Robin Cook: from ethical imperialist to anti-war activist

The former foreign secretary’s career mirrored the twists and turns of the liberal-left intelligentsia.

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.

But it was as foreign secretary that Cook made his greatest contribution to New Labour’s distinct appeal. As a former supporter of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), Cook seemed to be an unlikely candidate for that job. But in fact he adapted the high moral stance of anti-militarism to formulate an ‘ethical foreign policy’ that claimed to stand above national interest. The government has a ‘moral responsibility’ to ensure there is an ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy and so ‘make Britain once again a force for good in the world’, he said. Within two months the government had demonstrated it by sending an undercover SAS force to kill a Bosnian Serb, Simo Drljaca, accused of crimes against humanity.

This seemingly utopian reformulation of Britain’s military strategy elevated ideological goals over mere self-defence. Even though it was criticised by Number 10’s advisers as a hostage to fortune, what came to be called ‘humanitarian intervention’ - in the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere - turned out to be an enhancement both of Britain’s military reach and the prime minister’s own standing.

Cook was shocked at his demotion to Leader of the House in 2001. Despite Cook’s successes, Blair was weary of his foreign secretary’s erratic outbursts. Cook found he had few friends outside of Number 10’s patronage. A breach with the front bench was looming.

Cook’s transition from champion of humanitarian intervention to opponent of the Iraq war mirrors the course of Britain’s liberal-left intelligentsia. Outraged at what they saw as the Tory Party’s unwillingness to intervene in Bosnia in the early 1990s, they became more strident supporters of militarism. But the framework of international legality and morality continued to sustain them. The failure of the UN Security Council to agree the intervention in Iraq was the point when many shifted ground to oppose rather than support another military intervention.

In parliament, it was pointed that many of the leaders of the opposition to Iraq were among the original supporters of New Labour - Frank Dobson, Chris Smith and the most senior Labour Party rebel, Robin Cook. But like Smith and Dobson, Cook’s rebellion only came after his demotion. His ‘forensic’ dissection of the legal case for war echoed the parliamentary performances of the early 1990s, except this time it was the Labour not the Tory front bench that was in the firing line.

Cook’s role as architect of New Labour’s ethical imperialism was promptly forgotten by the left, who embraced him as their new champion - though he was ambitious enough to keep his own distance from them, having already opened negotiations with Gordon Brown to re-enter the Cabinet.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

(1) ‘Scotland’s Housing’, in The Red Paper on Scotland, 1975

(2) International Herald Tribune, 11 January 1999

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