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Jack Straw, A Walk With The FT, The FT Magazine

“I never wanted to talk about religion while I was a minister because if politicians start talking about their faith in the United Kingdom, people start counting the spoons.”

In 1652 an itinerant preacher named George Fox wrote in his journal that “I spyed a great high hill caled pendle hill & I went on ye toppe of it with much adoe Itt was soe steepe”. Once at that summit, Fox experienced a vision of “a great people” so intense that it inspired him to found the Quakers. But Pendle was already famous, or infamous, for its witch trial of 1612 that ended with the execution of 10 people.

Four hundred years later, on a frozen Lancashire morning, Jack Straw strides chirpily out from the village of Barley. The former home secretary, foreign secretary (his 2001-2006 term included the Iraq war) and lord chancellor has been MP for Blackburn, further down the Calder Valley, since 1979.

Straw has climbed Pendle’s 1,827ft often. It rises gently from Barley then sharply, an isolated hill of forceful lines. We crunch past cottages. Does he, I ask, find walking therapeutic? “I find walking in hills therapeutic, and quite spiritual. I don’t want to sound pompous, but communing with nature, marvelling at what the Almighty, or whoever it was, has produced.”

Straw, who was born in Essex, considers himself “an adopted Lancastrian” and this landscape helps him define its people. “Pendle is not a spectacular peak and it symbolises for me the stoicism of people in East Lancashire, the lack of showiness.”

We turn up an icy footpath, criss-cross a stream, pass farms sheltered by folds and trees. Pendle looms. Straw dabbled with pacifist Quakerism as a schoolboy and his parents were pacifists. Was he struck by those ironies in the Iraq war?

“Very much. But because I did have pacifist parents and I’d been on CND marches, I had thought about whether I was a pacifist probably more than many people.”

Straw remains convinced of the war’s legality but also that entering it was a moral act: “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been in favour of it. What subsequently was discovered, the absence of WMD, led to a view it was an abjectly amoral act. That wasn’t true: everyone, from and including Tony [Blair] downwards, went into it with a very heavy heart.” (In his recent autobiography, Last Man Standing, Straw writes: “We made a decision based on what we believed to be the case at the time”, and says that if he’d known beforehand that there were no WMD, he would have opposed war.)

Moorland replaces pasture as we pant up The Steps, a diagonal “soe steepe” stone path to Pendle’s summit. At the windy top we search for Fox’s (aka Robin Hood’s) Well, where, it is said, a weary George Fox drank. We find it: a spring tripping downslope and, in the hillside, a modern manhole over a cement well and steel tankard. The water tastes suitably pure.

In his book, Straw recalls that he prayed war would be averted. “It was formal prayer as well as a frame of mind, because I am an Anglican and a churchgoer. I never wanted to talk about religion while I was a minister because if politicians start talking about their faith in the United Kingdom, people start counting the spoons.”

He also writes that he had psychoanalysis in the 1980s and still has occasional sessions. Did the pressure of the Iraq war lead him to his psychoanalyst? “I may have seen him once. [I handled the pressure] mainly by going to church, and lots of gym.”

We cross Pendle’s domed, mile-wide plateau, its peat surface cracking with ice. Hills jumble horizons – the Yorkshire Dales, Lancashire’s Bowland and Rossendale fells. To the west, the Irish Sea. Straw munches a Mars Bar, companionable, chatty, but half his words lost in the wind.

Talking is easier as we pick our way down Boar Clough, treading carefully around its stream, and the sensitivities of immigration and integration: according to the 2011 census, 27 per cent of Blackburn’s population are Muslim. Earlier in 2012 Straw had attended the opening of St Silas’s, a new primary school in his constituency: “This is an ordinary Church of England school and about 95 per cent of the kids are Muslim. I’ve never had a single complaint from Muslim parents about the vicar being on the governing body, to the contrary.”

Because believers of different faiths feel an affinity to other believers? “Yes, and I think aggressive atheists are contemptuous of those who have faith. OK, there is a scientific explanation for what Pendle Hill is doing here. But is there a non-metaphysical explanation for the beauty of what we are seeing? There may be but I’ve never discovered it. It’s a beauty beyond reason, it is metaphysical.”

Spence Moor towers ahead. What about the volcanic anger of some Muslims over issues such as The Satanic Verses and the veil? “It’s very difficult because it is a phenomenon of Islam today that some Muslims feel their faith in a very violent way. It is reminiscent of periods in European history, bearing in mind we’re here on Pendle Hill [of the witch trial]. When people have ranted at me about something I’ve said that is ‘anti-Islam’ – which is absolute balls – I’ve said, ‘In which country in the world would you be better able to practise your religion and bring up your family in peace? Think about that.’ Most of them understand.”

Boar Clough joins Ogden Clough, and we follow it past Pendle’s sprawling moors. In the distance, beyond a hillock confettied with sheep, Burnley. Straw would be there the following day, watching Blackburn Rovers draw with their rivals. Football, and Rovers, have been important for Jack Straw, father. “It gave my children a chance to see their dad being a dad, and nothing else, every other Saturday.”

We pass the peat-black Upper Ogden Reservoir, turn into Fell Wood’s dark green cloisters. As we come out into rough, sunny fields, Straw eulogises one of Blackburn’s famous sons. “Wainwright went to the Lake District and couldn’t believe that beautiful area could exist alongside areas like Blackburn, which were literally dark satanic mills. For him, going up fells was a spiritual experience.”

We search for the spiritual at Newchurch-in-Pendle: a small blue window in the village church tower representing God’s all-seeing eye. Straw has a quick look, then: “Can we go for grub now?”

On the way to “Eye of Newt” (gammon, egg and chips) from the Pendle Inn’s menu at Barley, he considers the following day’s match, and his fellow Rovers fans. “You’ll be watching a game against a team from the south, and spontaneously the Blackburn crowd will chant anti-Burnley songs. It’s about the other, isn’t it?”

5 January 2013

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