32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on 12 October 2012
I have read some biographies before but I am not a big biography geek. Nevertheless, I decided to give this one a try and I have to say overall I truly enjoyed it. It's a big book and I was worried at first it would take me a long time to finish, but once I got to the chapters on Jack Straw's ministerial adventures, I was captivated and without realising it, I was reading page after page. The first four chapters start with the author's childhood and the years he spent in NUS, ILEA and working as a researcher. They describe how he slowly started getting involved in politics from an early age and how his family drama and his troubles at school formed some of the opinions that shaped the rest of his life. These first chapters give a more human portrayal of his persona; as the reader, you no longer just view him as a minister in the cabinet who made important decisions, but also as an individual with an interesting story, a man who had a strange relationship with his father, ran away from school various times and went through the terrible experience of losing a baby. All these anecdotes eventually lead to the time when Jack became an MP and from that point onwards, his image reverts back to the what most of us will be familiar with.
His time as the Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary is also fascinating. As the story progresses, at times describing the passage of a bill and at other times indulging in some Labour party intrigue, I experienced mixed feelings, both of interest and frustration as I was getting drawn into the complexity and gravity of the events unfolding around him.
The story is set not so long ago and the events should still be fresh in people's minds, allowing them to rethink back to when they actually occurred. The book also brings an extra dimension by divulging the thoughts of one of the key members of the cabinet. I gained an interesting insight on what was happening behind the scenes at that time, particularly around the Iraqi war. Whilst I do not agree on a personal level with the decision, Jack Straw's comments on the Blair and Bush administrations are particularly captivating, evidencing the fact that nothing is ever what it seems from the outside
The last pages of the book are a commentary on modern Britain, where Jack Straw expresses his opinions on what reforms are needed for the Commons and what he would do if he were in charge. I would have personally preferred if he had ended the book by summarising what he's learned from his experiences and giving an account on what he feels are his most important achievements and failures.
Overall, I'd recommend the book. I think it's gripping, it's easy to read (even without knowing much about politics), entertaining and it even contains a bit of humour.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 29 October 2012
Despite being a life-long liberal democrat, Jack Straw is one of the few politicians that I trust. I therefore bought this book with high expectations and was not disappointed. What I did not expect was the degree of openness and welcome lack of the party line. Throughout it gave a balanced view giving credit to members of other parties where he felt it was due, including Margaret Thatcher. For anyone interested in what really happenned at the centre of politics over the last few decades it is an unmissable read. Mistakes are admitted and not glossed over - so unusual for a politician. As one disgusted by the 2nd Iraq war, his incisive defence of the original decision and demonisation of the failure of a few Americans to prepare for the aftermath and stopping everyone else, gave me much pause for thought. The detailed history of how he worked with people of all races and backgrounds does him great credit. I am not used to a political autobiography being a page turner but this is.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 10 December 2012
I have followed Jack Straw's career more closely than others because we attended the same school. I remember feeling strangely proud when he was appointed Foreign Secretary and later Justice Secretary. This stemmed from the realisation that we had sat on the same pews during school chapel, eaten lunch at the same tables, and since he had gone on to a life in politics, so too, perhaps, could I.
It is difficult to dislike Jack Straw. `I love politics, Parliament, my Blackburn constituency,' is Straw's first sentence in Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor. He has always been a reassuring figure, if perhaps a little dull. It is this intrinsic likeability that helps explain why he has been a political survivor.
Straw says the first rule of politics is to survive. He remained in top Cabinet posts throughout Labour's 13 years in government, including spells as Home then Foreign Secretary, Commons Leader and finally Lord Chancellor. He earned the nickname Rubber Jack, the Politician who remained intact whatever was thrown at him.
The big philosophical ideas of politics are not Straw's primary concern. He prefers to follow a crowd with his head down. Ahead of the 1959 election, aged 13, he wrote `to each of the main parties to ask for details of what they were intending to do.' Though his love of politics is clear, what drives him is less apparent.
For example, Straw has always been a Eurosceptic. In 1975, he helped organise the `No' campaign in the referendum on the Common Market. But when he was Foreign Secretary, Straw not only opposed a referendum, he advocated a European Constitution and described the EU as a `noble institution'. Straw was simply putting survival before belief. `What is the point in being in politics and not saying what you think?' Straw himself observes. This is a question he dodged whilst in office.
An absorbing aspect of Last Man Standing concerns Straw's troubled childhood. He grew up in Loughton, Essex, in a large but unhappy family. He notes, `I cannot recall any occasion where I witnessed any tenderness between our parents.' His father was violent with Straw's mother and sister, and, in turn, was beaten by Straw's uncle. When Straw was nine, he discovered his father attempting suicide. His parents divorced soon after. Straw was then sent to board at Brentwood School. He was so unhappy there that he ran away three times in one week.
Later, Straw's first wife developed anorexia and their child died at six days old. Straw himself suffered tinnitus after an ear infection. In the early Eighties, he sank into serious depression `accompanied by terrible nightmares.' He underwent psychoanalysis, twice a week for ten years. `For all my apparent success, I'd always been prone to impostor syndrome and felt that what I had achieved was bound to be taken away from me,' he writes.
I wanted to know who Jack Straw really is, coupled with a good dose of scandal. But beyond his unhappiness at boarding school, there is little about Straw the man. He remains reserved, his feelings buried.
He does, however, give great insight into life as a Cabinet Minister. We learn what the Private Office is like, the Ministerial car drivers, and the role of Cabinet Committees. We also find occasional humorous details about colleagues. The floor of Mo Mowlam's office `was littered with her underwear' and `if you were unlucky [she would] suddenly decide in the middle of a conversation to change some of it'. Tony Blair had `a clean-shoe fetish', `the most extensive shoe-cleaning kit I'd ever seen'. Straw even displays admiration for Ann Widdecombe, `a woman possessed...a terrier with my ankles in her jaw.'
The autobiography's section on Iraq is disappointing. Straw's explanation of how he reached his decision to support the invasion is unconvincing. There is little about the thought processes that led Straw, whose father had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War, to support this controversial engagement. This is all the more frustrating because Straw - the man of details - would undoubtedly have sensed that the invasion was flawed.
Perhaps there were no thought processes. Straw is a reactive politician, not a reflective one. There has always been a lack of passion in his politics. By his own admission, due to his difficult childhood, he has always tended to bury his feelings. Unfortunately for the reader, Straw's memoirs are in a similar style.
According to Straw, Tony Blair encouraged him to stand for the Labour leadership. `I had thought about it quite a bit,' he writes. `I reckoned that I could do much of the job. I could certainly have run the government properly. But I wasn't sure I could do it all.'
Straw writes that Gordon Brown did not have the necessary qualities to be Prime Minister, and that Brown himself quickly realised this. But Straw calculated that Brown, who was `consumed by this one ambition', would win the leadership, even if he did stand. Once again, Straw's focus was political survival, not political glory. There was no room for passion in his politics.
Though it does not offer any great revelations, Last Man Standing is eminently readable. It is engaging and often humorous. Straw was Labour's safe pair of hands. He was not a big picture man. He survived due to his ability to bury his feelings, his likeability, and his role as the consummate anorak.
One can't help expecting more from Straw, clearly a decent man, particularly over issues such as Iraq and extraordinary rendition. Straw preaches that a politician should say what he thinks, but rarely did he do this in practice. His silence and lack of passion can be frustrating, but Last Man Standing does throw a little light on why Straw is the man he is.
Straw played the political game well, without necessarily winning it. Then again, that was never his aim.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I ordered this book from Amazon.com back in August, but, since it never seemed to arrive, I finally ordered it directly from Amazon.co.uk. It arrived promptly. Even with the extra foreign shipping costs, it was definitely worth the wait!
I read "Last Man Standing" because I am addicted to British politics (thanks to BBC Democracy Live and the UK Parliament website). I was especially interested in learning what a minister actually does during the course of his day. From Mr Straw's account of his thirteen years of juggling the ball of world events and, at the same time, managing his Blackburn constituency, I am impressed both with his energy and with his equanimity, particularly in navigating what I gather were sometimes treacherous political waters. I say 'gather', because Mr Straw is properly reticent on such matters. Those looking for sensational revelations about the Blair-Brown years will have to go elsewhere.
Mr Straw laces his memoir with frequent and often self-deprecating applications of keen wit. His compelling account of his childhood in Essex (one doesn't often read about an 'ordinary' child and future politician who has not attended public school) represents the perfect prelude for a career that eventually finds him wearing the knee breeches and heavy gold-braided robes of the Lord Chancellor (His choosing to do away with the "full bottom wig" seems especially apropos). Despite what must be the official restrictions on what he can tell us, Mr Straw gives his readers an intriguing glimpse of his career as both Home and Foreign Secretary as well as Leader of the House of Commons.
My overall impression gleaned from the narrative is that Jack Straw is an incredibly *nice* man. I enjoyed reading his political autobiography immensely.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Jack Straw states in his introduction that he wrote every word of this book himself, and I must say that in doing so he has created a fascinating account of his life and of high office, particularly as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. He deals much less with the internal machinations of the last government than most other key players have done in their accounts , although that is covered particularly in relation to the Gordon Brown premiership. Instead Jack Straw gives the reader a real feel for what it is like to hold senior cabinet office and to live in the goldfish ball of modern media coverage. Self deprecating, full of dry humour, and fascinating in its account of some of the major events of the last 20 years or so, this is one of the best books by a politician I have ever read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 31 January 2013
I really did enjoy book. I have always rated JS as an honest and straightforward man, given that at times, because of the positions he was in it was necessary to be cautious and these aspects of his character came through, particularly his graciousness, in the autobiography. I was impressed that he said few bad things about anyone which made his quite mild comments about John Bolton all the more condemnatory. All in all, reading this enhanced my view of politicians and of the non-simple problems they face.