Jack Straw: It is time the international community did not just mouth words


There was an historic vote in the House of Commons on Monday.

By 274 votes to just 12 against, the Commons resolved “that this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.”

The last section was added by me, with the agreement of the mover of the motion. As well as the overwhelming vote, the debate was significant for wide cross-party support.

The fact that the Israeli Embassy invested so much abortive effort to see the motion kicked into touch underlines its importance.

When I first became interested in the Middle East, in the 60s, international sympathy lay very much on the side of Israel. The left, especially, was on Israel’s side in the 1967 “six-day” war.

The events of the last 40 years have, changed that basic assumption and Monday’s debate was illustrative of that fact.

Much of the international community is now, bluntly, fed up of Israel saying one thing about a so-called “two-state solution” (by which both a state of Israel and Palestine is established and recognised) and then proceeding illegally to annex more Palestinian land. Each time they do so making the chances of a settlement along those lines ever more unlikely.

On top of that, the conflict in Gaza over the summer, in which Israel employed disproportionate force, leading to the deaths of over 2000 Palestinians, compared to around 70 Israelis, has damaged the international respect for the Netanyahu Administration still further.

Of course Israel retains a strong ally in the US. All who spoke in the Commons on Monday fully support an Israeli state – but within agreed borders. It is time that the international community did not just mouth words about a state of Palestine, and took action to ensure a two state solution remains possible. That, in my judgement, was the purpose and effect of Monday’s debate. While the vote does not bind the UK Government it does, however, send a powerful message.

TV drama that’s been running for 20 years

When I came into the Commons in 1979, only radio broadcasting was allowed and that had only been going on a regular basis for a year.

People could listen to what was said, but couldn’t see what was happening.

But the fact that our words were going out over the ether really made very little difference to MPs’ behaviour. It was noisy a lot of the time, and like bedlam on occasions.

Parliaments abroad had for years before been televised. In the 1980s there was a growing call for the Commons to do the same.

After two years of deliberation the House finally voted for its proceedings to be permanently televised in the early summer of 1989. I was one of big majority in favour.

The Commons was not a private club. We were there to represent our constituents. We had to allow the cameras in, and let the public judge for themselves, warts and all.

Full TV broadcasting began 20 years ago this Monday, on 19 July 1990.

So what difference has it made?

Television no more accurately replicates the reality of a live event than radio. It gives an impression. (How often has some nice, usually elderly lady, told me how much better I look in real life than on the TV – to which I reply that I’m glad it’s that way round!) I doubt that TV has done a great deal for MPs’ reputation.

Many have asked me why so few MPs attend many of the debates, with the implication that all the rest of the 650 must be skiving.

The answer is that MPs have many other things to do – hundreds are involved every day in Committees.

Others will be doing their constituency work – where the work load is now exponentially more than it was thirty years ago.

It would have been good if “before and after” attendance records of the Commons had been kept. They have not.

But there were many occasions before TV broadcasting when debates were sparsely attended – and that was at a time when the key focus was on the Chamber alone; there were virtually no Select Committees at all.

Winston Churchill’s biographer Sir Martin Gilbert has observed that some of Churchill’s now most celebrated speeches in the 1930s warning of the Nazi threat were made to indifferent, near-empty Houses.

And, though it may not appear like this, the House is generally more orderly, and less noisy.

There is one consequence of TV broadcasting, not anticipated at the time, which I greatly regret. This is the terminal decline in systematic reporting of Parliamentary proceedings – as opposed to politics – by the newspapers.

The paradox is that the public may now be less well informed than they were, especially on a vast range of legislation which though important is not especially partisan.

But there’s nothing that can be done about that, and newspapers are now fighting for their lives, not as a consequence of television but because of the internet.

As for the public having a window on what we do in their name, the televising of Parliament is here to stay.

Democracy is breaking out in the Commons

There’s been a sudden outbreak of democracy in the House of Commons itself. It’s very disconcerting.

The idea that MPs could be allowed the freedom to choose which of their colleagues should get key positions to hold the Government to account had been viewed as taking things a bit far. Safer to leave such choices in the hands of those nice people, the military police of politics, the Whips.

So for the seven previous Parliaments in which I’ve sat as an MP the decision about who should be the Chairs of Select Committees, and who should hold the important roles as Deputy Speakers, has been “arranged” behind the scenes by the “usual channels”, aka the Whips. This did not mean that only toadies got these posts – far from it.

Their recommendations had in any event to be put to the Commons for endorsement, but the system undoubtedly raised questions about whether those holding these posts were wholly independent of the front benches.

However, a committee at the end of the last Parliament recommended major changes in the system to be brought into operation after the general election.

So for the last week it has been impossible to walk down any corridor in the Commons and not be accosted by an MP seeking one’s vote.

The first elections took place on Tuesday, for the Deputy Speaker posts, with the happy result that Lancashire won hands down.

Two of the three Deputy Speaker posts have been filled by local MPs – Ribble Valley’s Nigel Evans, and Chorley’s Lindsay Hoyle.

Nigel may be a member of a different party but I’ve worked collaboratively with him on local issues over many years.

He’s independent of spirit and will stand up for backbenchers, as most certainly will Lindsay. I offer them both my congratulations. Yesterday was polling day for the Chairs of Select Committees. The party which should hold the Chairs has been agreed between the Whips, according to a pro rata formula; but competition for the posts is intense – and all members can vote.

It’s been really interesting. Manifestoes have been produced. Conservatives seeking votes from Labour members have been going out of their way to emphasise what a hard time they intend to give their own Government, and I don’t doubt they will – though quite what they’ve been saying to Government loyalists to secure their votes I’m not sure!

The myth has been that the Commons in recent years has been “supine”, “spineless”. It’s been the reverse of the truth.

Parliament has become much more aggressive in seeking to control the government of the day, as I can testify from my long tenure as a Minister.

Rebellions after 1997 were common place, as were defeats in the Lords.

And the Select Committees, established in their current form in 1979, have become increasingly powerful, and quite right too.

There’s work to do before the election…

If words could adequately describe the feelings and power of music, I guess we could dispense with music and stick to words.

This rather odd thought came into my mind on Tuesday evening as I enjoyed a rare treat.

I work most Tuesday evenings, but as it was the day before the State Opening of Parliament by The Queen, I could safely go with my family to hear Murray Perahia, one of the world’s most acclaimed pianists.

But music does reach parts of our soul, creating emotions quite beyond words. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is – and I still enjoy going to the occasional gig and reliving my youth – we all need music.

But there’s little about my day job which can be put to music.

Politics and government decision- making is all about words.

So yesterday, the programme for the new session of Parliament was set out, in words (though with plenty of music beforehand), as Her Majesty delivered her speech from the Throne in the House of Lords – “The Queen’s Speech”.

Sessions of Parliament normally last about 12 months.

This one can only last at best six months as there will, by law, be a General Election by June, or maybe earlier.

But I’ve seen such short pre-election sessions where a General Election has been a certainty three times before, and contrary to some of the comment, a lot of business does go through before Parliament is dissolved for the election.

Work has already begun on some bills – those which are ‘carried over’ from the previous session, including one of mine, on constitutional reform.

And we will get cracking on the new items pretty quickly, with a flurry of legislation introduced in the days and weeks ahead.

There has been a debate about how much difference the Queen’s Speech will actually make to the big decision voters make when they go to the polls sometime in the next six months.

The argument runs that it may be a big deal in the “Westminster village”, it doesn’t really affect the country as a whole.

But I think it makes a significant difference.

Sure, not everyone will have tuned in to watch the speech yesterday, but its effects will become quickly apparent as the debates get going in the months ahead. And I’m confident we’ll make a lot of progress.

The issues range from a new national care service to give free personal care to those who need it the most, in their own homes, to measures to deal with the management of flooding and some interesting measures in schools, such as school report cards for parents to keep up with the performance of their child’s school.

For all the impressive finery of the State Opening, and few can deny that it is an impressive ceremony, the issues at the heart of the speech come down to the brass tacks of daily life.