Ned Temko pays tribute to a leading parliamentarian with a fine line in self-deprecating humour:
Robin Cook died on 6 August 2005. It is somehow fitting that Robin Cook’s most memorable Parliamentary performance in a political career that spanned three-and-a-half decades should have come in a resignation speech. A mix of the keen intellect, searing debating skills and political principle which were the hallmarks of his public life, it forensically dissected Britain’s arguments for going to war against Iraq, and prompted that rarest of Commons occurrences: spontaneous, contagious applause.
Cook began his career as a local councillor in Edinburgh and went on to become an MP, an Opposition front-bencher and, when Labour finally ended its years of opposition in 1997, Foreign Secretary. Even after he was shunted aside to become Leader of the Commons after Tony Blair’s second election triumph, he remained a party heavyweight – frustrated only in his dream of getting to the very top.
Along the way, he also faced personal crises, most painfully the very public break-up of his first marriage within days of Labour’s 1997 victory, under Downing Street pressure to stay one step ahead of the tabloid headlines.
But over the past few years, since retreating from frontline political prominence after his Iraq war resignation, he had begun to convey a new sense of perspective about political life – revelling in self-deprecating TV appearances, as well as in his long-time love for horse-racing
It was appropriate, friends suggested, that his sudden collapse and death yesterday should have come not in Westminster, but in Scotland, where the roots of so much that he accomplished lie.
When Cook was made Foreign Secretary, it was not his first choice – he would have preferred a domestic spending department. But he went on to earn high marks for his command of foreign policy issues after an early period marred by a number of high-profile crises.
He also came to enjoy the job, and was jolted by Blair’s decision to take it from him in the reshuffle after the 2001 elections. Blair acted partly out of fear that if left in place, Cook, an ardent supporter of the European single currency, would clash destructively with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown. But whatever the reasons, it was a reversal that hurt Cook badly. Offered the consolation post of Commons leader, he accepted only after agonised consultations with close friends.
Cook was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, in February 1946, the son of a chemistry teacher. Bookish from childhood – he had read most of Dickens by the time he was 10 – he was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and Edinburgh University, where he found himself absorbed equally in English literature, religion and politics.
In 1971, after a brief stint as a teacher at a comprehensive, he embarked on a Scottish-based career in Labour politics. He began as an Edinburgh councillor, where he soon won responsibility for the housing portfolio, and went on to became MP for Edinburgh Central, at 28, in 1974. He moved to fight the safer seat of Livingston in 1983, holding it for the rest of his life.
With the party’s crushing election defeat in 1983, Cook began to reassess and amend some of his Old Labour views – including strong opposition to British entry into the European Community, and to Scottish devolution.
Cook went on to hold a series of shadow cabinet posts, including treasury, Europe and health. But even after his Edinburgh friend John Smith took over as leader – after a further Labour election defeat – Cook’s star began to fade as those of Gordon Brown and Blair grew brighter.
In 1994, when Smith died suddenly of a heart attack, Cook thought briefly of standing for the leadership, until it became clear that Blair was building up an unstoppable momentum.
Cook was never personally close to Blair, nor indeed, fully New Labour. And though the Foreign Secretary’s job marked him out as a cabinet heavyweight, he ran into a series of early difficulties that lowered his stock at Number 10.
Within days of his appointment, with press reports about to break of an affair with his appointments secretary, Gaynor Regan, he was in effect bounced by Alastair Campbell into a public declaration that he was splitting with his wife of nearly 30 years, Margaret Whitmore. On early diplomatic missions to the Middle East and to India, Cook also built up a reputation for decidedly undiplomatic comments. He also faced embarrassment having to defend British arms sales and other policies after a high-profile emphasis on delivering an ‘ethical foreign policy’.
But he went on to win praise as a gifted master of his brief and a formidable negotiator – evidenced in his successful effort to get the Iranians to disavow the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie; and in international efforts to deal with ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.
They were qualities, too, that had long marked him out within Labour. During the years in opposition, they were most famously on display when, as shadow Foreign Secretary in 1996, he led the assault on the government over failings singled out in the Scott Inquiry into the sale of machine parts with possible military application to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Given just two hours to digest a five-volume, 2,000-page report, he mastered his brief so thoroughly, and marshalled his Commons assault so forcefully, that even rival MPs conceded that it was an extraordinary performance.
Seven years later, it was Britain’s decision to join American in war against Saddam which occasioned his most memorable Parliamentary address. As Foreign Secretary, Cook had staunchly defended the US-UK pre-9/11 ‘containment’ policy towards Saddam. In the run-up to war, Cook resisted the effort to join early rebels – but made clear his scepticism about the immediacy of the threat from Baghdad, and his insistence that any attack must have clear UN backing.
But it was clear there would be no second UN resolution, and that war was drawing near. Before the Commons convened, he told his colleagues he had no choice but to resign. Rising to address a packed and suddenly silent chamber, he spoke in a deliberate tone of restraint that added power to his words. ‘I cannot support a war without international agreement or domestic support,’ Cook declared. ‘Neither the international community nor the British people is persuaded there is an urgent or compelling reason for this action in Iraq.’
When he had finished speaking, the government front bench sat in silence. But slowly, Labour critics of the war, joined by Liberal Democrats and MPs on all sides of the house, began to applaud. The applause then spread to the public gallery.
Having spent all his life as a leading figure within Labour, Cook retained a dignified tone even in the weeks after the war began. He pointedly resisted joining those who accused Blair of having knowingly or deliberately misled the country over the threat.
And in the campaign for this year’s general election, he was among the front-line campaigners to get disaffected Labour voters to back the party. Cook was very much a creature of Westminster, so completely a political animal that he was frequently described as far more widely respected than loved by colleagues. But once his frontline political role was over, Cook seemed much more in touch with a life outside politics.
When asked by an interviewer to name his personal passions, he replied, in a particularly apt epitaph for a man of huge gifts and complex motivations: ‘The two most exciting sights and noises I know are these: a large field coming into a steeplechase fence; and the clang of the ballot boxes as they hit the floor on election night.’
Born 28 February 1946, Bellshill, Lanarkshire, only son of a science teacher. Named Robert Finlayson Cook; nicknamed Robin at school.
Education Aberdeen Grammar School, Royal High School, Edinburgh and Edinburgh University, where he read English literature.
Family Married first to Margaret and then to Gaynor. Two children from first marriage.
1974 Enters Parliament as MP for Edinburgh Central.
1983 becomes MP for Livingston.
1989-92 Shadow Health Secretary.
1992-94 Shadow Trade Secretary.
1994-97 Shadow Foreign Secretary.
1996 Demolishes Tories with a devastating analysis of the Scott report on the arms-to-Iraq scandal. Given just two hours to prepare after being handed a copy of the 2,000-page document, Cook, then shadow foreign secretary, produces a masterly performance.
1997-2001 Foreign Secretary. Introduces ‘ethical’ foreign policy.
2001-March 2003 Moved by Tony Blair to become Leader of the House of Commons.
March 17, 2003 Resigns from government in protest at the government’s policy on Iraq. His resignation speech is described by the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, as ‘without doubt one of the most effective, brilliant, resignation speeches in modern British politics’.