18 March 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, March 21 2003

Robin Cook's resignation from the government was hardly unexpected - but it was dramatic all the same. He is the only Labour figure of top rank to have quit on grounds of principle since Tony Blair became prime minister nearly six years ago: indeed, you have to go back to 1951, when Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman left Clement Attlee's government, for a Labour resignation with anything like the impact.

Although Cook's resignation statement to the House of Commons on Monday evening was eclipsed as news by George Bush's blunt 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, it was quite the most sensational parliamentary event in this government's lifetime. In calm, measured tones, Cook eloquently demolished the case for an immediate assault on Iraq. The contrast with Jack Straw's bumbling performance at the despatch box minutes earlier could not have been more stark.

As things now stand, Cook is finished as a government politician - that much is clear. But it would be foolish to write him off. At very least, as a backbench MP he could provide the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party with the intellectual sophistication and political clout that has been so obviously missing in recent years. Then there's the possibility of a comeback in Scottish politics. He could even be the best hope the beleagured Scottish Labour Party has of staving off major losses in the forthcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament.

But what's really intriguing is Cook's position if the war against Iraq were to go so horribly wrong that Blair lost the confidence of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

This scenario has been chewed over in recent months by just about every Labour Party member I know at every level - and most of them reckon that if Blair were forced out in such circumstances, Gordon Brown would be a shoo-in as his replacement.

Until this week, I thought the same, not least because all the other names being touted as possible successors to Blair would not be credible challengers to the Chancellor. Straw? Too compromised by his role in the Iraq policy. David Blunkett? Unpopular with those Labour Party and trade union members least likely to be prejudiced about his being blind. Charles Clarke, Peter Hain and Alan Milburn haven't held high office for long enough. And John Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Cook are all - how to put it politely - big figures whose career trajectories are not on an upward curve.

But Cook's resignation has made me think again - at least about him.

Like many others on what used to be called the soft left, I was disappointed when Cook decided not to challenge for the Labour leadership after John Smith died in 1994, and I still think he would have made an infinitely better Prime Minister than Blair. Unlike Blair, he is an egalitarian, an environmentalist and a committed constitutional reformer. From 1997 to 2001, he was a very good Foreign Secretary - particularly in repairing British relations with the rest of the European Union and in pressing for intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone - and as Leader of the House of Commons he made a valiant attempt (scuppered by Blair) to introduce a democratic second chamber. Like everyone else I know, however, I thought his time at the top was coming to an end. Now I'm not so sure. If - and it's a big if - Blair is forced out by a military disaster, it's not just wishful thinking to suggest that Cook would be in a very strong position to replace him.

Which is not to say that I am hoping for a military disaster to force Blair out. As I write, 48 hours have not passed since Bush's speech. But Saddam has rejected Bush's demand that he and his sons go into exile. It almost certain that by the time you read this we will be at war.

This is not what should have happened: other means of dealing with Saddam should have been given more time. Blair's strategy of hanging on to Bush’s coat tails and hoping to restrain him has proved a humiliating failure, alienating domestic public opinion and wrecking Britain's relations with France and Germany, the two most important members of the European Union. War will inevitably result in the deaths of Iraqi civilians and conscript soldiers - and there is a danger that the death toll will be massive. In the worst case, the attack on Iraq could turn into a conflict involving the use of chemical, biological and perhaps even nuclear weapons that engulfs the whole Middle East. Bush and Blair have taken an extraordinary risk this week. They should not have done so.

Nevertheless, I see no credible option for democratic socialists once the military action begins other than hoping that it works - and that it works quickly, consigning Saddam and his vile regime to the proverbial dustbin of history with minimal casualties on either side. Sorry, folks, but I think I'll be giving the next anti-war demo a miss.

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