More loyal than left

Robin Cook: a tribute

He was a big figure in British politics, but the canonisation of Robin Cook has gone far enough. He himself would have laughed and unleashed some scornful put-down about the torrent of tributes never on offer to him during his political life. In the NS, where he published more articles than anywhere else in the past three decades, there is space for a little reflection.

Cook was already an admired contributor three decades ago. Christopher Hitchens, deputy editor of the NS at the time, recalls him joining an editorial lunch in 1979 and saying something big was going to happen in Iran. Three weeks later, the shah was overthrown. Cook's sense of what was happening but not yet surfacing was one of his surest political skills. He wrote well, but wanted to do things rather than write about what others should do. He did three big things. As foreign secretary, he rescued British foreign policy from the dead waters of failed Tory cynicism. As a leftist, he showed why loyalty to leadership mattered. And, in a Richard and Judy age of communication, he showed why speaking well remains the most priceless political gift.

When Cook took over at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1997, it was opposed to intervention, nervous of engagement, keen to focus on commerce and keeping Britain out of difficult entanglements. He changed more in four years than any previous secretary had done. He accepted fully the right - indeed, the obligation - to intervene. In Kosovo, he supported military action without UN authority. He never used the phrase "ethical foreign policy"; instead, he said there should be an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy. At the FCO he set up a human-rights department, whose annual 350-page report is now a must-read, and reached out to non-governmental organisations. Nearly all the tributes to Cook have come from Westminster men, but he had a feminine side that sought to encourage women MPs and the appointment of more female ambassadors. He helped ensure that rape would be listed as a war crime, and his crowning achievement was helping to set up the International Criminal Court.

Of course, it was never enough. Critics and MPs who opposed the intervention in Kosovo dumped on Cook as foreign secretary. His human-rights report could not satisfy NGOs wanting an end to Britain's arms industry. He set up an environmental policy unit at the FCO, but Kyoto fundamentalists were not satisfied. How Cook might have handled Iraq had he stayed as foreign secretary remains one of the intriguing "what ifs" of politics. His resignation from the government over the war was an act of high honour, but it did not change anything. It was a protest - not a calculated political act aimed, like the great resignations of British politics, at remaking the political landscape.

And this takes us to the heart of the Cook paradox. He was always more of a loyalist than a leftist. After Blair's arrival as leader, he promised the Fabian Society a pamphlet on "Socialism" - as an alternative to Third Wayism. It never arrived. He wrote a brilliant essay on the quintessential Fabian George Bernard Shaw, but there is no Cook book, no defining doctrine, no comprehensive analysis. Many have praised his intellect, and justly so. Yet he never took the risk of writing down at length an analytic, descriptive or theoretical outline of belief, or outcome of deep research.

There is no Cookism; and although we are all Cookites now, Robin was a panther who padded alone and never built a team to take his ideas forward. Nowhere was this more clear than on Europe. Cook's recent put-downs of anti-EU Labour MPs may have been among the most skilful of parliamentary executions, but when he had the position to use the FCO to advance policies and forms of engagement with Europe, he showed little interest.

In his lack of doctrine, Cook was new Labour avant la lettre. He started off on the left, but by the mid-1980s was quietly dropping unilateral disarmament and embracing other causes. He supported all-women shortlists and doing away with late hours in the Commons. It was almost as if he wanted a different Labour Party - one that would have all the history he loved, but which was broader and able to imagine a better world, and be imaginative in getting there. He liked Cool Britannia and got rid of the old Hansards in the bookcases in his grand FCO office, replacing them with wind-up radios and the like. He put a bust of Ernie Bevin in his office, but turned the annual ambassadors' dinner into an outing to the Millennium Dome or a trip on the London Eye.

Cook's legacy is that of a great individual, and he will be remembered as much for his passions and his power over words as anything else. Who will fill the gap? Labour needs Robin Cooks, but there are none in sight, and those who want the party to stay in power should be worried.

Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, was PPS at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001, then a minister in the same department from 2001 to 2005

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