Former Foreign Secretary who resigned from the Cabinet in protest against war in Iraq
Monday 08 August 2005
Premature, unexpected death has been cruel to the Labour Party since the Second World War - Evan Durbin, Aneurin Bevan, Hugh Gaitskell, Gerry Reynolds and Brian O'Malley (the last two potential leaders who died in their early forties), Anthony Crosland, John Mackintosh, John Smith, Donald Dewar and now Robin Cook have gone to an early grave. I believe that Cook, who was my parliamentary neighbour in West Lothian for more than 20 years and friend ever since the 1960s, had a significant role to play in the next decade. We can only think of what might have been.
On 17 March 2003, Cook, as Leader of the Commons and former Foreign Secretary, resigned from the Cabinet in protest against the coming war in Iraq. His dignified resignation speech prompted the first standing ovation in the history of the House of Commons and marked the end of the ministerial career, at least temporarily, it seemed, of one of Labour's most significant politicians.
Some of us had hoped that he and Clare Short would join the 122 members who voted against the Iraq war that February; and that, had they done so, British forces would not have been committed to the mire of Mesopotamia, with the possible consequence that America, standing alone, might have had second thoughts. Be that as it may, Cook, as his friend and former Cabinet colleague Frank Dobson put it, put his money where his mouth was.
Cook was renowned as a parliamentary debater and an example of his elegant language came in his resignation speech:
"This is the first time for 20 years that I have addressed the House from the back benches. I must confess that I had forgotten how much better the view is from here . . . The longer that I have served in this place, the greater the respect I have for the good sense and collective wisdom of the British people.
"On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain . . . from the start of the present crisis, I have insisted, as Leader of the House, on the right of this place to vote on whether Britain should go to war . . . I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the Government."
From 2001 to 2003 Cook had kept a diary, a personal record of the life of Labour's second term that would form the core of his book The Point of Departure, published later that year. It is one of the most significant and certainly the best written of political books of this decade.
Surprised and hurt by his abrupt dismissal as Foreign Secretary in 2001, Cook did not sulk, but became determined to effect the changes in parliamentary democracy that he believed were essential if Parliament was to move into the 21st century. As one who did not agree with some of the changes which he proposed for the Commons, I have nevertheless to admire the seriousness of purpose with which he went about the task. But seriousness of purpose was one of Cook's assets in all that he did.
In The Point of Departure Cook draws on first-hand experiences in the Commons and the Cabinet, of encounters in conferences, corridors and late-night conversations, to lead the reader into his gathering disillusionment, as the political compass of the Government seemed to be changing, to directions which he believed to be profoundly mistaken: from its failure to bring about Lords reform and its unwillingness, as he saw it, to provide leadership for social change, to a foreign policy which has led us away from our destiny in Europe into alliance with the most right-wing government in American history and participation in the war in Iraq.
The book is indeed the story of a politician who genuinely wanted to bring democracy closer to the people but who saw a government increasingly detached from the values of himself and his party, and who developed a growing conviction that, on Iraq, the Government's position was morally, diplomatically and politically wrong. Whatever our disagreements, I always continued to talk to Cook and berated him for not doing something about bombing and sanctions of Iraq when, as Foreign Secretary, he had the power to do so. His answer to me was that he really believed in bombing and sanctions as a policy of containment, although he was always very sceptical about the reliability of information from the security services. When he was Leader of the Commons, I asked him if he couldn't do something to change the Prime Minister's mind about Iraq, but he shook his head and said to me sadly, "Tam, I'm out of the loop. I can do nothing."
He was born Robert Finlayson Cook (but was always known as Robin) in 1946 in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, where his father, Peter Cook, had his first post-war teaching experience. The family moved in 1950 to Aberdeen, where Cook attended primary school and won entrance to Aberdeen Royal Grammar School. His rigorous education continued when he transferred, on his father's promotion, to the Royal High School of Edinburgh, then under the inspirational headmastership of Dr John Imrie. The school had a long-established debating society, where Cook's appetite for repartee was developed.
At Edinburgh University, where he studied English Literature, he became prominent in the university union and chairman of the Labour Club. I met him first in 1967-68, when he was chairman of the Scottish Association of Labour Students Organisations. I recollect being struck by his command of language, which was quite exceptional for someone still an undergraduate.
On leaving university, Cook became a teacher at Bo'ness Academy on the Firth of Forth. He was a good teacher, able to hold the attention of both gifted and less gifted pupils. He was absolutely excellent in his part-time capacity as a Workers' Educational Association lecturer, which gave him contacts in the political world of Edinburgh and led to his being selected at the age of 24 as a member of Edinburgh Corporation and secretary of the Edinburgh City Labour Party.
This brought him the advantage of close contact with talented colleagues such as the young George Foulkes and equally talented opponents such as the young Conservative councillor Malcolm Rifkind. It was perhaps this early experience which taught him, more than most Labour politicians, to converse with and be respected by Tory politicians.
Many of them also had more than a sneaking regard for his considerable expertise on racing and his capacity as a horseman - a sport to which he was introduced by his young wife Margaret, whom he had married in 1969. In the early days Cook asked me after a rally in Glasgow to keep quiet about his interest in racing and the stabling of a couple of horses. I told him that this was something to be proud of rather than shy about, and in later years his fanatical interest in racing and presence at race meetings became a plus in the eyes of Labour colleagues as well as Conservatives.
In 1970 Cook was chosen as parliamentary candidate against the Earl of Dalkeith (now the Duke of Buccleuch) in the Edinburgh North constituency. He won his spurs in the campaign and, gaining further credit as chairman of the Housing Committee of Edinburgh Corporation, he was selected to succeed Tom Oswald as the Labour candidate for Edinburgh Central for the general election of February 1974. I remember the campaign. It was not at all certain that Labour would retain the seat, because of the changing nature of the electorate. However, Cook's proven record of delivering better housing services and his Housing Committee reputation saw him through. He increased his majority when Harold Wilson called the second election of 1974 in October of that year.
On arriving at Westminster, Cook joined the left-wing Tribune Group of the Parliamentary Labour Party and frequently opposed the policy of the Wilson and Callahan governments. By doing so, he infuriated the powerful Willie Ross, Secretary of State for Scotland, who growled his disapproval and ensured that Cook was denied any kind of promotion, even to Parliamentary Private Secretary, the lowest form of Commons life.
My main memory of Cook at this period was the cascade of pamphlets which this new MP produced on massive redistribution of wealth, state control of the economy, unilateral nuclear disarmament and cuts in defence spending. He showed a certain independence of mind in, along with Eric Heffer, attempting to persuade his left-wing colleagues to look kindly on the Common Market. But above all, Cook, along with me and Brian Wilson, soon to be MP for North Ayrshire, and Archie Birt as Secretary, was an officer of the Labour "Vote No" campaign on devolution. Some of our Scottish colleagues were apoplectic. This is one of the reasons why Cook was never loved by the Scottish Labour Party in a way that the pro- devolutionists John Smith and Donald Dewar were.
With Ross safely in the House of Lords, Cook was eventually appointed to Labour's front bench in December 1980 as an opposition spokesman, where he remained until 1983 under the leadership of Michael Foot. At this point,Cook faced a very difficult decision. His Central Edinburgh constituency, with further boundary changes, became extremely marginal. My burgeoning West Lothian constituency was divided into two and I had the choice of either the Livingston seat or the Linlithgow seat. Since ancient royal boroughs were more my cup of political tea than the new town of Livingston, the latter, with a healthy Labour majority, came up for grabs.
Cook asked me to intervene on his behalf for the candidature. At first my reaction was to say: "No, Robin, I'm not going to help you, because if you chicken-run from Central Edinburgh, where you are best placed of all to retain the seat, the chances of a Labour government are even less than they might otherwise be." The seat was offered to Tony Benn. My advice to Benn was not to touch it, because I didn't think that Scottish politics at that time was his scene. After Benn declined, and it was clear that two local candidates were at each other's throats, a majority view decided that Cook should be presented with the Labour candidature. For the next 22 years, he was a very active issue politician in matters affecting Livingston. His sometimes abrasive demeanour was used to good effect to help the vulnerable and the disadvantaged.
Cook entered the political big time when he was elected to the Shadow Cabinet in November 1983 after Labour's catastrophic election. But his most important task was as the campaign manager for Neil Kinnock in the latter's successful quest for the leadership of the Labour Party. I personally think that Kinnock would have been a good Prime Minister and, had he had the opportunity, Cook would have been a major figure in a Kinnock government, probably as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
His reputation in the Parliamentary Party was further enhanced in 1986-87 when he was spokesman on City of London affairs. As Shadow Social Services Secretary between 1987 and 1989 and Shadow Health Secretary until July 1992, he earned huge credit for harrying the Conservatives for cutting social security benefits, while at the same time reducing taxes for the wealthy, and for introducing market-orientated reforms to the National Health Service.
His ability to ridicule in a humorous way the Conservative divisions on Europe destabilised John Major's government. Cook had a remarkable facility to gut complex documents and create ammunition to attack ministers - never put to more devastating effect than when he managed to rock the Major government by his masterly exposition in his capacity as Shadow Trade Secretary of the Scott Report on arms to Iraq. His sharp-tongued wit entranced the Commons. Ministers and officials had several days to prepare their response to the exhaustive and voluminous report by Sir Richard Scott in February 1996. Cook was given only two hours to study the document.
Having extracted the key findings, Cook demolished his opponent, Major's Trade Secretary Ian Lang, making us laugh at the government's attempts to cover up the affair and avoid all responsibility. The government narrowly survived in the lobby but serious damage had been done to its credibility, and in great style. Cook was delighted to show me a note from the new leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair, congratulating him on one of the finest parliamentary performances of recent times.
Many people have wondered why Cook didn't put himself forward in the leadership elections. I think I know the answer. It was partly that the very week that the decision had to be made whether to be a candidate was the week in which he had two close family bereavements. Another contributory reason reflects very well on him. He told me that he was worried about his appearance on television as a leader in relation to winning a general election. He was desperate for a Labour government, and a Labour government was more important to him than the not inconsiderable ambitions of Robin Cook.
Cook's opening months as Foreign Secretary were fraught. This was partly because of the break-up of his 28-year marriage. Cook was waiting with his wife Margaret at Heathrow Airport for a flight to the United States when he was told that the News of the World was planning to reveal his affair with his secretary Gaynor Regan. Cook decided on the spot on a divorce. The press made the most of what he was supposed to have told Margaret: "The marriage is over, and so is the riding holiday in Montana." Ironically for a man who had always tried to keep his political and private lives separate, Cook's political authority was undermined. I was not the only one of his friends who told him to his face that he had behaved badly - very badly - to discover that our close relationship was never to be the same again. Margaret had many friends. We were dumbfounded. But it was clear that he found happiness with Gaynor.
A serious political test of his time as Foreign Secretary was his attempt to show that a Labour foreign policy could be different from a Conservative foreign policy. Shortly after his appointment, Cook told the Commons that Labour's foreign policy would have an "ethical dimension", with greater emphasis on human rights and regulation of the arms trade. However much the phrase has since been manipulated, it did offer a wonderful opportunity as a yardstick against which every government announcement could be judged. So when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown decided that it was not practical to revoke existing contracts for the sale of Hawk fighter jets to Indonesia, Cook's ethical intentions were ridiculed on all sides of the political spectrum.
This should not detract from his success in driving through a European Community code of conduct on arms sales and a ban on the British use of anti-personnel mines and in helping to establish an international criminal court. Although I happen to believe that it was wrong and unwise, the military intervention in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo pointed to the emergence of a new principle in British foreign policy - that is Cook's doctrine of humanitarian intervention. But any judgement, even an interim judgement, on Cook's legacy to British politics - and it is more than an ephemeral legacy - will have to wait.
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