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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 9 July, 2002, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Straw sticks to safety first
Jack Straw with BBC News Online's Mark Davies
Jack Straw fields questions in his stately office

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw talks to BBC News Online about global trouble-spots, his pride in the Labour government and Conservative failings.
Jack Straw is a man who looks pretty pleased with himself.

This was the minister who in last year's post-election reshuffle was expected to be handed the poisoned chalice of dealing with the UK's creaking railways and clogged-up roads.

Jack Straw
Our man at the foreign office
Instead, he ended up with what must be the best office in Whitehall, a hotline to Washington and daily contact with European counterparts whose names he rolls around his tongue with relish.

This is a man who clearly loves his job, who thrives on UN resolutions, the huge scope for bilateral frameworks and the fine print of partnership agreements.

He probably didn't expect to get it, so now he's really making the most of it. I ask what the hardest part of the role is.

Challenge

"It's a very good job," he says. "It was harder in the home office. Much more personal, you were blamed much more.

"One of the greatest challenges is just managing to get into every day all the conflicting demands and that's hard in a kind of second string way."

Generally speaking, Mr Straw is one of the government's safest pair of hands. There has been the occasional flirtation with a gaffe or two, but nothing compared to those ministers for whom the temptation to say something indiscreet is irresistible.

But nor is the foreign secretary one of the grey Blairite automatons. His manner is brisk but genial: he rebuffs invitations to be drawn into dangerous territory with a sense of grace.

He also fidgets a little and at one point jumps up to grab an atlas from a nearby table in his huge, ornate office to make a point about Kashmir.

Each question tends to bounce back into my court pretty quickly. Nothing really sticks.

Not that he doesn't have some important messages about all the pressing matters facing UK foreign policy.

'Chill out'

There is guarded hope over Kashmir, some backing for the idea of an interim state of Palestine ahead of a full deal and a determination to "fight the cynicism" which he says has entered some parts of UK politics.

The prime minister's relationship with President Bush is very deep, one based on trust and mutual respect

Jack Straw
He is also keen to encourage those who question the solidity of the US-UK relationship - and that between the US and the EU - amid a series of disagreements to "chill out" and, frankly, stop being so "over-sensitive and twitchy".

He says people forget the sheer size of the US - three times bigger than Germany, half a continent and with a GDP which is between eight and 10 times any other individual country.

"They are bound as it were to be more introspective but they are no more introspective in practice than we are in Europe," Mr Straw says.

"Sometimes we have arguments and the issue and the test of the relationship is not whether there are going to be differences but how you resolve those.

"We just need to, in a sense, chill out," he says.

'Very deep'

Some have said current US-UK relations represent the most serious diplomatic challenge facing the UK.

Bush and Blair
People should "chill out" over differences of opinion between the US and UK
"I don't really think that is true," says Mr Straw. "The prime minister's relationship with President Bush is very deep, one based on trust and mutual respect.

"I have got the most straightforward relationship with Colin Powell and I think that is true on every level so I don't accept that."

As for US foreign policy, Mr Straw hails the "very constructive approach" to aid for Africa at the recent G8 summit to reject the suggestion that the war on terror is President Bush's sole concern overseas.

But he adds: "There are plain threats to the security of the world from a number of countries who are developing weapons of mass destruction."

Obligations

So pre-emptive action in such cases would be acceptable?

"I am not going to get into anticipatory discussions - the Americans so far have shown that they act assiduously in accordance with international law."

So nothing has changed in terms of Iraq; international law will prevail?

"The ball is very much in the court of Iraq. They are under injunctions of 27 different requirements on them in nine separate UN security council resolutions.

"They have only met bits of a couple. They have 23 outstanding obligations on them. It's up to them to implement them. If they were to the argument for military action would to a large extent move away."

Progress

Mr Straw's next trip, after a key meeting on the future of Gibraltar, is back to India and Pakistan to discuss Kashmir.

There are for sure legacies of Britain's colonial past all over the world in which we deal

Jack Straw
He says some progress is being made on verifying whether cross-border incursions by terrorists are continuing in the region.

And yes, there may come a time when, with a ceasefire, Indian and Pakistani consent and in a "benign environment," there could be a role for more international observers in the region.

He accepts that the crisis is one which owes a great deal to the legacy of the UK's role at the time of partition.

"There are for sure legacies of Britain's colonial past all over the world in which we deal," he says.

Hint

"Some are good and some are not so good. The legacy of Kashmir is in the category of being not so good."

"It is a desperately vicious spiral they are trapped in caused in the immediate past by this rising crescendo of suicide bombings

Jack Straw
In terms of the Middle East, the foreign secretary sees much to commend the idea of creating an interim state of Palestine as part of a pathway to peace.

"There is now an international acceptance for the principle of a two-state solution, a secure state of Israel alongside a viable state of Palestine," he says.

"One way of putting that into practice is to do what President Bush hinted at in his speech of a fortnight ago in which he talked about this state and then said there could be a transitional state of Palestine.

"But you would have to have very clear timelines if you are going to do that for deciding on the final borders and dealing with things like refugees and settlements."

'Vicious spiral'

The difficulty is building confidence among two sides who are simply terrified of each other, he says.

"It is a desperately vicious spiral they are trapped in caused in the immediate past by this rising crescendo of suicide bombings.

"What we have to do is work with the international community to move out of this terrible sort of vortex and try and turn things round."

Closer to home, he seems confident that the many sticking points standing in the way of EU enlargement can be resolved by Christmas and the key Copenhagen summit.

'Final chapter'

But he recognises there is a battle ahead in getting the message across about what he says are the many benefits of enlargement amid concerns over immigration.

A victim of the "vortex of terror" in the Mideast
An immediate benefit, he says, will be that it would "close a final chapter on the Cold War" by unifying Europe, not to mention creating bigger markets for UK business.

He is also hopeful that eventually the likes of Serbia, Kosovo and Croatia will be invited to join the EU. "We will do what we can to encourage these other important countries," he says.

On the domestic front, Mr Straw says he is proud of the government's performance in the last five years.

"There is a very, very different feel about this government and its relationship with the public from the Thatcher, Major administrations and previous Labour governments," he says.

Cynicism

"We mustn't be complacent but I think we are basically working with grain of the country and people feel that they can be proud to be British."

But he does feel strongly about the need to "fight cynicism".

"What you've got is a Conservative Party which is failing to do its duty as a good opposition, they are really lousy at it.

"And it's leaving the field open to the cynics on the right-wing press who simply want to undermine faith in politics, in the political process, and if they do that they think they are going to undermine faith in government."

Mr Straw gets most heated about a question from a BBC News Online user about his view on a ban on him entering Leeds University students' union, where once he was president, because of unhappiness over his performance as home secretary.

'Juvenile'

"It was rather gratuitous, against the tradition of the students union when I was there where we had lots of arguments about whether you should ban people from the union and I always opposed it because it was anti-democratic.

Jack Straw
Straw the student leader
"Essentially it's just juvenile and in another sense I am rather sad about it."

On other matters however, he refuses to be drawn. How does he feel for instance about his successor at the home office, David Blunkett, being described as even more tough than him on home affairs?

"Too early to judge."

Will a referendum on the euro be delayed until a third term in government?

"The position on the euro is as stated by the chancellor."

Courtesy

Are you treated differently by other European ministers because the UK is outside the euro?

"I have never noticed that."

So what's the point of joining? "That's a different matter. One is about courtesy, the other is about economics."

Should Ken Livingstone be allowed to rejoin Labour? "Matter for the party."

What does the future hold for Jack Straw?

"No idea, I am very happy here."

See what I mean? Jack Straw, the safe pair of hands, is letting nothing stick.


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See also:

04 Jul 02 | Politics
09 Jul 02 | Politics
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