The New Statesman Interview - Robin Cook

"I never said there would be an ethical foreign policy" - and other myths dispelled by the Foreign S

Amidst the large, imposing paintings in Robin Cook's office, there stands a more treasured work of art. It is a bust of the former Labour foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin. "This is my only concession to modernism," Cook states proudly.

Apart from offering a contrast to the more traditional artwork adorning the walls, the bust serves another purpose. It provides Cook with a cue to address one of the main criticisms he has faced since becoming Foreign Secretary. Indeed, Cook takes on the criticism so single-mindedly that I wonder whether the whole preamble has been contrived to offer him a prompt without my asking a single question first.

"The one thing I'm furious about, the one thing that gets under my skin is accusations that I don't pay attention to the paperwork. As a grammar school boy accusations that I did not do my homework would have been similarly alarming. It's just not true." He is talking about a television documentary broadcast earlier this year which followed him on his hectic schedule but had an unexpected consequence. At one point in the programme he appeared to be dismissive about the mountains of work officials placed in front of him. Ever since, opponents have labelled him as a minister with a casual approach towards paperwork and red boxes. It is, he insists again, a myth.

He looks up at the bust of Bevin, standing proudly next to his sofa, but unable to respond. "It was Bevin I was talking about, not me. Nobody here has any examples of me not finishing my paperwork. The quote was taken out of context. I always read the red boxes."

He was referring to Bevin's much-quoted reply to a Foreign Office official: "Here are five red boxes for you to work through this weekend," the official had said. To which Bevin replied: "A kind thought but sadly erroneous."

After Cook has ascribed comments about the excessive paperwork to a foreign secretary who is safely dead, the conversation takes a dangerous turn: I observe that Bevin was Labour's longest-serving foreign secretary. "Yes. There have been very few Labour foreign secretaries. None of the others lasted for very long." The theme seems to engross him, expanding to include Conservative predecessors. "When did Howe resign? Hurd certainly left in 1995. Major went in 1989 after only a few months." He looks up with a fleeting smile and declares: "Perhaps this is not a theme we should be exploring."

His own resignation does not seem uppermost in his mind - on the contrary, I get the impression that he seeks to draw a line under the turbulence of the first 18 months by setting the record straight.

I ask him about the ethical foreign policy, which has landed him in as much difficulty as any allegations about laziness.

He sighs as I mention it, and then to my surprise, denies uttering the words. "I've given up trying to get this across. I've never used the phrase. I never said there would be an ethical foreign policy. I read in the New Statesman recently that I must regret the day I used the phrase an 'ethical foreign policy'. Well, how can I regret it, when I never used it? What we have sought to do in a practical way is to put into effect our values. People see that phrase and see it as grandstanding."

At the glossy launch of his regime at the Foreign Office shortly after the election, Cook says that he listed a series of criteria on which he would base his approach. When discussing one of them he spoke of "an ethical dimension" to foreign policy. He's happy to stand by this relatively cautious declaration.

Cook is keen to set the record straight on past difficulties, but on the substance of current foreign policy he is robust. Indeed, he is happy to be described as a "hawk" in his attitude towards Iraq and Kosovo and keen for such an approach to be seen as coming from the "centre-left". Intriguingly he repeatedly mentions his own political position in the context of these two regions. "As someone from the left of the party I have no problems whatsoever with supporting a strategy of intensive diplomacy backed by credible force. In both cases we are dealing with autocrats who ultimately only understand force, who will only respond with the threat of force. The left of centre sees the case for an international community having a strong voice through the UN. I don't think people on the left of centre should be terrified about being described as hawkish when there is evil which they strongly oppose."

He is especially pleased with the way in which Britain has been "a force for unity between the United States and Europe" over Kosovo. Cook is sometimes described as a Eurosceptic because of his reservations about a single currency, but in many ways he is an ardent supporter of closer ties within the EU, miles away from the Tory attitude towards Europe. "How wrong the Eurosceptics were in arguing that we could detach ourselves from Europe because that would be a way in which we could strengthen ties around the world. We have shown that by working with our European partners we have a stronger voice around the world."

How long can we work closely with our European partners and remain outside the single currency? "If the euro project proves a success then at some stage in the future, on the basis of a hard-headed assessment of the economic situation, we will be inside. That view is well understood in Europe. If we were opposed in principle to a single currency, which is the Conservatives' policy, that would severely damage our position."

If such a statement had been uttered by a senior minister in the Major administration there would have been uproar. Cook is one of the more wary advocates of EMU in this cabinet.

In contrast he remains the most enthusiastic advocate of PR. As Foreign Secretary will he find time to campaign for the change? "I will always make the time for this," he declares with some passion before going on to list the changes to the constitution which are already under way. "I'm quite excited about what we have already done."

He believes that no decision about the timing of a referendum will be made until after next summer's elections for the Scottish and European parliaments.

Some of Cook's admirers believe his talents are not being best used at the Foreign Office. Ideally they would like to see him at the Treasury. More realistically, some argue he would thrive in a role which oversaw the constitutional reform programme. He insists he is happy at the Foreign Office. How does he explain the stereotypical perception of Cook the opposition star who has faded in government?

"If you look at the six months since the Sandline affair you will be hard pressed for evidence. Sandline was a very unfair period for me. I had around my neck a totally false claim which was that we had connived to break the UN arms embargo. The Legg report showed that there was no such ministerial conspiracy. So I had very unfair criticism at the time and that took its toll."

He is rediscovering some of his old spark, and has been in withering form at the despatch box in recent months. At the end I observe that he must be exhausted after a day of EU business in Luxembourg. "Not at all," he insists. "The hard work starts when you get back here. All the paperwork and red boxes."

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians