Can Cook speak the foreign language?

Stephen Castle and Michael Sheridan view the world through the eyes of a Labour Foreign Secretary
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THE PAST 10 days have been pretty good for Robin Cook. With a prosecuting advocate's relish, the Shadow Foreign Secretary devoured the 1,800 pages of the Scott Report on the arms-to-Iraq scandal in just three- and-a-half hours. His forensic talents were deployed in a vicious House of Commons performance, no doubt to be repeated tomorrow.

It was, in short, a perfect brief for one born to opposition. But what will happen if Mr Cook himself should one day move into the gilded offices of state? Across London the embassies are stirring themselves to inquire what a Labour government might mean. Will Britain cling to Douglas Hurd's aspiration to "punch above our weight"?

There has not been a Labour foreign secretary in King Charles Street since David Owen's unlamented departure in May 1979, pursued by animosities over Peter Jay's Washington ambassadorship and the wounding telegram from Sir Nicholas Henderson in Paris bemoaning our decline. Not to mention the echoes of Britain's debacle in revolutionary Iran - Labour governments, too, can make cynical miscalculations about when it is wise to support foreign dictators.

Labour's foreign policy team has made scant plans for office, even though Mr Cook admits to no doubts about victory in the next election. His two young policy advisers, Andrew Hood and David Clark, divide between them a clamouring world of issues and meetings. There is as yet almost no contact between the Labour team and the mandarins of the Foreign Office, only a shy curiosity on both sides about the habits of these mutually unfamiliar species. A Cook foreign policy speech planned for last week was postponed because of Scott.

The biggest question is also the simplest. Does Robin Cook actually want to be Foreign Secre- tary? There is speculation in Labour circles about a post-election reshuffle which might return him to pure domestic politics. Mr Cook himself insists he has grown to like and be fascinated by the foreign affairs beat. But his devotion to the Scott crusade has so far focused almost exclusively on the party political agenda. He has steered around the confusion, conspiracies and incompetence of the civil servants exposed in the report - although the culture and attitudes revealed by Scott are already providing Labour serious food for thought.

The fact is that after his reluctant departure from the trade and industry portfolio, Mr Cook was determined to stay in the lead of Labour's Scott offensive because he saw it as a cause that served his broad political interests. Said one Labour MP: "Robin realises that all that travel, those rides in embassy cars with the Union Flag fluttering from the bonnet, the dinner parties with the ambassador - they appeal to your vanity, but they do not win any plaudits with the colleagues."

Yet Mr Cook has so far travelled to the US, Russia and Rwanda. He plans to go to China, Hong Kong, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent later this year. He reflects that Viscount Grey served as foreign secretary for nine years before he went abroad but a modern foreign secretary could hardly stay at home as long as nine weeks. Mr Cook is trusted by the Labour leader on foreign affairs but he may not have it all his own way. If Mr Blair is elected, Downing Street would have a foreign policy expert in his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell. He is a former Foreign Office high- flyer and brother of Sir Charles Powell, the diplomat-turned-courtier who advised Margaret Thatcher. What can be gleaned of future Labour policies on the evidence so far?

On Europe, Mr Cook is hard-headed and no federalist. His approach to monetary union is based on "real economic convergence". He believes upheaval in the Continental economies could spare Labour the stark choices posed by the Maastricht criteria. One Labour source, however, argues that Mr Cook would, ultimately go along with a single currency "knowing that Gordon Brown would get the blame if it all goes wrong".

On Britain's role in the world, Labour seems bound to take a view constrained by domestic circumstances. Every effort will be made to preserve Britain's permanent seat on the UN Security Council but there could be greater flexibility in negotiating UN reform. Nuclear diplomacy would loom large as pressure increases on Britain and France to put their deterrent forces into multilateral talks. Most Labour MPs would probably prefer to endorse a policy geared towards eventual disarmament, a clear contrast to the Tory preference for the status quo.

A Labour government would be less automatically keen to project British military power abroad. The Conservatives made a virtue of our military training and involvement with governments in Africa and Asia that Labour would find distasteful.

It is now clear that the next British government will inherit some sort of commitment to Bosnia. It will remain a divisive and perilous test of European resolve, even though British troops should have been withdrawn by the end of 1996. But what might Labour do about future Bosnias?

Mr Cook already worries over Hong Kong, due to be handed over to China in 1997. This imperial farewell could provide Labour's first policy nightmare if careful arrangements worked out with the Chinese disintegrate.

But most conspicuous of all are the awkward questions raised by Scott: interests versus principles, arms deals versus ideals, morality versus jobs. What future for the vast weapons contracts with the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia, vital for thousands of defence sector jobs?

Glenys Kinnock recently called for a future Labour government to "properly control" arms exports and to consider "interventionist industrial conversion programmes". Because of his soft-left credentials Mr Cook has important leverage with party members. But these are areas where party idealism will collide head-on with existing policy. One can almost hear the mandarin murmurs of "British interests, Secretary of State, British interests" as Mr Cook wrestles with this conundrum.

"Cook would be a very political foreign secretary," said one ally. "It would be a departure for the Foreign Office. It would have to engage much more in the political process." Some policy makers talk of the need to "graft a Labour administration" on to a civil service which Scott depicts as numbed by Conservative dog- ma. It has become routine, for example, to hear Foreign Office spokesmen cite "privatisation expertise" as a permanent asset to British foreign policy or to spout a line on Europe that can sound like a party political tract. Monetarist orthodoxy is always "sensible," free trade "desirable" and arms sales "the real world."

But plenty of people in the Foreign Office are weary of the insistent mantras of "market testing" and the incessant presence of management consultants, fed up with spending cuts and seriously concerned with the decline in the ethos of public service. The latest wheeze of "performance related pay" for senior ambassadors is the last straw for many who entered the diplomatic service out of a traditional sense of patriotism.

"I wonder if Labour are aware of the enormous residue of goodwill that might await them," muses one up-and-coming high flyer. "They would not want to spoil that, would they?"