Letter from Simon Kelner: Vindication, by necessity, is a dish often served cold


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It seems like another era when politicians, having taken a stand on an issue, resign on a point of principle and do so by making a speech to Parliament.

Do you remember former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's electrifying resignation speech in 2003 to the House of Commons on the eve of military action in Iraq?

"Why is it so urgent," he asked, rhetorically, "that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years and which we helped to create?" Given that the past week or so has been spent in retrospection, trying to make sense of what has happened in the decade since 9/11, it seemed appropriate to look again at the late Mr Cook's address.

The measured tone, articulacy and perspicacity - not to mention the courage of chucking in a job in government - is as impressive now as it was eight years ago.

"On Iraq, I believe the prevailing mood of the British people is sound," he said. "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... Above all, they are uneasy at Britain going out on a limb on a military adventure without a broader international coalition and against the hostility of our traditional allies." How right Cook was in forecasting the "thousands" of civilian casualties and that this campaign would only fuel Muslim resentment of the West. He won an unprecedented standing ovation from the House.

I got to know Robin Cook when, some time after this speech, I hired him as a columnist. And a damn fine columnist he was, too: a stylish writer who was never afraid to say something unpopular. I later discovered this to my cost when he decided to jump ship to another newspaper.

He invited me to lunch at a posh London restaurant. (I knew something was up: no politician has ever, in my experience, picked up the tab for lunch with a journalist.)

Pleasantries over, he got down to business. "I have had an offer from another newspaper and I have decided to take it," he said, over the Dover sole. The news was dispatched with clinical efficiency and I could only admire his brutal honesty. This is how politicians do betrayal, I thought.

Nevertheless, we stayed friends until he died on a Scottish mountainside in 2005 and, over the past few days in particular, I couldn't help thinking how much politics has missed people like Robin Cook.