Robin Cook R.I.P.

by Stephen Tall on August 7, 2005

The encomia which studded news coverage of Robin Cook’s sudden death were wholly apt. I have tried, and failed, to think of a single other Labour politician for whom I have such utter respect. Respect cuts two ways: one cannot help but respect Tony Blair for his acute stage management of political theatre, or the brio with which he practises his impresario art. But for Mr Cook I felt a respect borne of shared values, and admiration not merely for his coruscating intellect, but for the clear-sighted acuity with which he communicated his passionately held views.

It is an irony, though not an especially surprising one, that his political radicalism developed inversely to that of his early rival for supremacy in Scottish politics, Gordon Brown. (They were both later, of course, to be eclipsed by a Scottish politician whose middle-class English-ness was beyond impeach.) Mr Cook was a ferocious opponent of Scottish devolution in 1979, and a fervent supporter in 1997; Mr Brown’s support did not waver. Yet it was precisely Mr Cook’s willingness to think afresh his views which marked him out: he was a nimble, subtle, free thinker; a sharp contrast to Mr Brown’s gloomy, Presbyterian pedagogy.

This extract from his diary-cum-treatise The Point of Departure illustrates his commitment to progressive politics (and his deft writing style):

“Globalisation renders the modern world a challenging place… the old dividing lines between left and right will evolve over the twenty-first century into a parallel divide between cosmopolitans and chauvinists. Reactionary political forces will be distinguished by their attempts at isolation from the modern world and nostalgia for a false, romanticised past world. They will resent the pressures to reach international agreement as a threat and are more likely to detain than welcome the stranger in their midst. By contrast, progressive political forces will be outward-looking and comfortable with building international partnerships.

“…the cosmopolitan character of Britain has been enhanced by increased migration and the pathways opened for it by our historic ties around the globe… Such ethnic diversity is an inevitable consequence of globalisation and the population movements that accompany it. The states that will best retain their cohesion through this century will be those that welcome new communities as strengthening their economy and enriching their culture. Those states that will experience the greatest tension in coming to terms with the modern world will be those who struggle to preserve an ethnic or religious monoculture.”

It was his blistering dissection of the Scott Report in 1996 which proved his second finest hour. I remember watching the debate that February afternoon. Ian Lang – another Scottish politician who had swapped sides in the devolution debate, from pro in ’79 to anti in ’97 – opened the batting for the Tories, and blandly asserted that Lord Justice Scott had exonerated the Government on every major allegation. Those of us who had followed the inquiry’s proceedings wondered if cabinet ministers William Waldegrave and Nicholas Lyell had made the headline writers’ dreams come true, and got off ‘Scott free’.

Then came Mr Cook. His parliamentary tour de force earned a hand-written note from Mr Blair: “Dear Robin, I really thought your performance was one of the highlights of my time in parliament. You were not merely brilliant, you lifted the whole morale of our troops.” Mr Blair was guilty of no exaggeration. Which leads us on nicely to Iraq, Mr Cook’s finest hour.

I watched Mr Cook’s 10-minute House of Commons speech with rapt attention. He summarised, succinctly, devastatingly, passionately, why the Labour Government was wrong to join forces with Mr Bush in prosecuting war against Iraq based on a false prospectus. Mr Blair spoke the following day, and earned rich plaudits for his oratorical display. Yet it is Mr Cook’s speech which has passed the test of time: he was right, the Prime Minister wrong. One section in particular resounds:

“What has come to trouble me most over past weeks is the suspicion that if the hanging chads in Florida had gone the other way and Al Gore had been elected, we would not now be about to commit British troops. 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 that 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 without a broader international coalition and against the hostility of many of our traditional allies.”

A few months ago, when Mr Blair’s fortunes were at their nadir, there was some idle speculation that a ‘Ginger Alliance’ might at some point be formed between Mr Cook and Charles Kennedy. It was a flight of fancy, of course. But, for many of us, the thought of such a partnership held many attractions. Radical progressives are in short supply in British politics: to be robbed of Mr Cook’s talents when he had so much more still to give is a profound tragedy.