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EDITIONS
Thursday, 17 October, 2002, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
Jack Straw
Jack Straw
The Foreign Secretary arrived back in London from Washington. As he faces question after question on the so-called war on terror and Iraq, there are some who'd like to ask more historical questions.

In particular what precisely did he do for the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, twenty five years ago?

Newsnight has obtained a tape recording in which Mr Wilson says that if what he'd been up to got out, Jack Straw thought he'd be finished. Michael Crick reported.

MICHAEL CRICK:
The late '70's were an extraordinary time in British politics, with the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson alleging MI5 had plotted to undermine him. A shot dog on Dartmoor, and the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe accused of attempted murder. Amidst all this, there's growing mystery about the role played by a former student leader turned ministerial adviser Jack Straw, especially now it's emerged Wilson tried to keep Straw's name out of the headlines.

HAROLD WILSON:
Look, I Saw Jack Straw, he's very worried if he were mentioned in this context, he thinks he'll be finished.

CRICK:
That recording of Harold Wilson was unearthed a few days ago here at the Kent home of the investigative journalist Barry Penrose, who during the mid 1970's spent some time investigating Harold Wilson and allegations of MI5 plots against him. But today, almost 30 years on, it raises serious questions about the behaviour of one of our senior politicians. One night in May 1976, five weeks after Harold Wilson resigned as PM, Barrie Penrose and a BBC colleague Roger Courtiour received an astonishing summons to go see him. The allegations Wilson made to them and the journalists' subsequent investigations would throw up a huge archive of papers and tapes, which have lain neglected and almost forgotten until now. Wilson's meeting with the two young reporters took place at his Westminster home, 5 Lord North Street, where he'd lived as Prime Minister instead of in Downing Street.

BARRIE PENROSE:
We arrived at Lord North Street and Wilson opened the door and said, "Come inside. I've got something important to tell you." I'd not met Wilson before so we sat down and he gave us a drink. He said, "Democracy's at risk. Right wing elements in MI5 have been trying to topple me, smear me." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "What you should be doing is looking at, for example, Norman Scott." Norman Scott was a male model who, in the public imagination, became almost entwined with Jeremy Thorpe the Liberal Leader. What he said was the way to expose the MI5 plot could be done by looking at Norman Scott's social security files, some of which had gone missing, so off we went and did his bidding.

CRICK:
By the mid-70s, Jeremy Thorpe was leading a Liberal revival as his party reached six million votes and came close to holding the balance of power. But behind the scenes, details of his homosexual affair with Norman Scott were leaking out, partly from clues in Scott's social security records. In pursuing Wilson's concerns over the missing Scott files, Barrie Penrose went to the home of an adviser to the former Social Services Secretary, Barbara Castle.

PENROSE:
Harold Wilson said, "Go see Jack Straw. He'll tell you everything about the missing files and Norman Scott", and so we did, and we came here and banged on the door. Jack Straw came to the door came out there. There he was, I remember, wearing cords and sandals. He looked uneasy but he invited us inside, so we went upstairs to the first room there. We sat down but he didn't and paced the room and then we said to him, "What can you tell us about a missing file belonging to Norman Scott?" And he said, "I know nothing about a missing file." He clearly did. His face showed that. He was distraught. We pressed the point, "What do you know about the missing file?" He said, "I know about it, but I can't tell you because of the Official Secrets Act."

CRICK:
Today, a senior minister and no longer in sandals, Jack Straw admits he did read Norman Scott's social security file, but only on the orders of Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle. Castle said in her diary that Wilson wanted Straw to find out whether Norman Scott was part of a conspiracy against Jeremy Thorpe. But Straw was clearly nervous about the enquiries by Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour, perhaps because MI5 had been investigating who leaked details of Scott's file to the press, though no-one suggests it was Straw. By the end of 1976, Straw seemed even more worried, having been fingerprinted by the police in a second enquiry over a leak on Child Benefit, and who leaked sensitive Cabinet papers. Harold Wilson telephoned, which was unusual because he'd said, "Don't use the phones. They're all bugged by MI5". Well I pressed the button on my tape and this is what he said it was about Jack Straw.

HAROLD WILSON:
Look, I saw Jack Straw. He's very worried. His name should not appear. All you need to say is that the Prime Minister, or Harold Wilson, or however you like to describe me, called for, you know, asked for it to be done. The point is that Jack is so much under suspicion for the Child Benefit leak. Everybody thinks he did it, and if it were mention in the context, even thought it were under Prime Ministerial direction, he thinks he'll be finished.

CRICK:
They did keep Straw's name out of it and he flourished. Foreign Secretary Straw says he has no recollection of talking to Wilson about the matter. Straw's lawyer says he did nothing improper in examining the Scott file and his involvement was innocent. A rather different story is told by Joe Haines, the Alastair Campbell of Wilson's government. In a forthcoming book, he says Wilson began worrying about Jeremy Thorpe the day after the February 1974 election and whether he'd back the Tory Leader Edward Heath in an anti-Labour coalition. As the Liberal leader went to see Heath in Downing Street, Wilson spoke of exposing Thorpe's homosexuality to wreck any deal, but the talks fell through anyway. Haines says even after that, Wilson wanted Jack Straw to find ammunition from Scott's social security files to stop any future talk of Thorpe backing Heath.

JOE HAINES:
The only reason he wanted those files was if there was an attempt to revive the Heath-Thorpe coalition, then he'd have had the weapon in his hand to destroy it, because Thorpe's alliance with Norman Scott was unknown, and the public didn't take such a relaxed attitude towards homosexual affairs as they might do today.

CRICK:
Straw says it's "fantasy" that he read Scott's files to smear Thorpe. But whatever the motivation, a political adviser examining someone's social security records is highly unorthodox, says the Tory who opposed Barbara Castle at the time.

LORD FOWLER:
If it was for party political purposes, I don't think there would be a precedent for that.

CRICK:
Do you think it was unacceptable behaviour?

FOWLER:
If it was for party political purposes, yes, of course it is. I was Social Security Secretary for six years. I don't think anything like that took place in that time, and I think had we been presented with such a request, which we were not, we would have acceded to it. That's the case that has to be answered either by Mr Straw or by other people.

HAINES:
It's improper. It has to be. These are private records held by a Government department for one purpose:
social security benefits, and its being used for a political purpose. It would be equally wrong to take somebody's income tax papers for a political purpose.

CRICK:
What of the man whose files seem to have been leaked, gone missing and undergone close scrutiny by a future Foreign Secretary? I went down to see Norman Scott at his house on the edge of Dartmoor, where he expressed bewilderment and anger at the confirmation of Jack Straw's involvement.

NORMAN SCOTT:
I'm appalled. I can't understand why my files should have been taken. I have taken legal action and my solicitor has presented it all to the barrister who is trying to work out my best course of action, because it shouldn't be allowed.

CRICK:
Did he have permission to look at your file?

SCOTT:
Absolutely no. I didn't know the man. I gave no permission.

CRICK:
I then played Scott the recording of that familiar Yorkshire voice begging Barrie Penrose to keep Jack Straw's name out of it.

WILSON:
'I saw Jack Straw. He is very worried.'

CRICK:
We've just played you the tape of Harold Wilson talking to the journalist Barrie Penrose. What do you make of that tape?

SCOTT:
Extraordinary that the Prime Minister of the day should've asked a minor civil servant to do this, and then the minor civil servant is concerned that he's taken the file. It's weird.

CRICK:
And clearly Mr Straw was rather worried that his name might get out having done this.

SCOTT:
Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. It just beggars belief.

CRICK:
Unless Norman Scott's lawyers decide it's worth going to court, the strange tale of Jack Straw and Scott's social security files is likely to be remain a historical mystery. Mr Straw's office told us today he's giving no interviews on this. He doesn't believe confidentiality rules were broken, and in any case, he says, responsibility lay not with him, but with his bosses at the time.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

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 ON THIS STORY
Newsnight's Michael Crick
"it's emerged Wilson tried to keep Straw's name out of the headlines"
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