What did Cook want?

Jon Lawrence

  • The Point of Departure by Robin Cook
    Simon and Schuster, 368 pp, £20.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 7432 5255 1

Robin Cook’s memoir concentrates on the first two years of the second Blair government, from his ‘demotion’ to leader of the House immediately after the 2001 general election to his resignation over the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. He may have wanted to get the book out quickly while Iraq, WMDs and Hutton still dominate the headlines, but, more important, writing exclusively about the Blair second term allows him to construct a narrative of political disillusion shorn of awkward questions about the compromises that had been necessary for him to stay loyal to the New Labour ‘project’ before 2001. By the time Labour came to power in 1997, Cook, like so many lifelong left-wingers, had already abandoned many of the defining radical causes of his youth, including unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EU. Crucially, he not only backed Blair in the 1994 leadership contest, but rallied behind his subsequent campaign to drop Clause Four. Initially unenthusiastic about the modernisers’ determination to slay this venerable Old Labour dragon, Cook appears to have changed tack once it was apparent that the bulk of the centre-left was prepared to endorse Blair’s crusade as a symbol of much needed radical renewal within the party. Once in office as foreign secretary, Cook found himself obliged to defend such policies as the Allied bombing of Iraq and the war in Kosovo that were manifestly being driven principally from 10 Downing Street and the White House. He also had to sit tight and accept a great many heavy-handed attempts to impose the will of Number 10 on local Labour organisations – the Welsh Assembly and the London mayoral contest were notable examples.

Well before the 2001 election, John Kampfner described Cook as an isolated figure forced to recognise both that he would never succeed Blair as party leader, and that he had been decisively out-manoeuvred by his long-term political rival Gordon Brown.[*] Strongly influenced by the media furore surrounding Cook’s first years in office, including the arms to Sierra Leone affair, diplomatic gaffes in India and Israel, and the embarrassingly public break-up of his marriage, Kampfner’s study is unduly pessimistic about Cook’s predicament during the first Labour government. Late in 1998, amid rumours that his job was being lined up for one of New Labour’s rising stars such as Jack Straw or Peter Mandelson, Cook may indeed have been thinking hard about escape routes to the European Commission or the Scottish Parliament, but that doesn’t mean he was already a busted flush. He did, after all, survive another five years – and when he finally left it was at a time of his own choosing, on an issue which consolidated his reputation as the custodian of the party’s radical conscience.

A key figure in the centre-left group that had backed Kinnock’s first wave of Labour modernisation in the 1980s, Cook was almost unique in managing to preserve a distinctive leftist political identity within the New Labour revolution of the 1990s. Whereas other centre-left leaders such as Prescott, Blunkett and Hain merged into the Blairite mass or, like Margaret Beckett, Michael Meacher and Kinnock himself, became bit players on the political stage, Cook remained a prominent and prickly reminder of the electoral calculations that had won Blair the leadership in 1994. In this respect, he was undoubtedly helped by being banished to the Foreign Office, reputedly at Brown’s insistence. But the decisive factor was that his radicalism had never been typically Old Labour: his politics had always been informed by equally strong doses of libertarianism and traditional anti-establishment sentiment. After 1994, he proved adept at playing up his radicalism on constitutional and social morality issues, conscious that in stressing his determination to out-modernise the modernisers he was also reminding the leadership that centre-left groups such as the Labour Co-ordinating Committee had played an important role in shaping the New Labour project. It was an approach that allowed Cook to be both ‘on message’ and off – no mean achievement in the age of pager-enforced party discipline.

Even after his resignation Cook has been careful not to repudiate the project, choosing only to lament its loss of direction during Blair’s second term. On Iraq, what he offers is a compelling forensic analysis of the miscalculations that took Britain to war without a fresh UN mandate. There is, however, little passion or recrimination in the telling. There is also little sense of the inner conflict or the repressed emotion that one would normally expect to find expressed in a private diary – even the diary of a politician conscious that his thoughts will almost certainly one day become public. Perhaps Cook is a man of unrivalled equanimity and disregard for personal advancement, but it’s difficult to discount the alternative explanation: that this was a diary written from the outset with a view to swift publication once office had been relinquished. There is no discussion of the way the diary was compiled, and nothing to indicate whether (and if so, how) it has been edited for publication. If the diary has been edited, it must be assumed that the entries devoted to sick pets and trips to Crufts dog show and the Cheltenham Gold Cup are included to reassure us that he is, if not exactly like us, then at least recognisably human (a strategy that is undermined when he describes getting up at seven as having a lie-in).

As published, the diary begins on 8 June 2001, with Cook learning that he is to be moved from the Foreign Office, but it is unclear whether it was this first, dramatic, and apparently unexpected, ‘departure’ that prompted him to start keeping a personal record. There is no suggestion that he is embarking on a new endeavour, and let’s hope he wasn’t: it would be nice to think that we can expect further instalments, offering us an insider’s take on the Foot, Kinnock, Smith and Blair eras to stand alongside the efforts of Crossman, Castle and Benn (none of whom chose to resign office, though in Benn’s case it remains hard to know why). However guarded Cook’s entries may sometimes be, and despite a few passages that were evidently included for public consumption, his scribblings have a strong air of contemporary authenticity.

The entry for 23 September 2002 dealing with the cabinet meeting held on the eve of the recall of parliament to debate Iraq focuses not on the ‘September dossier’ but on the general balance of discussion within cabinet, and especially on his own contribution as an unabashed sceptic about military intervention. Interestingly, his retrospective assessment of the dossier is broadly compatible with the Hutton Report – at least on the narrow brief that Hutton embraced. He, too, accepts that Number 10 believed in the intelligence that underpinned the dossier. The real problem, he writes, was that they believed in it uncritically. Gilligan was thus a godsend – allowing the Government to transform a debate about competence into one about honesty. For Cook, the furore over Hutton, the dossier and the BBC has been a sideshow. Throughout the book he is scathing about the debasement of both broadcast and press journalism – its constant obsession with making rather than reporting news, and its corrosive cynicism about everyone in public life. But if Cook is unlikely to shed tears over the post-Hutton crisis at the BBC, he will take little comfort from Hutton’s endorsement of government policy. Like most people, he will continue to insist that the crucial questions regarding Britain’s case for war remain unanswered. First, why did the intelligence community get things so badly wrong? Second, and perhaps more important, was there a point after September 2002 when Blair and his advisers came to doubt much of their intelligence on Iraq’s WMD? Cook is sure there was – as he said again in the House of Commons on 4 February – and that it predated the invasion of Iraq. Rather than Gilligan’s ‘sexed-up’ allegations about the September dossier, it is this more fundamental charge of duplicity that Cook feels demands closer investigation. Perhaps Lord Butler may yet resolve such issues, but the signs are hardly promising.

No doubt most people will read Point of Departure to learn about the run up to war, but it is the sorry tale of Cook’s ministerial frustrations as leader of the House, particularly over the issue of Lords reform, that reveals most about the rot that has set in at the core of New Labour. It seems that, almost till the end, he couldn’t decide whether he had been given the leadership of the House because Blair recognised that his brand of constitutional radicalism could provide the dynamism needed to revive New Labour, or because the prime minister was astute enough to recognise that this was the one ‘demotion’ Cook would never refuse. Frustrated by his inability to secure proper ministerial discussion of the issue, he continued to hope that at the very least Blair would not move to scupper his plans for a significant democratic dimension to the reformed second chamber. He was to be sorely disappointed. As a free vote on the question loomed in early 2003, Blair intervened decisively against the elected principle and the party whips took their cue. Blair made shameless use of the Old Labour argument that strengthening the legitimacy of the Lords would threaten the supremacy of the Commons (he could hardly have said the supremacy of the government); and although his preferred option of a wholly appointed second chamber was roundly defeated, enough Labour MPs were swayed to prevent any of the six tabled options winning a majority. Cook is adamant that he never considered Blair’s ‘torpedoing’ of his plans to be a resigning issue, but the subtext was clear: Number 10 saw no need for the revitalising effects of his radicalism. A fortnight later, walking the midwinter Norfolk fens, Cook finally resolved that he must resign ‘if Tony embarks on a military conflict without a fresh UN resolution’.

Cook would almost certainly have resigned whatever the fate of Lords reform, but Blair’s decisive rejection of an elected second chamber must have made his decision easier. The big question is: what now? Does Cook’s resignation over Iraq, and his revelations about the government’s inexorable slide into war, mark a decisive stage in the unravelling of New Labour? It seems pretty clear that Cook hopes not. Time and again he says that Blair is a great Labour leader whose charisma and dynamism have earned him deep affection within both the PLP and the constituency parties. And while there may be echoes of Michael Howard pledging loyalty to IDS in such flourishes, there is little doubt that Cook hopes that the party will emerge reborn from its present travails. He is, after all, a man schooled in the harsh lessons of Labour’s wilderness years. Of his former cabinet colleagues none spent longer mastering shadow portfolios and the techniques of what must have seemed likely to become perpetual opposition (remember those debates about whether Britain was ‘turning Japanese’ and would know only Conservative government). Cook evidently sees New Labour, and the two great electoral victories it delivered, as his own political legacy no less than Blair’s. From his perspective, these were victories achieved not because right-wing modernisers around Blair and Brown imposed their will on a recalcitrant party, but because the left itself had already embraced the need for change. On this reading, Blair won the Labour leadership in 1994 precisely because the left recognised that modernisation was the necessary price of victory. In resignation, Cook’s position is closer to that of Ramsay MacDonald (or John Burns) at the outbreak of war in 1914 than to, say, Aneurin Bevan and his allies resigning over Gaitskell’s health charges in 1951 – an act of individual conscience, not a rallying call to fight the party leadership.

He appears to hope that the fall-out from Iraq, and perhaps from his own resignation, may yet reinvigorate New Labour, and detects signs of a chastened leadership – among them, Blair’s recognition of the danger of becoming embroiled in future neo-con US interventions aimed at shaping a new world order. On the home front, he is more sanguine than many left-wing critics. He sees foundation hospitals as a sensible solution to over-centralisation in health provision, and laments damaging attempts to spin the policy to catch a few favourable headlines in the right-wing press. More fundamentally, he believes that New Labour has delivered sustained economic growth, dramatically increased investment in public services and has begun a concerted attack on poverty and inequality – achievements that he acknowledges must be attributed largely to his old rival Gordon Brown. He remains frustrated, however, that New Labour has undersold these achievements, and particularly that it has played down the connection between improvements in social welfare and the improvements in health and education on which Labour has staked its political future.

Cook fears that New Labour has fallen into the managerialist trap of trying to administer the system rather than change society, an approach he feels is doomed to failure, not just because it chokes off the popular engagement that the government needs to retain its reforming impetus, but because managerialism can do nothing to entrench the party’s social gains. He has a point: for New Labour to succeed it must leave the polity indelibly changed – as New Liberalism did before the First World War, Labour after 1945, and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Cook sees quite clearly how this should be achieved and argues his case persuasively. First, Labour needs to proclaim the ethical and prudential virtue of social inclusion and redistribution, whatever the headlines in the right-wing press, if it wants to bind Middle England to its centre-left consensus. Second, it needs to recognise that radical constitutional reform is not simply an incidental adornment to the project – useful only for enthusing the North London intelligentsia, and in consequence easily put aside. On the contrary, it remains Labour’s only hope of permanently protecting the public services and the disadvantaged from the danger of a resurgent radical right. The bitter lesson of the 1980s was that a divided left enabled right-wing legislation to be driven through parliament with massive majorities despite the fact that Thatcher’s administrations enjoyed less popular support than any Conservative government since 1922. Cook realises that New Labour’s greatest political legacy should be to make a return to Thatcherite individualism electorally unimaginable. Number 10 may hope that continued Conservative incompetence will do the job for them – Cook knows that the only sure bet is a system of proportional representation. The tragedy is that if he eventually returns to power and influence within the Labour Party it will almost certainly be after he and his colleagues have again found themselves on the opposition benches. By then, the opportunity to entrench a New Labour consensus will probably have been lost.

[*] Robin Cook (Phoenix, 1999).