Terror". Straw's vote fell by 20% compared to the previous general election in 2001 (21,808 to 17,562) although the multiplicity of anti-Straw candidates makes it difficult to discern whether this was a particularly poor result for Straw and Labour. The swing to the second placed Conservatives was less than 2%, much lower than the national average. In any event, Straw was re-elected, and following his victory called MPAC an 'egregious group', and criticised their tactics during the election.

At the 2005 Labour Conference, the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was heckled by Walter Wolfgang, a German Jew who had suffered persecution under the Nazis, and a prominent Labour Party member. At a point when Straw claimed his support for the invasion of Iraq was solely for the purpose of supporting the Iraqi government, 82-year-old Wolfgang was heard to shout "Nonsense", and was forcibly removed from the auditorium by several bouncers. The incident gained considerable publicity, with party chairman Ian McCartney initially supporting the right to remove hecklers by force. McCartney, PM Tony Blair and other senior Labour members later issued apologies; Wolfgang was later elected to the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party.[26][27][28]

On 13 October 2005 Straw took questions from a public panel of individuals in a BBC Newsnight television special on the subject of Iraq, addressing widespread public concerns about the exit strategy for British troops, the Iraqi insurgency and, inevitably, the moral legitimacy of the war. On several occasions Straw reiterated his position that the decision to invade was in his opinion the right thing to do, but said he did not 'know' for certain that this was the case. He said he understood why public opinion on several matters might differ from his own—a Newsnight/ICM poll showed over 70% of respondents believed the war in Iraq to have increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks in Britain, but Straw said he could not agree based on the information presented to him.

Straw meets with US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz and UK Ambassador to the US Christopher Meyer in 2001.

In February 2006, Straw attracted publicity after he condemned the publication of cartoons picturing Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.[29]

In August 2006, it was claimed by William Rees-Mogg in The Times that there was evidence that Straw was removed from this post upon the request of the Bush administration, possibly owing to his expressed opposition to bombing Iran.[30] This would be ironic, as Richard Ingrams in The Independent wondered whether Straw's predecessor as Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was also removed at Bush's request,[31] allowing Straw to become Foreign Secretary in the first place. It has also been alleged that another factor in Straw's dismissal was the large number of Muslims amongst his Blackburn constituents, supposedly considered a cause for concern by the US.[32] Some Iranian dissidents mocked Straw as "Ayatollah Straw" after his frequent visits to Tehran in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks.[33]

Straw gave evidence to the Iraq Inquiry on 21 January 2010, making him the second member of Tony Blair's cabinet to do so. He told the inquiry that the decision to go to war in Iraq had "haunted him" and that it was the "most difficult decision" of his life.[34] He also said that he could have stopped the invasion, had he wanted to.[35]

Rendition and torture allegations

Despite repeated denials about his complicity in extraordinary rendition—he once dismissed the suggestion of UK involvement in the practice as a "conspiracy theory"—Straw had been dogged for years over his alleged leading role in it, with specific accusations about the case of Abdel Hakim Belhadj arising in April 2012.[36][37] In October 2012, the Guardian reported on the filing of court papers, which alleged that MI6 alerted Muammar Gaddafi's intelligence services to the whereabouts of dissidents, co-operated in their rendition, sent officers and detailed questions to assist in their interrogation, and that Straw attempted to conceal this from MPs.[38]

Leader of the House of Commons (2006-2007)

After the Labour Party suffered major defeats in local elections on 4 May 2006, losing 317 seats in balloting for 176 councils, Tony Blair acted the following day with a major reshuffle of his ministers during which he moved Straw from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal. Straw had apparently requested a break from high ministerial office after serving in two of the four great departments of state for nearly ten years. To lessen the apparent demotion, Blair gave Straw responsibility for House of Lords reform and party funding, issues which had been part of the portfolio of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. In addition, Straw was given the chairmanship of the Constitutional Affairs cabinet committee where he was responsible for attempting to force through a flat-fee charge for Freedom of Information requests.[39]

On 25 March 2007, Straw announced he was to run Gordon Brown's campaign for the Labour leadership. This was the first official confirmation the Chancellor would stand.[40]

2006 debate over veils

In October 2006 Straw attracted controversy by suggesting to a local newspaper, The Lancashire Evening Telegraph (now The Lancashire Telegraph), that Muslim women who wear veils that cover their faces (the niqab) can inhibit inter-community relations, though he denied the issue was raised for political gain, stating that he had raised it in private circles in the past and it had never progressed beyond discussions. Although he did not support a law banning a woman's right to choose to wear the veil, he would like them to abandon it altogether. Asked whether he would prefer veils to be abolished completely, Straw said: "Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather."[41] He said that he had asked women visiting his constituency surgeries to consider uncovering their noses and mouths in order to allow better communication. He claimed that no women had ever chosen to wear a full veil after this request.[42][43][44]

Straw's comments kicked off a wide-ranging and sometimes harshly worded debate within British politics and the media; Straw was supported by some establishment figures and castigated by others, including Muslim groups. There is an ongoing debate within the Muslim community whether the Qur'an and hadith (traditions of Muhammad) require the use of the full face veil.[45] Jack Straw apologised for these comments regarding the veil on 26 April 2010 at a private hustings organised by Engage in the build up to the United Kingdom General Election, 2010.[46]

Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (2007-2010)

Straw canvassing with local councillors in Blackburn

Straw was appointed Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain and Secretary of State for Justice on the first full day of Gordon Brown's ministry, 28 June 2007. He was the first Lord Chancellor since the sixteenth century to serve in the role whilst a member of the House of Commons. His appointment meant that he continued to be a major figure in the Labour Government. Only Straw, Brown and Alistair Darling served in the cabinet continuously during Labour's 13-year administration from 1997 to 2010.[47]

In February 2009, Straw used his authority as Justice Secretary to veto publication of government documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act: in particular, those pertaining to early government meetings held in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.[48]

Straw represented the government on a controversial edition of Question Time on 22 October 2009, against British National Party leader Nick Griffin on his first ever appearance. Griffin's first comment was to attack Straw's father's wartime record, to general disdain. As Griffin claimed that European laws prevented him from explaining his stance on holocaust denial Straw later offered his personal assurance as Justice Secretary, which Griffin declined.

Alleged ambitions for premiership

Andrew Thorpe-Apps, writing in the Backbencher, states that Straw knew he would be defeated by Gordon Brown in a leadership contest as Brown was 'consumed by this one ambition.'[49]

Expenses claims

Two months after learning that MP's expenses were to be made public, Straw wrote to the fees office to confirm that he had over-claimed on the Council Tax for his constituency home. He attributed this to an oversight – he had been entitled to a 'non-occupancy' discount of 50% for four consecutive years, but had continued to claim expenses for the full rate of Council Tax. Included with the letter was a cheque for the amount he believed he had overcharged, which itself turned out to have been miscalculated, leading Straw to send a further cheque with a note saying "accountancy does not appear to be my strongest suit".[50][51]

Retirement from front-bench politics (2010)

In August 2010, Straw announced his plans to quit his role as Shadow Justice Secretary and move to the backbenches, citing the need for a ‘fresh start’ for the Labour Party under a new leader.[52] Straw has since described Gordon Brown's leadership as a "tragedy".[53]

In December 2010, ahead of the UK Alternative Vote Referendum 2011, Straw was a signatory to a letter to the Guardian[54] arguing in favour of the alternative vote.

In January 2011, Straw provoked controversy with comments made on Newsnight about Pakistani men.[55] He said "there is a specific problem which involves Pakistani heritage men ... who target vulnerable young white girls."[56] His comments came after two men of Pakistani origin were convicted of rape in Derby.

In April 2011, Straw was appointed as a consultant to E. D. & F. Man Holdings Ltd., a British company based in London specialising in the production and trading of commodities including sugar, molasses, animal feed, tropical oils, biofuels, coffee and financial services. Commenting on his appointment to ED&F Man on a salary of £30,000 per annum, Straw said, "There are 168 hours in the week, and I will work in Blackburn for a least 60 and maybe sleep for 50. Providing there’s no conflict, I have long taken the view that I am not against people doing other things. I had two jobs as a minister. I think it’s really important that politicians are involved with the outside world."[57]

In late 2011, Straw was appointed to the role of visiting professor to University College London School of Public Policy. He later argued for the abolition of the European Parliament.[58]

Allegations of anti-semitism by Einat Wilf

In 2013, at the Round Table Global Diplomatic Forum at the House of Commons, Jack Straw was described by Israeli politician Einat Wilf, one of the panelists at the forum, as having said that among the main obstacles to peace was the amount of money available to Jewish organizations in the US, which controlled US foreign policy, and also Germany’s “obsession” with defending Israel. Israeli politician Einat Wilf stated: "It was appalling to listen to Britain's former foreign secretary. His remarks reflect prejudice of the worst kind... I thought British diplomats, including former ones, were still capable of a measure of rational thought."[59] Wilf said that she nearly fell off the chair when she heard Straw's comments. Wilf said she responded in the debate by stressing the role of the Palestinian and Arab refusal to accept Israel’s sovereign legitimacy as a Jewish state.[60]

The Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, said that Jack Straw's comments “echo some of the oldest and ugliest prejudices about ‘Jewish power’ and go far beyond mere criticism of Israel.”[61]

Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, Jack Straw strongly pushed back against claims that his criticism was anti-Semitic.[61] In a statement to the Times of Israel, Straw did not relate to whether he had said what Wilf alleged he said, but did say that there was no justification in any of his remarks for claims that he was being anti-Semitic. He pointed out that Wilf did not claim that he had embarked on an anti-Semitic diatribe, as it had been described in many of the media reports.[60] He wrote a statement to the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, which was described as follows:[62]

Straw wrote that he had voiced concerns at the seminar over Israel’s “settlement-building… on Palestinian land (in East Jerusalem, and the Occupied Territories). This is illegal, as the British Foreign Secretary William Hague has observed and in those terms. I said that this amounted to “theft” of Palestinians’ land.” In addition, he said that he advocated at the seminar “a tougher stand on this (and on the related issue of goods exported from the Occupied Territories by Israelis) by the European Union.”

He said that he had pointed out in the past that one of the obstacles to a EU policy on this had been “the attitude of Germany, who for understandable reasons have been reluctant to be out of line with the Government of Israel.”

Responding to the claim by Wilf that he referred to 'Jewish money', Straw said that he had spoken at the seminar of the “Israeli lobby” and “the problems which faced President Obama from AIPAC” and spoke of the way AIPAC spends large sums of money supporting pro-Israeli candidates in American elections. No article covering the allegations has quoted Straw's suppose comments referring to 'Jewish money'.

Personal life

Straw's first marriage, in 1968, to teacher Anthea Weston, ended in divorce in 1977. They had a daughter, Rachel, born on 24 February 1976, who died after five days because of a heart defect.

On 10 November 1978 he married Alice Perkins, a senior civil servant.[63] In 2006 Straw's wife joined the board of the country's largest airports operator BAA, shortly before it was taken over by the Spanish firm Ferrovial.[64] They have two adult children, Will and Charlotte.[65]

He supports his local football club Blackburn Rovers,[66] and was made an Honorary Vice President of them in 1998 by Jack Walker.[67]

Straw has spoken publicly about his battles with depression, and tinnitus.[3]



  • Straw, Jack (2012). Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor. Macmillan. ISBN 978-1447222750. 

Author or co-author

  • Implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998: Minutes of Evidence, Wednesday 14 March 2001 (2001) ISBN 0-10-442701-9
  • Making Prisons Work: Prison Reform Trust Annual Lecture (1998) ISBN 0-946209-44-8
  • Future of Policing and Criminal Justice (Institute of Police & Criminological Studies Occasional Paper S.) (1996) ISBN 1-86137-087-3
  • Policy and Ideology (1993) ISBN 0-9521163-0-8


  • Reform of the Race Relations Act 1976: Proposals for Change Submitted by the Commission for Racial Equality to the Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, Secretary of State for the Home Department, on 30 April 1998 (1998) ISBN 1-85442-210-3


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