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02 January 1998

The Last Straw

News that Home Secretary's son William Straw was the juvenile interviewed by police for selling cannabis to an undercover reporter for the Mirror newspaper won't knock a dent in New Labour's Law and Order drive, writes James Heartfield

In a November press release Jack Straw outlined his priorities as Home Secretary: Youth, Drugs and Crime. We had no idea that the subjects were quite so close to his heart.

Students of the psychological school of history will be tempted to conclude that recent measures - the appointment of a 'drugs Tsar', selective curfews on youngsters and the proposed parenting order - sprang from the troubled home life of the Straws.

Unfortunately, the origins of Labour's law and order drive run deeper than the Home Secretary's inability to keep his teenage son under control. The trend towards a new authoritarianism is intrinsic to New Labour.

It was the prime minister Tony Blair who first transformed Labour into a party of law and order, when he was the shadow home secretary who was 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'.

New Labour turned the issue of crime from a right-wing theme about drawing in the wagons against invasion, to one of a generalised anxiety about social breakdown. Writing in the Sun newspaper last year, former PM Margaret Thatcher was even moved to say that Labour was exaggerating the threat of crime.

The idea that it could happen to anyone is central to New Labour's authoritarianism. Feeding off a climate of fear and insecurity, New Labour's solutions all revolve around a greater level of official intervention into ordinary people's lives. Civil liberties, as the Home Secretary has stated forcibly, come a poor second to the need to build confidence in the police.

The embarrassment suffered by Jack Straw only really proves the maxim that people in glasshouses should not throw stones. Every government that ever made an issue about moral rectitude quickly earned a reputation for sleaze and hypocrisy. It was inevitable that one cabinet minister should have an unruly son, and that the press would be unusually tempted by the current cabinet's hard line on drugs. As to the rest - we can put that down to Jack Straw's own stupidity.

But entertaining as the exposure of Jack Straw is, these revelations are likely to become details in the over-riding trend towards authoritarianism. After all, if it can happen to the Home Office minister, it can happen to any of us, the press are likely to conclude.

PC Plod's instinct towards liberty were revealed in the arrest of the Mirror reporter Dawn Halford who exposed the younger Straw's extra- curricular activities - as if the truth itself could be placed under lock and key. The bullying of Halford stands in stark contrast to the understanding afforded to William and Jack Straw, as does the rough treatment that less well-known young offenders receive at the hands of the Home Secretary.

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