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I'm So Proud of You, Robin Cook

You're the only man to emerge with honour from the Iraq debacle

by Margaret Cook

For nine weeks, they have been making their solemn way to the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in Westminster to account for their actions - or inactions - in the build-up to war.

More than 70 witnesses have given evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry; among them the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and many of his closest ministers and acolytes.

One by one they have sought to justify their own role in what many regard as the greatest foreign policy failure of the modern era.

Yet as the inquiry next week adjourns the main phase of its public hearings (a handful of additional witnesses, among them Gordon Brown, will be summoned in the weeks ahead), one vital voice has not been heard. Nor will it ever be.
Robin Cook with his wife Margaret in 1997

A man of principle: Robin Cook with his wife Margaret in 1997

But make no mistake, the spectre of my late, former husband Robin Cook should haunt the collective conscience of all those who have given their testimonies. The inquiry cries out for his evidence - the only minister who spoke out and walked out of a shamed government that, seven years ago, waged what Robin knew to be 'an illegal war built on a false prospectus. . . without any international authority'.

Wriggle and obfuscate as they have done at the inquiry, those former ministers and aides who have given evidence have only been able to cover their backs partially.

For we now know they either followed blindly and willingly into the conflagration or they saw the folly, but failed to speak out.

Some have pleaded that, in retrospect, they made 'honest mistakes'. For people in high and responsible places, there is no such thing. Robin knew that. And he acted on his principles, even though it cost him his place in Cabinet as Leader of the Commons.

Writing of Robin in his most heroic mould is, for me, not easy. Was ever a man so honourably brilliant, and yet so flawed?
Their loyalty should have been to the electorate, not Blair

Since I was on the receiving end of those flaws, not least when our marriage ended, I must endeavour not to be grudging or deny his virtues. For those very qualities gave him his stupendous appeal when we met on the debating scene at Edinburgh University in the Sixties.

And no one could say I was not warned about the single-mindedness of the man I was involved with, for I had evidence from the start that here was someone for whom career was everything. Even family relationships took second place.

To him then, the Labour Party and its creed of socialism was a substitute for religion: a moral code to which he affixed his colours and pledged his life's work.

In tandem, he devoted his soul to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and this almost visceral conviction never left him throughout his life.

There were certainly times when he had to rethink this credo, notably after the 1983 General Election, when the party's support for unilateral disarmament had played a large part in Labour's defeat.

I remember his cold anger when I suggested Labour could never win by adhering to such dogma, though, alas, he knew it to be true.

It is clear to me now, as it was then, that the conflict between pragmatism and principle is at the heart and soul of every decent politician's thinking. How could it be otherwise?

Yet the more we learn of the actions of those who took us to war, the harder it becomes to discern that internal struggle in action, still less to have a shred of respect for those responsible.

Those ministers and law lords who speak of their doubts of the legality of war in 2003, who point to the changing opinion of key advisers as justification or seek to pass the blame elsewhere - all of these should be asked: 'Why, then, did you not stand up, protest and resign?'

The excuses are ready to hand, of course. They stayed to help mould opinion from the inside. Weasel words.

They talk of loyalty - to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. What a stunningly misplaced loyalty.

That loyalty should have been to the electorate, the ordinary folk of Britain, who made their views on the matter loud and clear in those memorable mass demonstrations against the looming invasion.
Robin Cook gives his resignation speech in the House of Commons on March 17, 2003

Standing up: Robin gives his resignation speech in the House of Commons on March 17, 2003

Robin had something to say about this in his resignation speech from the back benches of the House of Commons on March 17, 2003. His words are worth repeating here, as a stinging rebuke to all those whose cowardice and arrogance have cost the lives of so many:

'The longer I have served in this place, the greater respect I have for the good sense and collective wisdom of the British people.

'On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain.'

How prescient those words sound; and how true.

I took part in one of the anti-war demonstrations in Glasgow on March 15, 2003 - one of several of the largest, multiple mass protests ever seen in Britain.

How could Blair see all this and fail to be moved, or at least to question his own judgment?

It is not difficult to perceive, as we all did then, that there were hidden agendas at play behind the scenes.
In his critical hour, he was true to the spirit of democracy

There was the ego-boost for the Prime Minister hanging on to President George W. Bush's heels and Blair's own exultant, personal success in the U.S., where he is now making such immense sums of money. Perhaps the adulation he had received after the success of the Kosovo campaign was in his memory.

Then there was the temptation of oil. For if a nasty dictator was fair game for toppling, why choose Saddam Hussein rather than Robert Mugabe?

Or why not choose to lean hard on Israel to disarm, if disarming was so urgent in the Middle East? It was all curiously selective and the public was not deceived.

Moreover, we ordinary folk thoroughly understood another of Robin's maxims from that resignation speech: 'The threshold for war should always be high.'

Indeed it should. And one of the preconditions should be proper planning for the aftermath. Anyone with even a basic grasp of history knows that casting out devils leaves a terrible vacuum for others to march in and occupy.

Yet we now know that the plans for post-war Iraq were not just flawed; they were non-existent.

Blair admitted his glaring ignorance and neglect of any post-war planning in his Chilcot confrontation.

He had focused on the wrong issues; he had failed to predict the ferocity of the insurgency; he was blind to certain antagonistic, destabilising elements. He lacked any knowledge, insight or even interest in the history of Iraq and its people. He had no idea of what he was getting into beyond his own messianic role.

How could this have been allowed to happen? Why did no one stop him? Let us retrace the path to war.

Robin lost his job as Foreign Secretary in June 2001. It took him by surprise, and he was given no reason for it, except that Blair needed to make changes.
Tony Blair and Robin Cook

Reshuffle: Tony Blair removed Robin from the post of Foreign Secretary in June 2001 under the pretence that the former PM needed to make changes

This was before the horrors of 9/11 changed geopolitics for ever, but I can't help wondering if Blair already had an inkling that some kind of Bush-associated, military adventure might be on the cards and wanted a mediocre yes-man in Robin's place.

Certainly Bush's Neo-Cons had been sabre-rattling against Iraq since the first Gulf War.

According to Robin's diary, the last meeting of the Cabinet in which a large number of ministers spoke up against the war was March 7, 2002.

The topic was to be intensively discussed over the next months, but only he and International Development Secretary Clare Short continued to object, and were dubbed 'friends of Saddam' by some voices in the Press.

Robin observed wryly how the West had armed and supported Saddam as an ally (and useful counterweight to Iran) up until the moment he invaded Kuwait. And he noted that in the long run-up to war in Iraq, a large majority of the public remained opposed to military action.

When Robin put this point to Blair, his response was that he 'could turn public opinion around'.

How arrogant is that? Democracy, in Blair's mind, appeared to consist of getting people to change their minds; and if they wouldn't, ignoring them.

In September 2002 came the notorious dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction - an exercise in propaganda rather than intelligence. The attempt to secure a second UN resolution came and went, unsuccessfully.

As the juggernaut thundered on towards the dread date, there came the terrifying realisation that the British constitution does not require the PM to seek Parliament's authority before declaring war. We were not a democracy at all, it seemed, but an autocracy.

Robin's eloquence and courage in pointing out that even the U.S. Congress voted to allow the President to commit troops was something that could not be brushed aside. So there was a Commons motion duly tabled, and every conceivable effort made to ensure Parliament was suitably brainwashed into submission.
British troops in Iraq

Military action: After the notorious dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in 2002, British troops were sent to war in Iraq the following year

Not only the Whips with their notorious arm-twisting went into action, but Blair himself had outriders prowling the Commons, threatening MPs with the dire consequences of disloyalty.

Even Cherie worked the phones. I have a picture in mind of Tony in the Commons, rather like an evangelical church minister, threatening fire and brimstone to terrify souls into acquiescence.

The other picture indelibly etched on my mind is that of Robin when he stood to make his resignation speech, having realised that he could do no more to halt the Cabinet's relentless march to war.

Incisive and fluent as always, his logic seemed irrefutable: 'We cannot base our military strategy on the assumption that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a threat.'

At a stroke he had exposed all the hypocrisy of the government position. His final words still bring tears to my eyes:

'I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the Government.'

Though we had by then been divorced for five years, I have never been more proud of him than at that moment. He was abandoning all in his life that he had ever worked for.

With the last sentence, his statesmanlike expression crumpled and he slumped like a broken man into his seat. I knew more than anyone what the speech and resignation had cost him. I was grateful, then, that he had his close friends Chris Smith and Frank Dobson on either side to sustain him in this terrible moment.

Astoundingly, there was a standing ovation after Robin's resignation speech - the first ever in the history of the House of Commons.

But the Whips had done their dirty work and it made no difference to the outcome of the parliamentary vote the next day. Still less to the unstoppable, grinding war machine.

In his subsequent book, Point Of Departure, Robin wrote: 'I am a tribal politician of the old school. I will go to my grave clutching my party card.'

Alas, events before and after the war on Iraq have shown, in the UK, just how undemocratic those party's politics had become.

All his life, Robin was something of a maverick: at his best in Opposition and in any situation where he could puncture puffed-up folly and expose deceit.

He had his flaws, for sure. Just as much as Blair, he loved the seductive limelight of fame and adulation. Despite his tribal loyalty, he was a loner, not a natural teamplayer or networker.

But in those frantic weeks in the build-up to war, he recognised the extraordinary and reckless gulf that was developing between the wishes of the people of this country and the politicians elected to represent them.

Those politicians cannot argue that they took the pro-war decision because they had the wrong information. We, the public, saw the truth, as did many backbenchersand others of little clout. But of all the statesmen and their shadows in our Mother of Parliaments, only one got it right: Robin Cook.

Whatever faults he bore, whatever errors he committed, he should be remembered and honoured for that. A man who, in his testing, critical hour, was true to his deep-seated beliefs and to the spirit of democracy.

The aftermath of the war in Iraq will rumble on for decades - long after the Chilcot Inquiry has delivered its conclusions.

Will any good come of it? If, in the historical reckoning, there is proper scrutiny given to the imperfect democratic system that so betrayed the British people in the spring of 2003, it will be in no small part due to one red-haired, bearded, gnomic, Scottish politician.

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