Friends and foes agree: he's a razor-sharp orator, a first-class brain, the cleverest man in the Labour Party. How dare
Everybody who has ever read an analysis or profile of Robin Cook, shadow spokesman for foreign affairs, knows the judgement that they are expected to share: he is brilliant, the possessor of a razor-sharp mind, the best orator of his generation, that kind of thing. The superlatives drip off the page and you know that you are expected to chant, along with the chorus: "O Robin! O great one! Charm us with your incisiveness and your ability to make mincemeat of the other side!"

This is not a party political matter. Tory commentators regularly go weak at the knees after witnessing the bravura solos performed by Mr Cook - the Daily Telegraph praises his "elegance and cruelty in debate" and even the Sun has found space to call him "the party's best brain". Without him, we are assured, parliamentary life would be less impressive and considerably less entertaining.

Some argue that Mr Cook's pixiesque features help him to win these plaudits, on the basis that a man with such a physiognomy (even he has remarked wryly on his lack of "classic good looks") needs all the help he can get. It is indeed notable how often his brainpower is remarked upon in the same breath as his looks: "Not a handsome man ... but of course quite the most brilliant of his generation." But this, surely, is a red herring. If Robin Cook were a dead ringer for Colin Firth's Mr Darcy, the oohs and aaahs of appreciation would scarcely be likely to diminish.

Why is it that Mr Cook gets such rave reviews to put up outside his political theatre? This remains a mystery. But the idea of performance seems to lie at the heart of it. Robin Cook goes into his Westminster dressing room to apply his political greasepaint, and then goes out to perform. Which is fair enough, as far as it goes, but it would be pleasant if one could feel that he actually cared about something, too. A political speech is not just supposed to be a tour-de-force by a latterday Laurence Olivier on the despatch-box stage. Dare one ask for - dread word - a touch of non-theatrical sincerity, too?

Robin Cook struts around like such a fine turkeycock that one cannot help noticing he is even more impressed by his own oratory than those around him. The 50-year-old Mr Cook behaves like a lawyer in an American courtroom drama: his apparent belief that the brief is everything, the reality of secondary importance, seems uppermost.

All of which would be less irritating if he showed any sign of understanding what he is talking about. In reality, however, he talks about foreign affairs with the pat confidence of somebody who has scanned through a few briefing papers, and quickly formed a view, not much caring whether it is right or wrong. An example: last month Mr Cook appeared on the Radio 4 Today programme protesting against the Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind's plan to prevent the EU from renewing a suspension of aid to Nigeria. "Whatever we are doing in Europe, we shouldn't have the effect of helping those who have ruled Nigeria," he said indignantly. Which was all very well, except that the country in question was not Nigeria (capital: Abuja, pop: c90 million) but Niger (capital: Niamey; pop: 8 million).

Journalists are often (quite rightly) berated for the shallowness of their understanding of a given issue. It is in the nature of daily journalism that facts have to be assembled and presented at short notice, and the person who would be best fitted to do that is not always present on the right day. None the less, two points should be noted. First, any journalist who covers a specialist area for more than the briefest of periods is expected to bring or gain a serious understanding of the topic he or she writes about. Second, even at the tackiest level of journalism (and there is no shortage of that), the word "cuttings-job" - what might be termed "virtual" knowledge, obtained these days by a swift and unexciting surf through a computer database - is a dismissive or derogatory term. A necessary evil, no more nor less.

And yet, Mr Cook seems to make an art of the perfect cuttings-job. Thus he was praised to the skies for his performance attacking the Government after the publication of the Scott report earlier this year. In a sense, this was the perfect cuttings-job: because of the Government's dishonesty and delayed publication, Mr Cook had only a couple of hours to get his mind round the subject. Fair enough, then, that he gets praise for that: mastering a cuttings-job is, after all, a necessary skill, in politics as in journalism. In neither field, however, should it be regarded as a satisfactory way of proceeding when there is time to form a more considered view. Mr Cook's performance on the Scott report was partly about finding the Government's weak spots, and exploiting them. Above all, though, it seemed to be about demonstrating Mr Cook's own brilliance.

Even where he should have focused his mind, Mr Cook is quite capable of dodging tricky questions - on European policy, for example, by complaining of "arcane institutional questions" and saying, "That's not what the people of Britain want to talk about. I can tell you that qualified majority voting is not a topic of conversation in my pub." This is an absurdly faux naif (or maybe vrai naif) view. Of course they're not talking about QMV at the pub. That is beside the point. It is Mr Cook's job to understand the potential importance of QMV for Europe, not the job of the people at the darts board.

The political realities of the big wide world seem to be taken as almost irrelevant when considering Mr Cook's performance. Tory Foreign Secretaries at least have the virtue of partial honesty. They make a virtue of realpolitik. They are quite capable of following the old dictum, coined by an American president and used with reference to the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza: "He's a sonofabitch - but at least he's our sonofabitch." This may be morally distasteful, or politically stupid, or both. But at least it is straightforward. "We can dump on them, because they can't dump on us" is still regarded as an acceptable slogan when it comes to Abroad.

The Labour Party, by contrast - which likes, in other contexts, to seize the moral high ground - can't be bothered with holding any ground at all when it comes to foreign affairs. Mr Cook did not get the foreign policy slot because he wanted it; he got it as part of an inter-party squabble over top jobs. And foreign policy is not regarded by the Labour Party at the moment as a top job, even though Labour once provided the best Foreign Secretary of the century, Ernest Bevin. Mr Cook treats the Great Abroad as an extension of the House of Commons, where impressing the colleagues, or the domestic viewers (and voters) is all that really counts. This is, to put it mildly, depressing.

To be fair to him, he has not invented this myopia. Anyone who has tried in recent years to collar the Labour Party great and good on impending international upheavals knows that it is a hopeless task. With the self- important absurdity of a 10-year-old dressed up in a grown-up's suit, the grandees talk gravely of "pragmatism", and look the other way. There is a brave little scattering of backbenchers who try to get their party to concentrate on this foreign issue or that, and the changes that might yet swamp the world. But foreign affairs is generally regarded as mere training ground for honing oratorical skills, an area where it doesn't much matter whether you understand what you are talking about.

Thus, on Bosnia, Mr Cook has never had a moral take. He has hidden under the skirts of the British government, which has always been cautious about seeking tough action against those responsible for launching and prosecuting the grisly war. The moral stance is left to Paddy Ashdown, as though only a party leader who is unlikely to gain power has the luxury of being able to comment freely on grim and self-evident realities. Mr Cook, meanwhile, confines himself to platitudes.

When he moves away from the platitudes, life gets even more depressing. A personage known in the misleading journalistic jargon as "friends of Mr Cook" noted after a recent visit to Hong Kong that concerns about the rule of law in Hong Kong, after the handover to China next year, were "bourgeois crap". This little bon mot is revealing and revolting. The rule of law can only be seen as "b.c." by one who has never confronted a society that does not have a rule of law. In Britain, it may sound like a pious phrase used by those who want, hypocritically, to defend an establishment status quo. But in somewhere like Hong Kong, it is much more. Hong Kong has a rule of law, and can be proud of it; Russia (to take the most obvious example) does not yet, and desperately needs it.

So, then, to the key question: do we really need Robin Cook? On present showing, the answer must be: absolutely not. But Mr Cook still has a chance to redeem himself. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, this week again called for international sanctions against the military regime. The British government still sponsors trade missions to Burma. And Mr Cook, what's your view? The answer seems to be that he "supports" calls (from the Danes, for example) for sanctions, though he has been careful not to put himself in the front row. One day - soon, perhaps - Labour may win power. If, on that day, Aung San Suu Kyi is still asking for sanctions then we will find out at last whether Mr Cook is able to do more than bluster.

What do you think?

Do you need Robin Cook? Every Monday you can give the Do We Need...? subject of the week the come-on-down or the thumbs-down. Send your verdict on Robin Cook, in no more than 100 words, to Do We Need...?, Section Two, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL or fax 0171-293 2182 no later than Friday morning, and we will print the best comments on a need-to-know basis.

Comments