Sunday, February 28, 2016

Point of departure

Had he lived, Robin Cook, a British Labour party politician who served as Foreign Secretary under Tony Blair, would have reached three score years and ten today. Considered a great parliamentarian, he was also a man, apparently, of high principles, who resigned rather than be part of the government that supported George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. His only published book - at least as far as I can tell - is a selection of diary entries, written during the second New Labour government. He planned the book, he said, as an ‘honest attempt’ to explain how he ‘arrived at the point of departure’, i.e. resigning from his government cabinet post.

Robert - known as Robin - Finlayson Cook was born on 28 February 1946 in Bellshill, Scotland, the only son of a chemistry teacher, and the grandson of a miner. Educated in Aberdeen, Royal High School, Edinburgh, and the University of Edinburgh, he eschewed the idea of a career in religion for teaching and then politics. In 1969, he married Margaret Katherine Whitmore, with whom he had two sons. In 1970, he contested, unsuccessfully, the Edinburgh North constituency, but then he won Edinburgh Central at the next election becoming an MP in February 1974. When the constituency boundaries were changed in 1983, he transferred to the nearby Livingston constituency, which he represented for the rest of his life.

In Parliament, Cook joined the left-wing Tribune Group of the Parliamentary Labour Party and soon found himself opposing policies of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. He established himself in Parliament as a powerful debater, and rose through the party ranks, winning shadow cabinet posts in Opposition under Neil Kinnock (health 1987-1992), John Smith (trade and industry 1992-1994), and Tony Blair (foreign affairs 1994-1997). As Shadow Foreign Secretary, responding to the government’s presentation of the Scott report into the Arms-to-Iraq affair, he said, famously, ‘this is not just a Government which does not know how to accept blame; it is a Government which knows no shame’.

When the Labour Party came into power in 1997, Blair made Cook Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, a position he held throughout Blair’s first term of office. Only months after becoming Foreign Secretary, however, Cook was hit with a public scandal: b
efore the newspapers released the story, he announced he was leaving his wife and would marry Gaynor Regan, a member of his staff with whom he’d been having an affair. They married the following year. Cook’s period as Foreign Secretary was characterised by controversial British interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, by his helping normalise relations with Iran after the death threats against Salman Rushdie, and by making progress with Libya after a long stand-off following the Lockerbie bombing.

After the 2001 general election, Blair replaced Cook, against his wishes, with Jack Straw at the Foreign Office, offering Cook the job of Leader of the House of Commons, still in the Cabinet but, nevertheless, considered a demotion. After consideration, Cook took the position, and set about trying to reform some Parliamentary practices. By 2003, though, he was increasingly at odds with Blair over the prospect of military action against Iraq; and on 17 March he resigned. In his resignation speech - widely praised -  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?’ Outside of government, he remained an active Parliamentary Member, commenting on foreign affairs, education, Europe and reform of the House of Lords. He was also reconciled with Gordon Brown, after decades of mutual animosity, with the aim of ensuring progressive Labour Party policies beyond Blair’s leadership.

In 2005, Cook died, unexpectedly, from a heart attack while walking in the Scottish Highlands. Blair, on holiday at the time, was criticised for not attending his funeral, though he delivered a reading at Cook’s memorial in December at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. Jack Straw said he was ‘the greatest parliamentarian of his generation and a very fine Foreign Secretary’. Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia or from obituaries at the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, or The Independent. A longer profile can be found at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (though log-in is required).

As far as I can tell, Robin Cook only published one book, and this was based on a diary he kept during his term of office as Leader of the House of Commons: The ODNB says: ‘Since 2001 Cook had kept a diary and in October 2003 he published an edited version as The Point of Departure, his account of the Iraq crisis and other events of the period. The book stood out from other ministerial memoirs, usually evasive and self-serving, of the Thatcher–Blair era. Its style was fluent and sophisticated, and the account of cabinet government under New Labour was analytical and frank, but never vitriolic.’ Interestingly, this is in stark contrast to the bitter and rather self-justifying text, also full of diary material, published by Clare Short - who turned 70 a couple of weeks ago 
(see No. 10 hostile to me) - a short time after .

Introducing his book, Cook says: ‘The narrative charts a personal journey in which my early enthusiasm over my role in modernising the Commons and reforming the Lords became overshadowed by growing concern and eventual dismay at our complicity in George Bush’s intentions on Iraq. Although the culmination may have been Bush’s war, the prelude records my deepening disaffection with elements of the domestic agenda. It is the story of how I found myself losing touch with a leadership which often appeared to have instincts that were at odds with values that had brought me into the Labour Party and had sustained me through long barren years of Opposition. [. . .] This book is my honest attempt to explain how I arrived at the point of departure.’

It is worth noting that the tone and language of this introduction appear to suggest the book is significantly more than what it appears on the surface, a collection of diary entries: the way Cook writes, for example, of the book as a ‘narrative’, a ‘story’, and ‘my honest attempt to explain’, implies something closer to a moulded memoir. Any how, here are a couple of extracts from The Point of Departure (Simon & Schuster, see Amazon for a preview).

4 December 2001
’Began the day with a visit to Jack Straw at the Foreign Office to make my peace. The Secretary of State’s room has reverted to tradition. My examples of the best of British design have gone from the bookcase which has once again gone back to sleep with a collection of leather-bound early Hansards which no one will ever read.

I began by getting my apology in first. “Look, I’m sorry that I snapped at you at the Cabinet. But what’s important to me now is that we quit the argument as to who saw the document first and who got the document too late, and get on with agreeing on a package for modernisation.” Jack was generous in accepting the apology. “I have now had a chance to read the paper and it does have a lot of good ideas. I’ll make a point of writing in to support the revised version.” ’

13 March 2003
‘I am not out of the house before Jack Straw calls me to urge me not to resign. Jack and I go back a long way and were the two junior members of Peter Shore’s Treasury team in the early eighties. I got the impression that he clearly wants me to stay out of concern for me as a friend.

The case he put to me was rather legalistic. He went over how resolution 1441 gives us all the legal authority we require to launch war. I responded that my problem was the political and diplomatic absurdity of a unilateral war even if it were legal.

I saw Tony before Cabinet. I found him half-amused, half-furious with IDS. He had given IDS a briefing in Privy Councillor terms, and, to his dismay, IDS had walked straight out of the door and disclosed to camera that the Prime Minister thought a second resolution now ‘very unlikely’. Since the fiction that Tony still hopes to get a second resolution is central to his strategy for keeping the Labour Party in check, it is not welcome news that IDS has told the world that not even Tony believes this.

I began by joking: “I’m getting so many regular checks from colleagues that I’m beginning to think I’m on suicide watch. I wouldn’t be entirely surprise if someone came along and took away my belt and shoelaces to keep me out of harm’s way.” He laughed and said - and I think he meant it - “I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

I was frank with him that my mind was made up, and that I would not mislead him into thinking that he could persuade me to change it. However, I was equally clear that I was not running any other agenda, or lending myself to an attack on his leadership. “You have been the most successful Labour leader in my lifetime. I want you to go on being leader and to on being successful.”

At this point his body language visibly softened as his muscles relaxed and he leaned back into his sofa. After that he was open, almost philosophical. All he said confirmed my impression that he is mystified as to quite how he got into such a hole and baffled as to whether there is any way out other than persisting in the strategy that has created his present difficulties.

He told me that he was going to call a special Cabinet meeting when the process in the UN was complete, and I promised that I would make no public move while he was still working for a result in the UN.

After me he was seeing Clare [Short], which had the effect of delaying Cabinet for fifteen minutes. [. . .]

When I got back to the office there was a message from the Foreign Office to say that Jack would be very grateful if I could represent the government at the funeral on Saturday of Zoran Djindjic, the Prime Minister of Serbia, who was assassinated yesterday. I readily agreed as I had worked with Zoran for years. We cooperated closely when I was Foreign Secretary and he was in opposition. It is a terrible irony that throughout those years he managed to avoid being assassinated by Milosevic, only to be killed now that he has brought Milosevic to the bar of justice. There is also something of an irony in that my last official engagement representing the government will be attending a funeral.’

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