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4 February 2010

Robin Cook, 2003

Robin Cook, resignation speech, House of Commons, March 2003.

By Staff Blogger

In March 2003, Robin Cook resigned from the cabinet, saying: “I can’t accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support.”

He received an unprecedented standing ovation from fellow MPs on all sides of the House, for what Andrew Marr described as being “without doubt one of the most effective, brilliant resignation speeches in modern British politics”. In it, he offered a prescient critique of the case for war, in particular the likely casualties and the assessment of Iraq’s military threat.

Cook died of a heart attack two years later. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: “I may not have succeeded in halting the war but I did secure the right of parliament to decide on war.”

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?

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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 the 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.

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Part one of the speech

Part two of the speech.

The blogger Sarah Ruth Webster says: “I remember feeling a mixture of exultation — that a prominent MP was finally saying what seemed so painfully obvious about the push to war — and massive despair that these things could only be said on the way out from the cabinet.”

The blogger Tom Miller says: “A man had been pushed from the centre of government to its margins, and had to leave a government he had believed in. His speech comprehensively destroyed the arguments for war, for unilateralism, and for violation of international law. The Telegraph called those against the war ‘useful idiots’. Now the majority accept that Cook was right.”

Click here for a transcript of the interview.

Next speech: David Cameron, leadership bid, Conservative party conference, October 2005.

Previous speech: Sir Geoffrey Howe, resignation speech, House of Commons, November 1990.

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