A man of high principle - both prickly and brilliant

Robin Cook was the left's most talented leader in a generation. Crucial to the rise of New Labour, he never fully embraced its values and was increasingly at odds with Tony Blair. By Cole Moreton and Francis Elliott
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Indy Politics

Cook's demolition of his own leader's case for war that day in March 2003 employed all his dazzling skills as a Parliamentarian. It also summed up the paradoxes of his career. Few could beat him on the floor of the House of Commons, but he admitted that he did not have the looks to be party leader. He loved his job as Leader of the Commons, but his appointment to the job had been as a result of his removal from the higher office of Foreign Secretary. He was a man of high principle, but his attempt to establish foreign policy with "an ethical dimension" had been a public relations disaster.

Yet Robin Cook had come to know himself late. His marriage to Gaynor Regan, after a much-publicised split with his first wife, Margaret, had taught him to be less intense, less intellectual, less driven, he said. Out of office he was free to talk and write as he pleased - whether that was about the ongoing chaos in Iraq or his great passion, horse racing. He found release from affairs of state by writing as a racing tipster. John McCrirrick, the prickly Channel 4 racing expert who was a friend, said Cook had "an almost childlike enthusiasm for jump racing."

The political journalist Robin Oakley, himself a tipster, said: "Robin Cook never tires of talking about the turf. He amazed me by pitching up at Kempton on the eve of the big Commons debate on the Scott Inquiry [a career-defining moment when Cook took the Conservative government apart over the sale of arms to Iraq]. He had clearly written his major speech in good time to allow him to get away to enjoy a day at the races."

Robert Finlayson Cook was wittier than his public knew, and sometimes warmer. He took his racing seriously, but that was the approach to life he had been taught. He was born in Bellshill in Lanarkshire on 28 February 1946, the only child of a science teacher and the grandson of a miner who had been blacklisted for being involved in a strike. Theirs was a religious home, and a traditional one. When his primary school teacher remarked on the poor quality of his handwriting he was given a copy of Tam O'Shanter by Robert Burns to copy out line by line after church.

"I was brought up in a home which valued learning, and when you are an only child you feel a pressure to perform," he said. He gave his first speech in a debate at the age of 11.

At first he went to the all-boys Aberdeen Grammar School, but when he was still a teenager the family moved so that his father could become headmaster of the Royal High School in Edinburgh, where Robert was a pupil. Only by then he had been given the nickname Robin.

Drama and the debating society were his two favourite things at school, and he took an early interest in politics. There were two badges on his blazer, one for CND and the other representing the campaign against apartheid. His enthusiasm for unilateral nuclear disarmament led him to join the Labour Party in 1963. The following year he went to Edinburgh University. He was planning to go into the church, but when his faith became beset by doubt he switched to English Literature, gaining an MA.

His first job after university was as a teacher. He was working at the Bo'ness Academy, a comprehensive school in West Lothian, when he married Margaret Whitmore, a consultant at the local hospital in 1969. They went on to have two sons, Peter and Christopher.

Robin Cook was 28 when he entered parliament in 1974, as MP for Edinburgh Central. "I wanted to be in parliament rather than in government," he said. "Everything else has been a bonus."

He was a studious MP, and once found himself locked in the Commons library at three in the morning. Other, more obvious attributes came to the attention of the press. Small, red-haired and lean, he was easily compared to a garden gnome. His intellect, and his confidence in it, were also teased. The Independent on Sunday's political commentator, Alan Watkins, said of him, "He thinks he knows as much as Leonardo da Vinci. The trouble is a lot of things have happened since da Vinci's time."

Cook was also described as having "frostbitten arrogance". Asked whether it was true that he did not have a great circle of friends, Cook answered in a way that revealed his talent for seeing the political dimension. "Friends? I've never built factions around myself, if that's what you mean."

In 1983 he captured the seat of Livingston, West Lothian, which he held until his death. He rose through the Labour ranks, a spokesman on health and trade and industry, and was close to John Smith, the leader who shared his Scottish roots and love for whisky and walking. When Smith died in 1994 he considered running for the leadership, and took a while to give up that idea. But he was self-aware enough to know his main disadvantage in an era of slick presentation, and accepted the offer to become Tony Blair's campaign manager. "My looks and personality are very much of the school swot," he said. "I'm not good-looking enough to be party leader."

During the Major years, Cook made his name with a series of blistering attacks on the Government front bench. His ability to fillet reports and turn them on ministers to devastating effect was coupled with a witty but brutal debating style described by one writer as "a talent for controlled contempt".

When New Labour won the 1997 election by a landslide he became Foreign Secretary - but soon became an early victim of the spin era. According to Margaret Cook, who described the episode in a book, the couple were on their way to Heathrow airport for a riding holiday in Montana in 1998 when her husband took a phone call. It was Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, ringing to say that a Sunday newspaper was about to reveal to the nation that Cook was having an affair with his secretary, Gaynor Regan.

Campbell later denied telling Cook to cancel the holiday and stay in the country - but Margaret Cook was told by her husband that their marriage was over in the VIP room at Heathrow's Terminal Four. Later that year the marriage was dissolved and he married Ms Regan.

Cook was hurt when Tony Blair demoted him after the next election, in June 2001. He returned from No 10 to his London flat, where Gaynor was waiting, and rang his son Christopher who was already heading for the Foreign Secretary's official country resident, Chevening in Kent. They had planned to spend the weekend there.

"I had to ring him up and say I'm not coming because I don't have the keys to the front door any more." Father and son had dinner in London instead. "It was good-tempered, not tearful," said Cook. "God knows, I'm in my fifties and I was brought up in a tough culture where men don't cry."

Cook was made Leader of the House of Commons, a job that he loved and in which he was popular on all sides of the House. It made the most of his love for Parliament. But he resigned in March 2003, as British troops were preparing to invade Iraq. In his speech he asked, "Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create?" Nevertheless, he also said that Tony Blair was the most successful Labour leader in his lifetime, and hoped he would continue.

The week of his resignation he also lost his mother, Christina, who died at the age of 90 in a nursing home. His father, Peter, had died in 1994. It was then than that Cook discovered two packing cases stuffed with press cuttings about his career.

His recreations listed in Who's Who were "eating, reading and talking". On Desert Island Discs in November 2003, Cook chose a chess computer as his luxury. His music included "Mr Tambourine Man" by Bob Dylan, "I Loves You Porgy" performed by the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and the Siegfried Idyll by Wagner. His son Christopher rang him afterwards to say, "Your choice of music was not as excruciatingly embarrassing as I had expected." He also chose Mahler's Symphony No 5, to remind him of "the good and bad times with Gaynor", who was touched by the gesture. His choice of reading, in addition to the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, was the National Hunt form book.

Gaynor was "a total support" who had taught him a great deal, he once said: "I have been too intellectual in my approach to life, placed too much store on merit being rewarded and not related to people as people." He hoped she had made him more sensitive to the feelings of others. He also hoped to return to the Cabinet one day, possibly under the leadership of Gordon Brown, who had been a rival all his political life (and often bitterly: they were openly at war during Labour's first term) but who shared many of his roots. After Cook's final break from Tony Blair's cabinet, the two men had a rapprochement.

Without the restraints of collective cabinet responsibility, the former minister felt free to speak out from the back benches. The first paper to give him a platform was The Independent, for which he wrote a column. Immediately after the last election, which was dominated by the subject of the war in Iraq, he said: "The question Tony Blair should be reflecting on this weekend, having secured his place in the history of the Labour Party and the history of Britain, is whether now might be a better time to let a new leader in."

Carefully worded, sensitive to political reality, it was a very Robin Cook way of saying, "Stand down now." On the radio, in print, at literary festivals and on other platforms around the country, the dissident whose worst fears about the war had come true now found himself as something of a reluctant, prickly cheerleader for those who felt Mr Blair could not be forgiven for the disaster of Iraq. People warmed to him in a way they never had while he was in power. But he kept his distance, on the whole. His attacks remained measured and accurately aimed. Cook knew the realities of office and had never been one to let the agendas of other people deflect him from his own opinions.

Having travelled the world as Foreign Secretary (and caught in several embarrassing poses by photographers) he chose to take his holidays in the Hebrides and the Highlands. It was there that he died, within reach of the majestic lochs and peaks that are almost as mighty as his ambition once was.


Edited text of Robin Cook's Commons resignation speech:

This is the first time for 20 years that I have addressed the house from the back benches... 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. They want inspections to be given a chance, and they suspect they are being pushed too quickly into conflict by a US administration with an agenda of its own.

Above all, they are uneasy at Britain going out on a limb on a military adventure ... against the hostility of many of our traditional allies.

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.

It has been a favourite theme of commentators that this house no longer occupies a central role in British politics. Nothing could better demonstrate that they are wrong than for this house to stop the commitment of troops in a war that has neither international agreement nor domestic support.

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 his opening salvo in May 2003 until his final contribution last September, Robin Cook was a distinguished columnist in The Independent - as the following excerpts show:

Cook on Iraq 12/06/2004

Anybody spotted a Baghdad Bounce lately? You may remember that fantastical creature. It was supposed to emerge on polling day last year as a grateful nation recorded its appreciation of military victory with its votes. The political fallout from the war goes deeper than damage to Labour's vote.

Cook on the Hutton inquiry 29/01/2004

If I am ever up in court on a serious charge, I want to book Lord Hutton now as the trial judge. The impeccable standards of proof on which he insists have a predisposition to acquittal. His judgement is almost one-dimensional.

Cook on the Gilligan affair 08/07/2003

If he were an angler, Alastair Campbell could claim the gold cup for landing the largest red herring ever. Single-handedly he has convinced half the media that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry was into the origins of his war with the BBC.

Cook on Bush and Blair 14/11/2003

Tony Blair claimed this week that protests against Mr Bush's visit were evidence of "resurgent anti-Americanism". [...] It is a dishonest, shallow, cheap argument, not worthy of such a consummate communicator as our Prime Minister.