Jack Straw - Washington interview

Reflecting on his time as British Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary, Jack Straw spoke to the IBA’s Director of Content, James Lewis, about Brexit negotiations, the legacy of the Iraq War and controversial surveillance powers.

James Lewis (JL): Let’s start with Brexit. We’ve had two referenda about whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union project. In 1975 you campaigned for Leave; in 2016 you campaigned for Remain. What changed in the interim?

Jack Straw (JS): What changed was this: in 1975, I thought we had a real option about whether we should join what was then the Common Market. We’d been in it for 18 months and leaving would have been very straightforward because nothing much had happened during that time and I didn’t think that joining the European Union and the disruption it would cause to our trade patterns was in our interests.

There was also a fear expressed at the time that this really rather modest customs union – at that stage it was going to be no more than nine Western European countries – would over time take all sorts of powers away from the sovereign British parliament.

In the 1980s, I came to see the merits of the EU and that leaving it then would cause far more disruption. I also saw, if you like, the nobility of the EU, which has replaced war with reason and authoritarianism with democracy. It has been incredibly successful in bringing those Eastern European countries and countries which had previously been under fascist rule – Spain, Portugal and Greece – into the democratic fold.

The EU needs to move away from an absolute policy of free movement because the facts on the ground have changed, and the EU needs to change with them

The problem today is that it’s taken this idea of ever-closer union too far and that has included the euro, which is a folie de grandeur if ever there was one and encroachment on sovereign parliaments. All that said, I worked passionately hard for a Remain vote in June this year, but we lost.

JL: What were the key factors behind the majority of the British people voting for Leave?

JS: The EU has palpably not been a success in recent years. Look at unemployment: UK unemployment is under five per cent, but in the eurozone it’s above ten per cent. It’s sclerotic.

The second thing is that the Leave campaign made a lot of the EU being run by a bureaucratic elite which is unaccountable. And every time the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, opened his mouth during the campaign, the Remain campaign lost votes – his lethal contributions appeared to be everything that people in the UK said about unelected senior bureaucrats.

The other thing that tipped the vote was migration and fear of the other. The announcement just a few weeks before polling that there’d been a record net inward migration of 330,000 into the UK in the previous period made it a toxic issue. So it all came together and led to this sense that the EU was out of control; that the UK wasn’t able to control its destiny.

JL: You mention migration. You’ve said that when you were in government in 2004, you got immigration badly wrong, particularly in relation to the influx of people from Eastern Europe. I think you used the phrase ‘a spectacular mistake’. What would getting it right look like?

JS: When the eight Eastern European countries came into the EU in 2004, there was a question about whether [member states] should continue the default setting of transitional restrictions against inward migration, or lift them. For political and economic reasons, we thought there was a good case for allowing the Poles and the Latvians and so on unrestricted access to our labour market.

Careful research suggested that, if we did so, net migration would only be 13,000 a year. But it turned out to be at least ten times that. So, we made a huge policy error. We were wrong because of the strength of the British economy, the hunger for labour inside the economy and the fact that the other economies weren’t doing all that well.

So what does a good migration policy look like? I think, given the Brexit vote, it has to be one that the British people feel they can control. However – and this is at the heart of what Brexit will be – more control means restriction. If control means very severe restrictions on migration from Europe, then that reduces the prospects of the UK maintaining any access to the single market.

My view is that the EU needs to move away from an absolute policy of free movement because the facts on the ground have changed and the EU needs to change with them. There’s a lot of demand for that in many member states, but people like Jean-Claude Juncker are determined to try and punish the UK and drive the hardest bargain possible, thinking it might dissuade other countries from having referenda and from voting to leave the EU too.

I think it’s a ludicrous tactic. It’s more likely to generate the kind of resentment we saw in Britain against the elite in countries like the Netherlands and France, to name two, which are  now quite close to having referenda.

JL: Another key issue from Brexit is trade. You’ve held the position of Foreign Secretary: what’s your advice to the UK government as they negotiate the terms?

JS: My advice would be to not make any premature statements of any substance. You can’t negotiate in the public forum if you want negotiations to be successful. You’ve got to be really alive to the fact you’re working in a multidimensional way, and if you do X, then Y could happen.

On anything other than immediate neighbourhood issues, Europe has never had a foreign policy. It’s just a myth

It’s in the UK’s interest to join a free trade area in the single market. I don’t think continued membership of the customs union would be compatible with the Brexit vote: if we were to continue within the EU customs union as well as parts of the single market, we would lose all negotiating right in terms of negotiating trade deals with third parties. We would essentially be back where we started as members of the EU in terms of obligations, but without any of the rights that go with that.

JL: You’ve said that Brexit will weaken the UK economy. In what ways?

JS: We’ve already seen a downgrading of growth forecasts, but the economy has been in better shape than many anticipated in three months since the Brexit vote. That’s partly because of measures that have been put in place by the Bank of England. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that even if we stay out of recession, growth in the UK will be less than it would otherwise have been.

The big problem is this: there is uncertainty about what Brexit means. Nobody knows how these negotiations will settle. They partly depend on a complete unknown, which is the results of the German and French general elections in 2017 and whether we get a Republican or Democrat President in the US. If there’s a greater a level of risk, there’ll be fewer positive investment decisions.

There have been upsides for some companies: the decline in the value of the pound against major currencies, particularly the dollar and the euro, has made exporting easier and import substitution in the UK is also easier. But gone are the days when goods marked ‘Made in Britain’ were entirely made in Britain, or goods marked ‘Made in France’ entirely made in France and so on. There’s such an interdependence in terms of supply chains.

JL: In terms of global priorities, what’s the impact of Brexit on things like relations with Russia and North Korea?

A mounted policeman leads a group of migrants near Dobova, Slovenia.

JS: There’s no doubt that one person who was willing Brexit was President Putin, because he’s hoping to break up the consensus on sanctions within the EU against Russia. If Britain is outside the foreign policy council decision-making process, obviously Britain’s hawkishness will no longer offset those like Italy, Austria and many other countries, who want to say ‘let’s just recognise the reality of Crimea and try and sort out Ukraine over time’. So I think that Brexit, in terms of a very crude balance of power, helps increase Russian influence within the EU indirectly.

With North Korea, I don’t think it makes any difference. On anything other than immediate neighbourhood issues, Europe has never had a foreign policy. It’s just a myth. On matters which directly affect the continent, it does. But beyond that, a European foreign policy is frankly code for those occasions when France, Germany and the UK agree, because it’s only those three countries which have any global diplomatic reach and defence forces worthy of the name.

JL: On security more generally, I think you suggested prior to the referendum that the UK’s security would be diminished with Brexit. Is that really the case, given the membership of the United Nations Security Council and NATO?

JS: If the balance of advantage moves to Russia, that makes for some security problems. We need to have good relations with Russia, but we also need to take account of the pressures which are leading to Russia being more authoritarian, spending an astonishing amount of its gross domestic product on armaments and deploying new troops.

JL: Aren’t those dealt with through NATO?

JS: For sure, the ultimate protector is NATO, but defence and foreign policy are two sides of the same coin. In terms of balancing the risk, Brexit has made the world and the UK a slightly riskier place because there’s a greater number of uncertainties. And what Brexit may also do is be a catalyst for dealing with some inherent tensions inside the EU.

JL: Moving on to the Iraq War. You’ve had plenty of time to reflect and have seen the consequences of the war – the rise of ISIS, the massive instability in the country and the region as well as the findings of the recent Chilcot Inquiry. Do you still think military action in Iraq was the right thing to do?

Brexit has made the world and the UK a slightly riskier place because there’s a greater number of uncertainties

JS: I did at the time and that it was rational. It’s a very heavy responsibility. Had I known at the time what we found out subsequently, particularly and above all that there were no disclosable holdings of weapons of mass destruction because Saddam Hussein seemed to have disposed of them, then there wouldn’t have been a case for war. But the if-only-buts of history are many. The crucial issue is whether we made an honourable decision on the basis of the best available evidence. 

Saddam [at one point did] have a fully working nuclear weapons programme and the most extensive chemical and biological weapons, systems, programmes and stock. If there had not been military action, then once the inspectors had cleared off and the international consensus had dissolved, Saddam would have decided to quietly rebuild his stocks.

JL: You’ve spoken about the difficulty of making the right decision. The other key piece of information is of course, the legal advice. The Chilcot report covered that extensively. Do you feel now that you were given the right legal advice?

JS: I’ve said in my evidence to Chilcot that it would have been better if the UK Attorney General had been in a position to say military action would not be lawful some weeks before. If he’d said it was going to be unlawful, that would have been the end of it, but if he said it would be lawful, then there could have been a far better singular focus on whether it was justified or not. The two became wrapped around the same axle.

JL: Is the position of UK Attorney General inherently problematic? They’re in the Cabinet as a decision-maker, but also being asked to give independent legal advice.

JS: No. At this level, there is no such thing as a value-free piece of legal advice or legal decision-making. And on this issue, people’s legal opinions were, almost without exception, informed by their political views.

The Attorney General came to his own decision. He could have come to a different one. These decisions are lonely. I know that, having been Home Secretary and making equivalent quasi-legal decisions on extraditions for example. You do your best, but in the end you come to a view.

JL: Moving on to some of the big issues you dealt with as Home Secretary. You introduced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). Given the Edward Snowden revelations about surveillance and the issues around the UK Government Communications HQ (GCHQ) sharing information with US security services, do you think intrusion into people’s private lives has gone too far in the name of security?

JS: No, I don’t and the same people who naively or maliciously alleged this are also the first to cry, ‘where were the police?’; ‘where were the intelligence agencies?’, when there’s apparently been an intelligence failure and a subsequent terrorist incident.

I’m much more worried about people like Snowden or about big IT companies like Google having access to my data –our data –and it being misused, than I am about properly regulated intelligence agencies like GCHQ and the police having access to data in a very controlled way.

The imperatives and pressure on the intelligence services to protect the security and economic wellbeing of the state and the people of the UK is huge. That’s what they’re there for. So the powers that were introduced in RIPA were entirely proportionate. They’ve had to be developed since because of very significant changes in IT and so on in the 20 years since the basic principles of RIPA were put together.

JL: Do you think that lack of judicial oversight of requests for intrusion into people’s private communications was a misstep originally? I know it’s been rectified now, hasn’t it?

JS: It’s being rectified. It’s a different issue when it comes to intercept for ordinary serious crime. But when it’s national security, I think the decision-maker needs to be a senior officer. It’s not possible within our system for a Secretary of State even to be able to put out a warrant and intercept communications of somebody inappropriately. There’s no way it can be done.

When I first became Home Secretary, I was asked to sign a warrant to tap somebody’s telephone, which I approved. But I wanted to see what happened and who then was controlling the decisions that were made, so I knew how possible it would be to tap a phone just because we felt like it. It’s virtually impossible.