Have both the spirit and the soul of the Labour governing project died this month? It is tempting to answer with a brisk “yes”. Robin Cook was a moderniser in the truest respect. He wanted to change the way politics was conducted. He, more than Tony Blair and probably more than any of his colleagues, wanted to reform the way we vote and the way we conduct our public life, at home and abroad.
Cook was no naif. He knew that government required compromise. The ethical dimension he proclaimed for foreign policy – so derided by lesser intellects around the Prime Minister, fearful of the challenge it posed – was rooted as much in pragmatism as principle. Britain, he believed, would achieve more in the world if, in its small way, it served as a model. In so many ways Cook was more Blairite than Blair. He, too, believed in the “what works” school of politics. He applied it to the war in Iraq, which he identified early on as based in a defeatist approach to relations with the US. He, too, talked of principle but, unlike some who now regret their decision to stay in cabinet, in his resignation and his conduct thereafter actually put it into practice.
Now Mo Mowlam is also gone. On one level, she and Cook had little in common – the tactile and the gruff, the instinctive and the deliberative. Her political peak came early, during the optimistic final years of the 1990s. His came late, painfully late, during the dismal denouement of Blair’s fifth war. But they shared an approach which is all too rare. They believed that politics is about more than the retention of power. In their different ways, they believed that if it could not inspire, that power was empty.
By the 2001 general election, Mowlam had lost faith – and that was well before Iraq. Cook had been out of government for two years before his untimely passing. In truth, a return for the former foreign secretary in a Gordon Brown administration was anything but assured. So the immediate political consequence of their deaths is minimal. The composition of the cabinet has not changed. The business of government will not change. Rejuvenated, as he always is after his summer break, Blair will seize on national security as his latest claim to being politically indispensable. For his part, Brown has grown accustomed to waiting.
In the longer term, however, this month will be seen as a watershed. Even though his relationships with both Cook and Mowlam were fraught, the Chancellor would be advised to ponder their respective legacies as he seeks to carve a political movement in his image. Whereas Blair countered criticism by juxtaposing his political wares with those of the Conservatives, Brown now has the benefit of learning from political ambitions scorned. He could cast his eye around the cabinet table and see the tired faces of ageing and often sullen men. He will be able to refresh the team. Ten years after the first victory there is inevitably less new potential on offer, but there is still some.
Ultimately, however, it is in the purpose of politics that Brown must make a difference. A man who believes in the moral good of alleviation of poverty has seemed reluctant to proclaim it. A man who sees the moral good in the universal public provision of health and education has found himself caught up in arcane arguments about means of delivery. A man who is more versed in political history than most of his contemporaries has sometimes disappointed in his global insularity. A man privately witty and charming has come across in public as stiff. A man who claims to abhor machine politics has all too often allowed himself to be portrayed as just such a player.
Through argument, Cook showed that politics can inspire. Through charisma, Mowlam showed that politics can connect with voters. Both will be remembered as much for what they did in office as for what a government in which they served has failed to do. Many of those mourning Mo and Robin are entreating Brown to ensure that there will be a place for intellect and free spirit once again in a Labour government, that its spirit and soul have not died with them.