This profile of Jack Straw, President of the National Union of Students, appeared in Guild Gazette on 30 June 1970:
The noble art of double think – or, how to become a latter-day Machiavelli
Jack Straw has been variously described as the students’ Harold Wilson, a left-wing militant, a saviour, an atom-age leader, a compromiser, a chinless wonder, and a half-baked booby! Strong words to describe the President of the National Union of Students, our man at the top, representing us at national level, and incidentally entering his second year of office, being re-elected last Easter. Who is the man and what has he done whilst in office?
Some say the answer to both questions is nothing.
Born in Essex, Straw was left head of the household at the age of eleven when his parents were divorced. This gave him the maturity (and the insecurity) of his ambition. Straw says of his home, ‘the family thought it to be a sin to be a Conservative or a Communist – it was part of the conventional wisdom of us all,’ and at the age of 12 he was to be found pleading for the aged at a Labour Party meeting, being introduced as a ‘future Prime Minister.’ Ominous indeed!
He went to Brentwood Public School, at first running away but later capitulating to become deputy head boy. Choosing law, he entered Leeds University in 1964 and in his first term he was, to quote a contemporary, ”a radical pacifist.” By the end of his first year he had been elected Union Secretary, and by the end of his second Vice-President. However, his burning ambition was not to be quenched and during his second year he entered the NUS bureaucracy for the first time. He threw himself into the petty constitutional squabbles rife at the November 1966 conference, with unbounded enthusiasm, and with the help of the Communist Party, Young Liberal and Radical Students’ Alliance, Straw got himself elected on to the NUS Structural Commission. This Commission effectively rewrote the NUS constitution, providing Straw with an intimate knowledge of its intricacies and sharpening those necessary bureaucratic skills and providing him with a firm basis for future manipulation.
Straw says his election successes have “always genuinely surprised me” but his early successes at Leeds are far from the luck of the draw that he would make believe they are.
At Leeds he came under the influence of Alan Hunt, a leading and powerful member of a Communist Party group. This group was involved in bureaucratic politics to the extent of gaining control of Union committees, particularly those with access to the NUS. With all the skill of an aspiring president, Straw rose to power through the Communist group; his appeal being then, as it is now, bureaucratic administrative competence, with the white heat of its Wilsonian pragmatism. Straw was realist enough to also acquire the backing of the right wing. Naturally Straw is very reticent concerning his Communist connections, referring to a “general left movement that had existed in Leeds since 1960, which I came in on”.
In February 1967 Straw became President of Leeds but a year later, at Easter 1968, he made his first blunder – with two months to go as President at Leeds he failed to gain Presidency of the NUS against Trevor Fisk, who later proved to be a disaster to the NUS, being completely out of touch with students.
Straw, undaunted as ever, took on the dud job of Vice-President, having failed to gain credibility. He still had to prove he was not a puppet in the hands of the militants and extremists.
In May 1968 the wonder boy was given his chance to establish credit over the ”Mrs Patrick Wall incident”. Patrick Wall, a Powellite Tory Member of Parliament, addressed a meeting at Leeds, and when he and his wife left at the end they were forced to make their way through students protesting about Wall’s presence on the campus. The event was reported by the Yorkshire Post under the headline ”M.P’s wife kicked to the ground and trampled on.” From the Warwick files, a memo from Leeds’ V-C Stevens to other V-C’s gives a more accurate picture … “there was a lie-in on the steps of the refectory. Someone spat at Mr Wall, and Mrs Wall fell and tore her clothing when a ‘lier-in’ raised his legs. The incident was widely and adversely publicised and both the Vice-Chancellor and the Union (acting mutually in concert) decided to hold enquiries. Those charged with offences by the latter were brought, under established procedures, before a Union tribunal, which levied fines of up to £5 on five people.”
Thus Straw, hand in hand with the Vice-Chancellor, took action against fellow-students for raising their legs against Mrs Wall while they were lying down. In effect, he carried out the authorities dirty work for them; though he now says it was his ”distasteful duty” and that the “executive prosecuting ensured impartiality.”
Straw isolated and deprived the students concerned of the organised force of the Union to defend them against the authorities, and failed to challenge the authorities to take action themselves against militant opposition to Powellism.
And, of course, Jack Straw, late of the Communists, had demonstrated he was no longer their tool nor a hot-headed student militant; effectively removing any red smears and ingratiating himself with the right wing.
The Machiavellian machinations of Straw were to be further demonstrated when there was an occupation at Leeds over the discovery that a University Security Officer was a political spy and Straw, unable to stop it, changed his political coat again and actually led the occupation with students he had previously levied fines on for similar tactics. It is no wonder he i s remembered at Leeds with some bitterness as an opportunist.
Referring again to Leeds V-C Stevens’ memo found at Warwick, this can be clearly seen and was so even by the authorities: “Until a late stage there appeared to be an extremist element in the student body and a moderating influence in the Union Executive. Virtually without warning the latter donned the former’s clothing almost overnight. The President, Mr Jack Straw, is Vice-President-elect of the NUS and has a radical background. It no doubt suited the NUS to show that they too could stage a demonstration on a plausible issue; equally it may have suited Mr Straw to show his NUS colleagues what a good operator he was. The whole affair was well-controlled and brilliantly directed, to a point where it may have escaped the attention of the students that no single concession was wrung from the University as a result of the sit-in. ”
And that is Straw – for all his connivance and twisting he failed to achieve anything except to gain further credit for himself. Like a good politician he is all words and little action. His admitted reaction to Stevens’ letter was one of “being highly amused by it – I mean you can’t expect anything else because it was a very funny letter.” He created the image of a ”man of the people,” enthusiastic and militant, proving to the NUS he was a good operator whilst maintaining by the skin of his teeth his leftist image. On April 9th Straw became President of the NUS, and while the press hailed him as “rebel Jack” a more perceptive journalist, Brian McArthur, of The Times, commented: ”His election to the Presidency may look like a victory to student militants, but don’t be fooled. Straw is as cool as the rest . . . . Both Straw and Fisk are establishment figures, smooth and experienced student politicians.”
McArthur showed how Straw used various elements on the left to further his own political ambitions; how he had, like the opportunist he was, judged the changing nature of student politics-the need for a strong play to the left in elections and to the right after them.
Straw does differ significantly from recent Presidents in that he aims to positively organise students with a distinctive student ideology and integrate us into British political life, but under the wing, it would appear, of the Labour Party. He sees that the new mood of students reflective of the social change in the student age-group has to be contained in new ways and no longer does the NUS President condemn student militancy or red-baiting; he only condemns specific actions selectively, always placing emphasis on ”unity”. It is almost a NUS ‘seal of approval’ bestowed or withheld from sit-ins and demonstrations, but it doesn’t really mean much.
Straw said that he might call a national strike following the disciplinary proceedings here, but he later changed this to “phoning strategic and important universities urging support”. He threatened a national strike over the Manchester sit-in but nothing transpired and this is the sad story of Mr Straw’s life. He condemned both the initial action of the Warwick students as well as the files they found! He condemns students for not keeping to his four points based on peaceful action, yet how can he do so when they uncover things which he also condemns? The po~itics of the
The three ”positive” moves of Straw have, failed to become concrete. The Consultancy Units Scheme to advise students on the merits of their grievances, the report by NUS and the National Council for Civil Liberties on academic freedom and the legal position of students is already six months overdue, and a field officer has yet to be appointed to supervise the Community Service Campaign.
David Widgery in Student Power has noted that ”The politics of the NUS are about as exciting as an ashtray”. Straw has failed to make NUS what it should be – an active leader of the student movement fighting for its rights and prepared to go to any lengths to secure our demands. He is allowing criticism within universities to be stifled and is seeing the results as university after university considers disaffiliation – even we did in 1967. It may be unlucky for Straw that he is at the latter stages of a general trend of dissatisfaction with NUS that has been increasing for some years.
However, Jack Straw cannot be forgiven for bringing his politics of doublethink to the NUS and maintaining his position of power by being a noncommital compromiser.