A slight and delicate minister?

If Robin Cook is to be an effective Foreign Secretary, he must put past failures behind him

Robin Cook came to the office of Foreign Secretary as a disappointed man. This, much more than the other private turmoils that have now been so hideously exposed, has weakened his tenure of that office; he has succeeded in changing it somewhat, but he can only become an important figure in Britain and in Europe if he completes his personal and political transformation.

Cook was one of several Labour luminaries who regarded themselves, after John Smith's death, as future leaders. Gordon Brown's fury at his loss is evident still. But Cook's was probably as deep - deeper, perhaps, for being so lightly set aside in the public mind compared to the epic quality of the Brown pique.

Thus after 1994, Cook, though certain to get a high cabinet post in a Labour government, saw himself as alone and under-regarded. He was, he thought, a dying breed: a leftist not by birth but by intellect; a radical civil libertarian like Michael Foot but without the disabling Bevanite baggage; a formidable debater in an almost 19th-century sense; a scorner of media manipulation.

He became Foreign Secretary believing he should have been Chancellor or even Prime Minister. His ambivalence about his role led him to think of challenging Donald Dewar to be First Secretary of Scotland this year. This information was made public at about the same time as his affair and his separation from his wife were revealed; the two unrelated events contributed to the public image of a minister not wholly engaged with his brief.

He made misjudgements, both before and after taking office. He had thought that the swing to the left in the governments of Europe would resolve many of the pol- itical problems that beset the British- Continental relationship. That view proved only partly right. He gave coded signals that he was sceptical about the euro only to find that Continental social democrats, on whom he counted for support, were becoming keener. He also stressed his continued adherence to a broadly Keynesian view of economic management - a position that could not challenge the Brown-Blair new Labour dominance of economic policy but could make him look futile.

The largest issue in British foreign policy by far is the European Union; but because it is so large, and because new Labour had made it a central part of its programme to be positive about the EU, it was no longer a Foreign Office fiefdom. Brown, long an unfriendly rival of Cook's, with a style that instinctively seeks to dominate all activity in which he feels the Treasury should engage, was centrally concerned with policy on the euro. Blair set the tone and the style of the new relationship with Europe - Cook, inevitably, appeared as only the second man.

Some of his "gaffes" - keeping the late Princess of Wales waiting, trying to replace his diary secretary with the woman who is now his wife - betrayed poor judgement. Others were matters of principle: the call for international mediation on Kashmir, the visits to the sites of Arab victimisation in Israel, which so infuriated Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. What turned them into a rich and poisonous brew were the continued revelations of infidelity and the threatened memoir by Margaret Cook (parts of which Cook read two months ago), which has now been published.

The exposure need not be fatal. Britain does not have a party so dedicated to partisan hatred and so in league with public hypocrisy as America's Republicans. Blair has drawn a line in front of his ministers' private lives. So, in effect, have the Tories; Michael Howard's calls for resignation have been cynically timed, but the shadow foreign secretary has had to insist that he is inspired by higher motives than those of the News of the World.

It will help Cook, too, that his misfortune closely follows another's. Peter Mandelson had been an unfriendly rival and, both as Minister without Portfolio and as Trade and Industry Secretary, a cuckoo in the nest of Europe. Mandelson travelled extensively in the first year of the Labour government, making contacts with ministers and policy-makers in centre-left governments and constructing a "Third Way" network of those who were interested in combining - as Blair put it in his speech in South Africa last week - the dynamism of capitalism with the dictates of social justice. But Mandelson is reduced now; and Cook agreed, over dinner last week, that the former minister should work with him to develop "new Labourish" policies throughout the EU, give speeches where Cook cannot, and use Foreign Office briefing and backing to act as a roving ambassador for the government.

Towards the end of last year, Cook began a Foreign Office brainstorming on Europe, drawing in his brightest officials with outsiders to throw around ideas. Cook has floated ideas on addressing the democratic deficit through a greater involvement of the national parliaments.

He faces a daunting period. "Agenda 2000", an almost entirely contentious raft of issues which includes reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and of structural funds, will be tackled in February and March. An agreement must be put to the European Parliament before the June elections if progress is to be made on expansion and, more urgently, if a budget is to be passed.

Cook sees it as a measure of the respect in which he is held by his Continental colleagues that he chairs a working group which has drafted the European Socialist Parties' manifesto for the elections, to be presented to the leaders of the 22 parties later this month. It has "21 commitments for the 21st century", focusing on a "people's Europe" in which creating employment is at the heart of policy, together with environmental protection, an attack on social exclusion, and the preservation of social solidarity. He is forging particularly strong relations with Hubert Vedrine, the French foreign minister, who would normally be thought a rival both inside and outside Europe. At breakfast last week the two men outlined a plan whereby French and British ambassadors in Africa could hold a joint meeting, under the chairmanship of the two foreign ministers - an unprecedented gathering (if it happened) which would end a bitterly contested scramble for territory and influence that has lasted more than a century.

Cook will not go further than the government line on the euro - that Britain will join when the time is right - but he is probably no longer the sceptic he was. He recognises that the new currency's creation raises the stakes for those countries - Denmark, Greece and Sweden, as well as the UK - that have stayed out.

So Europe, once an object of his suspicion, could be the saving and the redefining of Robin Cook. If - as the Guardian saw it this week - the Foreign Office is the limit to his ambitions, it is a very high limit indeed. He has probably been brought to realise that; and, in doing so, he could become what Blair claims he is: a formidable Foreign Secretary.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.