Jack Straw was the ablest and wisest of Tony Blair’s foreign secretaries and served in this capacity from 2001 until he was ungratefully dumped without warning by his leader in 2006. Afterwards he hit the headlines by courageously publishing his dislike of the full veil worn my some Muslim women, on the grounds that this was such a visible statement of separation and difference that it complicated community relations and was, in any case, a cultural preference rather than a religious obligation. (Straw was then and still is the Labour MP for a Bradford constituency with a large Muslim population.) In the long chapters on his time at the Foreign Office in these memoirs he is very interesting on the genuine fear of nuclear war between India and Pakistan and the steps taken to avoid it, his keenness to negotiate with the moderates in Iran, the great efforts he made to facilitate Turkey’s admission to the EU, and his despair over the persistent diplomatic wrecking tactics in the Middle East of the alliance between the American neo-cons and Israeli hardliners – and the unwillingness of Tony Blair to take them on. On the Iraq War there is nothing in these pages that we have not already learned from his evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, or not already learned about his adeptness at – to use his own football metaphor – the ‘body swerve’ in handling uncomfortable criticism. A theme throughout these chapters is his close personal and policy rapport with his US counterpart Colin Powell.
Straw does not tell us much about the Foreign Office itself or the Diplomatic Service generally. However, there is a tantalizing reference to a group of its very senior members who called themselves the ‘Senators’ and made little secret of their disdain for mere politicians (p. 330). He also makes clear on more than one occasion (pp. 326, 468) how coveted was the position of foreign secretary among his senior colleagues in the Labour government. Already a heavyweight in Blair’s cabinet (he had previously been Home Secretary) and proceeding on the prevailing assumption that in 2001 he would take over John Prescott’s massive Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, when nevertheless Tony Blair told him that he had decided instead to make him foreign secretary, what was his immediate reaction? ‘“F*** me,” I said, and almost fell off my chair.’ Can anyone still take seriously the argument we used to hear that foreign ministries are doomed?