Review: The English Job by Jack Straw

Posted On: 
10th September 2019

Unsparing in its analysis of Britain's turbulent relationship with Iran, Jack Straw's The English Job: Understanding Iran and Why It Distrusts Britain is a book of immense worth, says Alistair Burt MP

Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the Chairman of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Dr Rouhani (right) meet to discuss issues within Iran and her neighbouring countries, in Tehran, Iran (2003).
Credit: 
PA

More than any other Department of State, working in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office requires an awareness of the history and background in which you are engaged, the Middle East doubly so. My own limited initial base of understanding was built upon through experience and the patience of excellent officials. Jack Straw’s book would have been of immense worth. I thoroughly commend it to my successors, and all who wish for a deeper understanding of Iran, and surrounding region.

The book is built around a ‘charge sheet’ delivered to the former Foreign Secretary by the Basij, a ‘shadowy militia’ allied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, guardians of the 1979 Revolution. Given to him during a holiday years after being in office, the charges relate to various actions in which the British are seen in a thoroughly negative light, from those personally related to his own term in office, to the much larger range of guilt by association, and events ranging from 1857 to 2009.

Jack Straw takes us through the charges, unsparingly. There is much uncomfortable reading. A pattern emerges of exploitation of the wealth of Persia from a combination of sharp British businessmen and corrupt officials, reaching to the very top. Tobacco, oil and telegraph communications were monopolised for the benefit of UK individuals and Government. Persia also found itself at the crux of great power interventions, to protect interests both in Persia and, of course, India.

'There is much uncomfortable reading' 

These events are even more painful when judged against the first part of the book, which gives a quick history of Persia. I have a particular affection for Cyrus the Great (c600-530BC), whose eponymous cylinder’s loan to Tehran I signed off on behalf of the FCO for the British Museum’s wonderful Neil MacGregor in 2010. This remarkable artefact, the first ‘Bill of Rights’, was created when the Persian Empire covered 44% of the world’s population, and when Britain did not even possess a written language.

Straw adds: “Iran’s nationalism, its pride in two and a half millennia of history, is interwoven with the particular, distinctive faith that is Shi’ism” We here tend to treat both history and faith far more lightly than those abroad, especially in the middle east, and no understanding of modern Iran (a name change from Persia around 1935) should be attempted without serious awareness of both.

As The English Job moves steadily from long ago to the charges that are rather more within memory, the coup of 1953, the sanctions against the Islamic Republic post 1979, and our arming of Saddam Hussein in the war with Iraq 1980-88, our indifference to his use of chemical weapon – in a conflict which may have cost a million Iranian lives – you begin to grasp how ministers have to navigate todays politics with some empathy. You also understand, from his vivid account, the remarkable feat of the nuclear agreement, the JCPOA, built on overcoming the overwhelming distrusts of the past, and therefore how shattering, yet wearily anticipated, was the unilateral abrogation of the Agreement by President Trump in 2018.

Iran’s defence of itself externally through illegal and destructive activity of its proxies is not to be excused and must, ultimately, come to an end. If this is to be done as it should be – by negotiation, not conflict which would inflame the region – then the words in Jack Straw’s conclusion must be taken to heart: “What happens to Iran internally will in significant part be influenced by how Iran is treated by the outside world.”  That treatment should be based on the understanding well addressed in this book. 

Alistair Burt is Independent MP for North East Bedfordshire