The death of Robin Cook yesterday is a real shock. I knew him well when I was working as a political journalist – he was a member of European Nuclear Disarmament when I deputy-edited its magazine and was a Tribune columnist when I was the paper’s editor, and from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s I met him regularly to talk politics. In 1994, I kept the pages of the New Statesman open until the last minute for a Cook declaration of interest in the Labour leadership that never came. And in 1998 I spent six months helping to organise a big talkfest on Europe for the Foreign Office when he was foreign secretary. I didn’t see much of him after I moved from journalism to lecturing, but remained in fitful contact and was looking forward to seeing him again at Labour conference this autumn. I am, I suppose, a Cookite politically, though the label seems strange. But I also really liked him. It’s a very sad loss.
Cook was by a long chalk the most intellectually impressive figure among his generation of leading Labour politicians. My first vivid memory of him is of an END meeting in the mid-1980s at which I’d been put up to debate him on Labour defence policy. He made mincemeat of me – I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so comprehensively out-done in argument, though others may disagree – but he did it in a thoroughly civilised way. I ran into him a couple of weeks later and he greeted me warmly. I told him I thought he’d had me for breakfast: he raised his eyebrows, looked at me quizzically and informed me that I’d made a coherent case but that I needed a bit more practice.
He was never one to mince words if he disagreed with you – I remember him telling me in the most direct manner that Tribune or the New Statesman had taken idiotic positions on dozens of issues: industrial policy, the intentions of every Labour leader under whom he served, Europe and the euro (on which he was once much more sceptical than he became as foreign secretary), military intervention in the Balkans (which he opposed in the early 1990s) and much more besides. But, contrary to received wisdom, he was neither cold nor arrogant. He was friendly and chatty and personally kind. He always listened, always engaged – in itself unusual in the upper echelons of the modern Labour Party – and always gave the impression that he was open to changing his mind if he was persuaded by arguments and facts.
He had principles, of course: he never wavered in his civil libertarianism, his commitment to democratisation of the British state or his environmentalism. He was one of the first British politicians who articulated the concerns of the 1968 generation, on everything from gay rights to nuclear power. But he was no dogmatist. On Europe, he moved from outright anti-Europeanism in the 1970s through pragmatist acceptance of Britain’s membership of the European Community during the 1980s to out-and-out enthusiasm for British membership of the euro in the late 1990s – not from opportunism but from weighing up the arguments. He opposed western military intervention in Bosnia in the early 1990s but by the end of the decade was prepared to press Nato to act against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo. Again, it was the arguments that counted.
As foreign secretary he rebuilt Britain’s damaged relationship with the EU and played a major part in dragging the FO into the modern age. He should never have been removed from the post: he fell victim to a combination of Tony Blair’s desire to woo George Bush and Gordon Brown’s antipathy to Cook’s backing for euro membership. After that, as leader of the House of Commons, he was frustrated by Blair on reform of the House of Lords – and then resigned over the Iraq war.
Whether or not he was right about Iraq – and I’m less convinced now than I was at the time of his resignation – quitting government on a matter of principle was brave and honourable. And the way he conducted himself after his resignation, writing trenchant articles criticising Blair yet also pitching in big-time during the election campaign this year to make it clear that the war was no excuse not to vote Labour, was exemplary. He was not a machine politician, but he knew that democratic politics requires machines – parties – to function.
He was 59: he should have been the voice of the reasonable libertarian Labour left for at least another decade and probably more. But it is not to be. RIP.
Denis MacShane has a touching piece in the Observer here.