Former UK foreign secretary Robin Cook, who died last week, was lauded across a political spectrum running from Tory leader Michael Howard to anti-war MP George Galloway. Lindsey German of the Stop the War Coalition celebrated his resignation from the Labour Cabinet to oppose the war against Iraq, while US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice took the time to praise his determination to wage war against the Serbs in 1999.
During his lifetime, Cook made few friends, conducting a decades-long feud with fellow Scottish Labour Party member Gordon Brown, sniping at New Labour architect Peter Mandelson, and more lately urging the resignation of Tony Blair - all the people who are praising him now, in fact.
Cook was the product of Scotland’s Labour establishment, serving for many years as local councillor in Edinburgh and MP in Livingston. Much better read than the prime minister, he was also a Workers’ Education Tutor. His socialism was conservative, seeking to sustain the ‘natural affection which residents feel for the streets in which they grew up…the fragile thread of friendship and acquaintance which hold together a society’ (1). Policies that sounded militant in England, like nationalisation or anti-militarism, were woven into the ambition to safeguard Scottish society.
Remembered today as a left-wing firebrand, Cook was part of the Tribune group and agent for ‘moderniser’ Neil Kinnock in the contest for the Labour Party leadership in 1983, and again in 1988 when facing down the left’s candidates Tony Benn and Eric Heffer. Unlike many of Kinnock’s supporters, though, Cook saw the party positioned on the left, and New Labour’s exercises in focus group research left him cold. He still wanted to reconcile working-class aspirations with the state. When nurses went on strike against the National Health Service (NHS) pay award in 1989, Cook’s oratory turned the dispute around to a defence of the NHS against Tory cuts.
A depressed Cook told his wife that he had ‘sold his soul to the devil’ by signing up to Tony Blair’s New Labour party (2). But Cook’s strident dissection of Tory Party scandals, most famously the report into the Matrix-Churchill affair, was a model of New Labour’s apolitical projection. The passion missing from New Labour’s programme was augmented by denouncing Tory sleaze, at which Cook demonstrated his barrack-room lawyer skills.