The memoirs of Joe Haines, now being serialised by the Mail on Sunday, are certain to rank among the most revelatory and important of the 20th century. Joe Haines was Harold Wilson’s press secretary, but in truth – as with Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair – he was far more than that. Wilson told Haines that he gave him the job ‘to conceal what you really do’.

Haines has already revealed the existence of a plot to kill Marcia Falkender, Wilson’s political secretary. He has provided testimony that Wilson and Falkender had a brief affair in the 1950s. He suggests that Falkender’s extraordinary hold over the prime minister resulted less from the fact that they had once slept together than that Wilson may have committed perjury by denying that they had done so after the affair was hinted at in a newspaper.

Haines’s memoirs, though of great historical importance, have been eclipsed by Edwina Currie’s diaries. Fair enough: they relate to events that took place a generation ago. Not so the latest instalment, which concerns the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and his walk-on role in the scandal which brought down Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberal party, during the mid-1970s.

Haines reveals that shortly after the second 1974 general election Harold Wilson asked Barbara Castle, the social security secretary, to produce details of National Insurance records relating to Norman Scott, Thorpe’s long-time lover. When Castle balked at carrying out this task, Wilson told her to ‘get Jack Straw’ to do it. Jack Straw was then Barbara Castle’s special adviser. Haines records that Wilson ‘got what he wanted’.

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Haines is explicit about why Wilson sought the information. He was clinging to power by a two- or three-seat majority. The prospect of a Tory/Liberal pact of the kind that Edward Heath and Jeremy Thorpe so nearly negotiated after the February 1974 election was a constant threat. Wilson was eager to head it off. He needed Scott’s NI records, says Haines, ‘for possible future use: i.e. if the Heath-Thorpe coalition were revived again in another close-fought election, he would play the Scott card’.

This was an utterly disgraceful and disreputable operation: the abuse of the private records of a British citizen in order to smear or very possibly blackmail the leader of a rival political party (not that Jack Straw would necessarily have known the full picture). In a statement issued through his solicitors, Bindman and Partners, last Saturday, Straw confirmed that ‘the facts as stated in the [Haines] book are accurate’. The statement acknowledged that ‘through her principal private secretary Mrs Castle asked her second permanent secretary Sir Lance Errington to get the file which he duly did. Then the principal private secretary and Mrs Castle’s special adviser Jack Straw read the file and produced a report summarising its content.’

The statement did not mention the name of the principal private secretary. He was Norman Warner, who two decades later was invited by Jack Straw to be his special adviser at the Home Office. He has now been ennobled, and recently the government appointed him chairman of the Audit Commission: this was overturned on the grounds that he was not impartial.

The information provided in the Haines book is startling, but it by no means reflects the full extent of Jack Straw’s involvement in the Thorpe case. In The Spectator last July the espionage writer Nigel West disclosed that Straw was one of those interviewed by MI5 in a leak inquiry. The investigation was ordered by Harold Wilson after details of Scott’s NI files reached the national press, launching the public scandal that in due course destroyed Thorpe. According to West, the inquiry centred on Barbara Castle’s private office. He records that Straw ‘vehemently denied having attempted to make political mischief out of the Liberal leader’s predicament. This encounter was Straw’s first with the Security Service, but it seems unlikely that the officers who conducted the interview believed his protests of innocence. The field of suspects was small, and Straw may have been thought to have some political motive.’

The Spectator contacted Jack Straw to corroborate this story before it was published. A terse ‘no comment’ was all that came back from the Foreign Secretary. West maintains that the MI5 file on Jack Straw, whose existence was disclosed by the renegade agent David Shayler, dates back to this episode and not – as previously thought – to Straw’s innocent past as radical leader of the National Union of Students.

Though Jack Straw’s involvement in the Thorpe tragedy has only now come to light, it has been private knowledge for some time. As far back as 1976, Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour jointly interviewed the future foreign secretary at his home in Islington when researching their extraordinary account of the late Wilson years, The Pencourt File. Today Penrose is happy to confirm that Straw was the unnamed official in the book who ‘went white’ and initially claimed falsely that he knew nothing about the missing file. Wilson himself – the informant behind the book – asked Penrose and Courtiour to protect Straw’s identity. He told them that he had instructed Straw to ‘delve into the files after dark’ to obtain the necessary information.

The story of Jack Straw, Harold Wilson and Norman Scott is strange and very disturbing. It shows that the future foreign secretary was ready to obtain the private, confidential records of a British citizen in circumstances in which they could have been used for political purposes. This is the kind of conduct associated with totalitarian, not democratic states. Nor was he a naive young man. He was a trained barrister and former NUS president. There are many echoes of the Thorpe case among the coming Labour generation: think of the smearing of the Paddington Rail crash victims, the smearing of Rose Addis, the ease with which Foreign Office papers relating to the ex-Tory treasurer Michael Ashcroft entered the public domain, the smears ordered on Ken Livingstone, the vicious whispering campaign against Elizabeth Filkin, Mo Mowlam and others.

On Tuesday evening I rang the Foreign Office and asked for the following questions to be put to Jack Straw: does he think, in retrospect, that his behaviour was proper? To what use did he think that the information relating to Norman Scott would be put? Does he believe that political advisers should have access to details concerning private citizens? Why did he provide false information to Penrose and Courtiour? Did he leak details concerning Norman Scott to the press? Could he confirm that he was interviewed by MI5 during the leak inquiry? A very polite duty press officer noted down my questions. In due course she rang back to make the very reasonable point that the Foreign Secretary was in private meetings in Kuwait and could not be disturbed. I offered him the chance to come back with answers the following morning. This was said to be unfeasible. But Jack Straw cannot hide behind his press officer and Geoffrey Bindman for ever. The sources are overwhelming, and it is time he came clean and told us what went on in the days when he was an ambitious young special adviser 25 years ago.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated