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‘His resignation over the Iraq war elevated him to the ranks of those for whom statues are cast’


Obituary by Torcuil Crichton

When Robin Cook, who has died on a Scottish mountainside aged 59, joked that he was never good looking enough to be Labour leader an acerbic but anonymous shadow Cabinet colleague was forced to agree that “plastic surgery hasn’t advanced that far”.

Cook was sensitive about his appearance. Short of stature, bearded like a squirrel with a bad shave, it was said that he had the looks of Lenin and the voice of Ms Jean Brodie. But that was not the only disadvantage he had to overcome to become one of the most respected and admired politicians of the modern age.

His self-regarding arrogance, and somewhat unfathomable feud with the chancellor, Gordon Brown, and his lack of close parliamentary allies also meant that he made progress to the top ranks of British politics against a strong current.

It was his grindstone-sharp wit, his incredible intellect and his towering oratory that distinguished him from the herd of suits, not his individualist looks. His principled resignation as Leader of the House of Commons on the eve of the Iraq war elevated him to the ranks of those for whom statues are cast and earned him a reputation as the greatest parliamentarian of his generation – a consensus that nobody across the political spectrum departed from on the news of his death.

Although he proved clumsy as Foreign Secretary in the first Blair government in 1997, his commitment to an “ethical dimension” in foreign policy marked out the ground on which he wanted to operate as a senior government minister. Unfort-unately the remarks came back to haunt him, as did his handling of the “Kashmir incident”, in which he suggested the old colonial power could negotiate between nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan.

He was also involved in a peculiar affair in which Sandline International was accused of trying to topple the military dictatorship in Sierra Leone. Cook said at the time he had no knowledge of this, but only a week later Blair said the government was aware of it and that Sandline was merely trying to restore the legally elected government of the African state.

This came as his personal life descended into turmoil. With the News Of The World about to reveal his extra-marital affair, Alastair Campbell forced his hand and he left his wife after 28 years of marriage. He effectively dumped his wife in a VIP lounge at London’s Heathrow Airport just as the couple were setting out on a holiday in the United States.

Margaret Cook never seemed to forgive him, becoming the public parody of the scorned wife, sniping at him at every opportunity. Cook dismissed her behaviour as “undignified”, married his lover and secretary Gaynor Regan who, he said, helped him find his “emotional intelligence” and appeared to be a happy man.

As his star declined within the Blair firmament he decided to carve out a role for himself as the figurehead around which the Labour left could coalesce. Iraq provided him with an opportunity to nail his political colours and his high principles to the mast of the intellectual left. His untimely death, with Iraq still ablaze and the whirlwind of terrorism igniting on Britain’s streets, leaves the left-leaning opposition to the war weakened and in despair.

Born in Bellshill, near Glasgow, in February 1946, Cook, an only child whose father was a science teacher, went to school in Aberdeen and Edinburgh and was always destined for politics.

He made his first political speech aged 11, read the New Statesman from 14, ran the Labour Club at Edinburgh University and plunged into political life as an adult. Quickly recognised as one of the best political brains in the Labour Party, Cook’s first job in parliament came as MP for Edinburgh Central, a seat he won in 1974.

The victory marked the start of a colourful career which would see him rise to the heights of Foreign Secretary. He quit his post as Leader of the House of Commons in 2003 over the Iraq war.

Yet despite his controversial profile, and his deep feud with another Labour colossus from Scotland. Brown, over, of all things, Scottish devolution, he remained tipped to return as a minister should Brown succeed Blair as Prime Minister.

As a young man he had two passions – politics and horse-racing. He read English Literature at Edinburgh University, and went on to work as a tutor, adult education organiser and writer. Latterly he proved to be a brilliant columnist and author of newspaper articles and books, but it was in politics that he would make his name

The words of his resignation speech as Leader of the House, in March 2003 will go down in history. “Why,” he asked, “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?”

It was withering, but Cook’s finest moment in the Commons was his devastating analysis of the Scott Report on the arms-to-Iraq scandal in 1995.

Just two hours after being handed a copy of the 2000-page document, the then shadow Foreign Secretary pulled apart the Conservative government’s handling of the affair and shredded its reputation.

After becoming an MP in 1974, Mr Cook went on to secure the seat of Livingston in 1983. In opposition he became spokesman for Treasury and economic affairs from 1980 to 1983, European and community affairs between 1983 and 1984 and then for health and social security between 1987 and 1989.

The early 90s saw his rise through the New Labour ranks continue, becoming shadow health secretary between 1989 until 1992, shadow trade and industry secretary until 1994 and then shadow Foreign Secretary until 1997. With Labour’s landslide victory at the general election in 1997, Cook transferred to become Foreign Secretary.

Blair removed him from the post after Labour’s 2001 general election victory and “downgraded” him to Leader of the Commons. It was a job which he clearly enjoyed, modernising working hours and becoming popular on all sides of the House.

It was with a “heavy heart” that he resigned from the government. He was applauded as he sat down and patted on the back as he wiped a tear from his eye.

It was a trial for Cook to be in the lobby voting against his beloved Labour party but the speech and the resignation locked him into the political landscape of the nation.

Although he clashed with Blair on Iraq, he remained loyal to his party and to the Prime Minister who he praised as “the most successful leader of the Labour Party in my lifetime”.

From the backbenches Cook continued to commentate on the Iraq war and he gave prescient and forensic arguments against the conflict. Last August, he said Blair should “learn the lessons” of Iraq and make a pledge to the party conference that he would not launch anymore “pre-emptive strikes”.

Always a political loner he was admired for his intellect, his debating skills and his sharp wit. He may have lacked the essential advantages required of a politician in the televisual age, but he displayed in spades a quality lacking in many of contemporaries – principles.

Robin Cook: February 28, 1946 - August 6, 2005

Here is the full text of Robin Cook's resignation speech in the House of Commons, which, as the BBC reported at the time, "won applause from some backbenchers in unprecedented Commons scenes."

Robin Cook's resignation speech March 2003

This is the first time for 20 years that I have addressed the House from the back benches.
I must confess that I had forgotten how much better the view is from here.
None of those 20 years were more enjoyable or more rewarding than the past two, in which I have had the immense privilege of serving this House as Leader of the House, which were made all the more enjoyable, Mr Speaker, by the opportunity of working closely with you.
It was frequently the necessity for me as Leader of the House to talk my way out of accusations that a statement had been preceded by a press interview.
On this occasion I can say with complete confidence that no press interview has been given before this statement.
I have chosen to address the House first on why I cannot support a war without international agreement or domestic support.
The present Prime Minister is the most successful leader of the Labour party in my lifetime.
I hope that he will continue to be the leader of our party, and I hope that he will continue to be successful. I have no sympathy with, and I will give no comfort to, those who want to use this crisis to displace him.
I applaud the heroic efforts that the prime minister has made in trying to secure a second resolution.
I do not think that anybody could have done better than the foreign secretary in working to get support for a second resolution within the Security Council.
But the very intensity of those attempts underlines how important it was to succeed.
Now that those attempts have failed, we cannot pretend that getting a second resolution was of no importance.
France has been at the receiving end of bucket loads of commentary in recent days.
It is not France alone that wants more time for inspections. Germany wants more time for inspections; Russia wants more time for inspections; indeed, at no time have we signed up even the minimum necessary to carry a second resolution.
We delude ourselves if we think that the degree of international hostility is all the result of President Chirac.
The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner - not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council.
To end up in such diplomatic weakness is a serious reverse.
Only a year ago, we and the United States were part of a coalition against terrorism that was wider and more diverse than I would ever have imagined possible.
History will be astonished at the diplomatic miscalculations that led so quickly to the disintegration of that powerful coalition.
The US can afford to go it alone, but Britain is not a superpower.
Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules.
Yet tonight the international partnerships most important to us are weakened: the European Union is divided; the Security Council is in stalemate.
Those are heavy casualties of a war in which a shot has yet to be fired.
I have heard some parallels between military action in these circumstances and the military action that we took in Kosovo. There was no doubt about the multilateral support that we had for the action that we took in Kosovo.
It was supported by NATO; it was supported by the European Union; it was supported by every single one of the seven neighbours in the region. France and Germany were our active allies.
It is precisely because we have none of that support in this case that it was all the more important to get agreement in the Security Council as the last hope of demonstrating international agreement.
The legal basis for our action in Kosovo was the need to respond to an urgent and compelling humanitarian crisis.
Our difficulty in getting support this time is that neither the international community nor the British public is persuaded that there is an urgent and compelling reason for this military action in Iraq.
The threshold for war should always be high.
None of us can predict the death toll of civilians from the forthcoming bombardment of Iraq, but the US warning of a bombing campaign that will "shock and awe" makes it likely that casualties will be numbered at least in the thousands.
I am confident that British servicemen and women will acquit themselves with professionalism and with courage. I hope that they all come back.
I hope that Saddam, even now, will quit Baghdad and avert war, but it is false to argue that only those who support war support our troops.
It is entirely legitimate to support our troops while seeking an alternative to the conflict that will put those troops at risk.
Nor is it fair to accuse those of us who want longer for inspections of not having an alternative strategy.
For four years as foreign secretary I was partly responsible for the western strategy of containment.
Over the past decade that strategy destroyed more weapons than in the Gulf war, dismantled Iraq's nuclear weapons programme and halted Saddam's medium and long-range missiles programmes.
Iraq's military strength is now less than half its size than at the time of the last Gulf war.
Ironically, it is only because Iraq's military forces are so weak that we can even contemplate its invasion. Some advocates of conflict claim that Saddam's forces are so weak, so demoralised and so badly equipped that the war will be over in a few days.
We cannot base our military strategy on the assumption that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a threat.
Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term - namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target.
It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s when US companies sold Saddam anthrax agents and the then British Government approved chemical and munitions factories.
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?
Why is it necessary to resort to war this week, while Saddam's ambition to complete his weapons programme is blocked by the presence of UN inspectors?
Only a couple of weeks ago, Hans Blix told the Security Council that the key remaining disarmament tasks could be completed within months.
I have heard it said that Iraq has had not months but 12 years in which to complete disarmament, and that our patience is exhausted.
Yet it is more than 30 years since resolution 242 called on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
We do not express the same impatience with the persistent refusal of Israel to comply.
I welcome the strong personal commitment that the prime minister has given to middle east peace, but Britain's positive role in the middle east does not redress the strong sense of injustice throughout the Muslim world at what it sees as one rule for the allies of the US and another rule for the rest.
Nor is our credibility helped by the appearance that our partners in Washington are less interested in disarmament than they are in regime change in Iraq.
That explains why any evidence that inspections may be showing progress is greeted in Washington not with satisfaction but with consternation: it reduces the case for war.
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.
From the start of the present crisis, I have insisted, as Leader of the House, on the right of this place to vote on whether Britain should go to war.
It has been a favourite theme of commentators that this House no longer occupies a central role in British politics.
Nothing could better demonstrate that they are wrong than for this House to stop the commitment of troops in a war that has neither international agreement nor domestic support.
I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone,that I resign from the government.