On Thursday 10th October, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw delivered a speech at the Temple of Peace, Cardiff, as part of the events celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Welsh Centre for International Affairs (WCIA). His talk, Last Man Standing: The Foreign Office Years, saw him recall his time as Foreign Secretary, a position he entered shortly before the September 11th attacks and involved him in the decisions to take action against Afghanistan and Iraq, consequently resulting in the ‘war on terror’.
Straw served in Cabinet from 1997 to 2010 under the successive Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. During this time he held an important and influential role in some of the most controversial and consequential decision-making known to modern politics. Prior to the talk, Martin Pollard, WCIA Chief Executive, spoke of how the speech would “be a great opportunity to hear from one of the key political figures of the last decade” and would be sure to result in “a lively debate, given the important and sometimes controversial decisions taken during Jack Straw’s time in government.”
Debate was well underway even before the speech had begun as a couple protesting outside the entrance of the Temple of Peace handed out ‘anti-Straw’ leaflets to those entering the building. One of the protesters, Anne Greagsby, dubbed Straw a ‘war criminal and liar’ of ‘no conscience or empathy’, pointing out the irony of how a speech so centred around war should be held in the Temple of Peace. She accused him of merely attending the speech in order to “flog his latest book and line his own pockets”, and upon entering, audience members were greeted with an almost apologetic-looking tabled lined with rows of Straw’s newest publication, Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor.
The speech opened with an introduction by Emyr Jones Parry, the current Chair of WCIA and former British representative of the UN. He offered a brief summary of the history of the WCIA, officially opened on 11th October 1973, and introduced Straw, whom Parry has known and worked with for many years, as a politician of, “longevity and experience.” Straw warmly opened the speech by joking about his Essex upbringing, but, considering the undoubtedly difficult questions that were to follow, appealed to the audience to bear in mind the context of foreign policy during the course of the talk and subsequent question and answer session.
The issue of political context was one that was to continually resurface throughout the evening, and Straw began his own introduction with an explanation of how he thought the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 led to a significant change in the direction of diplomacy in both the UK and France. He spoke of how France vowed never to be subordinate to the USA while the British government agreed to never leave itself isolated from them in the future, stating that, “Suez represents a seminal change in [Britain’s] sense of itself.” He then went on recall the USA’s alliance with the British government during its involvement in the Kosovo and Gulf Wars, and the uprisings in Sierra Leone, perhaps in an attempt to help explain the complexities of the UK’s relationship with the US to the audience.
The question and answer session began with Emyr Jones Parry interviewing the politician one on one, but was soon opened up to the audience. Unsurprisingly, the big question on everyone’s lips was what Straw thought of the decisions made concerning the British and US movement into Iraq and Afghanistan. Straw was at once unapologetic and again eager to emphasise the importance of context and the power of hindsight within foreign policy. He explained that the September 11th attacks caused the largest loss of life in mainland USA since the Civil War, and that this resulted in a country that saw themselves as “invincible’” to suddenly feel very vulnerable, hence their decision to go to war.
He then spoke of how he believed that the failure of the Iraqi regime resulted in the need for military action. He argued that ultimately “Saddam made the wrong choice” bringing up the question of morals, perhaps a touchy subject given his own controversial reputation. When questioned about the poor relationship that the British government and army now have with the Iraqi people, Straw put it down to a failure on the part of the US in not putting specific plans into action to help rebuild Iraq after the war. Quick to pass the blame, Straw ended with an interesting comparison. He remarked that when fighting the Nazis in the Second World War, the British government looked to take out the top layer of the opposition and ultimately won, however, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, smaller civil political figures were targeted, resulting in the current tension and dislike towards British troops and political figures within Iraq.
Straw’s answers to Emyr Jones Parry’s questions remained ambivalent and seemingly rehearsed, as issues such as Britain’s position in the EU and the prospect of future conflicts were raised. Straw was assertive in his insistence that “it would be crazy for the UK to leave the EU”, but was quick to criticise as he spoke of how he believes that the EU needs to expand its international trading partnerships and its own democratic values. He held the opinion that the Union must “stop interfering in minor matters”, the example he gave being their involvement in where E-cigarettes can and cannot be sold and, in his own words, has “never met a more detached group of union members”. Straw also spoke of the Arab Spring uprisings and how although the conflict in “Egypt and Syria was a tragedy, [it] allowed some democratic progression”. He supported the Libyan interventions and reasoned that “the quick collapse of Gaddafi’s regime proves how unstable it was”. When questioned about the possibility of future conflicts, Straw replied with how he remains “reasonably optimistic”, insisting that human rights and democracy are now more widely observed and that international law has greatly reduced the level of violent conflict in the modern world. Straw seemed to have a convincing but inconclusive reply to everything, until he was confronted by two members of the audience. The first was a man who had personally written to Straw about a group of his friends from Iraq who were actively anti-regime and received a typed response with Straw referring to himself in the third person. His anger was apparent when he asked Straw whether he was simply “a tool of the civil government or [indeed] a key acting figure”. Straw attempted to laugh this off, jokingly replying that “I don’t refer to myself in the third person, I know I’m complex but that would be too far,” and explained that he did not have time to personally reply to everyone who wrote to him. However, the resolutely unapologetic nature of his reply did seem a little brazen, perhaps hinting at a certain uncomfortable insecurity with being confronted so abruptly. The second instance in which the audience got a glimpse of an unscripted Straw was when a young woman who had recently spent the summer in Iraq and witnessed first-hand the aftermath of the war argued that, in her opinion, British forces had failed to successfully repatriate Iraqi refugees back into the country. Straw faltered and stumbled over his words, struggling to reach a clear point, hinting at the first display of an honest, unrehearsed answer, although in truth it appeared that he did not have one.
Despite his inconclusive replies, the talk revealed a warm and human side to Straw, humorous, witty and quick to laugh at himself despite the gravity and complexity of the questions being asked. Although his speech looked back over the entirety of his time as Foreign Secretary, the subject of Iraq and Afghanistan continued to return, with questions of war, terrorism and regret circling around the central speaker. His ultimate answer to whether he regrets taking military action against Iraq and Afghanistan was that, with the power of hindsight, he would have not gone to war, although if he was in the same position with the same facts now as he had then he would have made the same decision. Unclear and inconclusive, is Straw’s response merely an oxymoronic and ambivalent demonstration of carefully considered and scripted argument, or simply a case of an impossible answer to an impossible question? Once again, there are no clear conclusions but Straw’s talk clearly demonstrated the power of politics and the importance of free speech; an undeniably fitting celebration for the fortieth anniversary of the WCIA.
– News Writer