By Nick Clark
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Sir Keir Starmer’s love of being respectable

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Issue 2764
Sir Keir Starmer at the 2019 General Election campaign launch.
Sir Keir Starmer at the 2019 General Election campaign launch.

Nearly half way through Keir Starmer—A Life of Contrasts, we finally hear something about his politics.

Studying at Oxford in the 1980s, Starmer was part of a loosely left wing, broad milieu, mostly drifting rightwards.

The magazine he helped to produce, Socialist Alternatives, was “Starmer writ large,” says author Nigel Cawthorne.

Rather than any clear left wing politics, it preferred instead to “reflect debates.”

It was unpopular even among a dispirited Labour left, in retreat after the recent defeat of the Miners’ Strike, and of Bennism.

Keir Starmer drives people away from Labour
Keir Starmer drives people away from Labour
  Read More

Starmer, says Cawthorne, held sentiments about ­“protecting the vulnerable.” But his guiding framework was the law.

“Any radical position could be defended and sealed off as long as it followed the bright beacons set by established law,” says Cawthorne.

It’s this vague proximity to left wing politics, ­shrouding a hard commitment to respectability and legitimacy, that made Starmer the right’s ideal replacement for Jeremy Corbyn.

Starmer himself is hardly responsible for his own reputation as a left winger. Cawthorne insists on describing his politics as “left left,” whatever that means.

But on the few times we actually learn from Cawthorne what Starmer thought about anything, they are unremarkably middle of the road.

It’s those around him, in the law chambers, Oxford societies and elite grammar school classrooms, who brand him a radical for advocating moderate prison reform and the like. In fact, as Cawthorne tells us, Starmer always preferred working in the system to challenging it with the left.

“Keir has always subscribed to the view that you have to get into the system not stand outside it,” says an old lawyer colleague Gavin Millar.

That’s one of the many quotes that have appeared previously in interviews by other writers, in articles that have Google-friendly ­headlines such as “Who is Keir Starmer?”

Cawthorne’s talent is cobbling together quick biographies to cash in on public interest in whoever happens to be in the news.

That’s when he’s not churning out such non-fiction titles as Sex Lives of the Popes, Sex Lives of the Great Dictators and Sex Lives of the Famous Gays.


If there’s anything useful about the book it’s that it dredges up some of Starmer’s past disgraces as a lawyer and Director of Public Prosecutions.

Starmer’s commitment to the law leads him to switch from an interest in miscarriages of justice against Catholics and Republicans in northern Ireland to ­defending a British soldier.

Lee William Clegg had shot at a car driven by ­joyriders, killing an 18 year old woman in the back seat.

In 2004, Starmer authored a report—commissioned by the Northern Ireland Policing Board—defending riot cops’ tactics in Belfast.

Cops had allowed Unionists to march through a Catholic area, then attacked residents.

When Starmer was appointed Director of Public Prosecutions in 2008, liberals were excited and the right horrified, because of his background as a human rights lawyer.

They needn’t have been.

One of his first acts was to refuse to prosecute any police officer over the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.

He—bizarrely—chose to prosecute a group of activists dressed theatrically in boiler suits for impersonating police officers at G20 protests in London.

But he wouldn’t initially prosecute any police over the killing of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson on the same demonstrations.

None of this is new.

But, given parts of the book are suspiciously similar to the news articles they’re based on, at least it’s all fact.

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