Sunday, August 07, 2005

 

Robin Cook Appreciated

It was a real shock to hear of Robin Cook's death. He had become so much a part of everyday political life it seems hard to think how we can not have him around. His career is significant for a number of reasons I think.

1. He was part of that clutch of hugely talented young politicians who came down from Scotish universities in the seventies- John Smith, George Robertson, Gordon Brown and, a little later, Alastair Darling. He was close to Smith and figured highly in his Shadow Cabinets but he fell out with Brown-allegedly because Cook did not show enough gratitude when Brown helped in an early campaign- though he was able to make it up in recent years and most expected him to take a senior portfolio under Brown, once he stepped into the main job. He was initially against devolution but came to accept it in the late eighties, thus helping the left to achieve unity on the issue as he also did on accepting membership of the EEC in the eighties.

2. He was the leading parliamentarian of his generation, truly excoriating in opposition and rock solid safe when in government. His greatest moment came when he was handed the Scott Report-6000 pages- a mere two hours before the Commons deabte on it and succeeded in impaling Major's government with probably the greatest speech in parliament during the nineties.We now learn however that Cook had prepared some two thirds of the speech beforehand through hoovring up details from the Inquiry and merely adding key points from the Report during his speech; but few could have equalled this or delivered the speech with his devastating blend of wit and contempt. He won the Spectator awrd of Parliamentarian of the Year in two successive years. One problem with Cook's outstanding intellect was that he tended to discourage close friendships. He could be prickly and alienated some in the party by his brusque and occasionally arrogant manner. He might have needed those friends if he had continued to aspire to high office. In 1994 he did consider standing for the leadership but by then Blair's bandwagon was well on its way. Besides, as he once confessed; 'I am not good looking enough to be leader of the party.' Sadly, perhaps, this was true, but an indictment of our image obsessed times.

3. Foreign Secretary 1997-2001. Cook surprised his civil servants at the Foreign Office in 1997 by stating he would pursue an 'ethical foreign policy'. There is no doubt that the decisions to intervene in Kosovo and Sierra Leone fell in this category and can be put down as successes in that they diminished suffering substantially. However his record on arms sales was not so exemplary. The Independent on Sunday in July 2002 revealed that Britian had been selling arms to nearly 50 countries which where conflict was judged to be endemic including Israel, Pakistan, Turkey, Angola and Colombia. If he did not achieve a genuine ethical foreign policy then he did at least achieve a genuine change of emphasis.

Conclusion: Cook was possibly the most talented complete professional politician in Labour's ranks after Tony Blair. He was cleverer than virtually any of them and a better speaker- though Brown would push him on both counts. He commanded a forensic intellect and would have made a fortune as a barrister. But he possibly lacked the ability to express warmth and to attract close friendships- still a perrequisite for those seeking the top of the greasy pole.

Despite this he did have a 'hinterland' of outdoor pursuits and horse racing. I recall meeting him at an awards ceremony when my firend Paul Haigh was racing journalist of the year. He was charming and solicitous of my interest in politics. He agreed Neil Kinnock, whilst a lovely man, did not have the intellectual self confidence to survive for long in the highest post. He reckoned John Smith was a better replacement. But he cannot be replaced and this is a source of great regret not just for Labnour but for the country as a whole.

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