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Remembering Robin Cook (August 2005)

This article was first published on openDemocracy

The seriousness of Robin Cook's last phase – “conscience of the left” isn't putting it too high – wasn't totally in character. I saw much of him from about 1960, when he turned up at Edinburgh’s Royal High School, where his father was head of science, to an interview with him for a BBC programme I made on Scottish devolution in 1988.

I was particularly close to him in the Edinburgh Labour Party in the late 1960s, and was the referee for his first job: Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) organiser for Edinburgh. His The Point of Departure, well-written, passionate and convincing, was dedicated to the memory of his WEA predecessor Iain Jordan, something of a guru of the Tribunite left in these days; that choice and his more recent Guardian columns suggest he was returning to an earlier, principled leftist position.

Ironically, in terms of net value-added, Robin’s greatest service was probably in cleaning up the Labour party group on Edinburgh City Council, which was a racket in the 1960s and became (with a hiccup around 1980) Scotland’s premier moderate-left local authority, consistently under Labour control and entrepreneurially successful, compared with the dismal one-party state on the Clyde.

Robin’s Westminster touch was markedly less sure. He misplayed devolution in 1979, when a referendum in the dying days of the 1974-79 Labour government bitterly divided Labourite Scots from each other as well as from their party opponents – and saw Robin moving from “against” the assembly offered, to “for”, and back to “against”, without a scruple in sight. Many on the Scottish left never forgave him: a pity, because in 1998 he thought about a career in the Holyrood parliament sanctioned by the 1997 devolution referendum. Robin would have been a vast improvement on the two successors to Donald Dewar as first minister, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell.

As foreign secretary during Tony Blair’s first term in office (1997-2001), Robin had the “ethical dimension of foreign policy” rug – itself an inherently risky venture (since when have ethics ever chimed with policy?) – pulled from under him by Blair, whose current sentiments must be those of guilty relief.

In fact, Robin's learning curve was noisy as well as laggardly on transport, Europe and devolution. Cars were inevitable, Europe a capitalist conspiracy, devolution a crime against workers’ solidarity – until revelation broke on him. He tended to underestimate the damage that belated conversion (albeit based on thorough self-education) did to his personal credibility. He did inspire one Edinburgh Labourite, Henry Cowper, to a choice one-liner: “People call Cookie Machiavellian, but at least you knew where you were with Machiavelli.”

The reputation may have stemmed from his genius as a debater. In the parliamentary debates of Edinburgh University students’ union we were all a bit dandified, but Cookie in his fancy waistcoats was the dude in the Wild West saloon who orders sarsaparilla and then blows away the James gang. He was brilliant, and his cases were factually well-constructed (as Labour Club chair, councillor and MP he would pore over reports and Blue Books for hours in the National Library of Scotland: conversation was not encouraged). The problem later was that a position once advertised on the floor of the House of Commons was a difficult one to change without a tremendous and unreassuring grinding of gears.

Even when we were on opposite sides over home rule in Scotland, he was so entertaining in private I almost indulged his treason: up to the last he was about the only politico whose name on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today meant you were in for a verbal treat. His friends were often Tories (“They’re not after your job”) and – like his namesake Burns and mentor Iain Jordan – he loved the company of women, astonishing us all in the rather puritan mid-1960s by having two highly intelligent girlfriends at the same time, who seemed (and were) oblivious of one another’s existence.

But politically he was really a loner, unlike Gordon Brown, who was no debater, and always surrounded by a posse. I was part of it in 1979, trusting Gordon more than Robin, and in the longer term I was wrong. Gordon was a good tactician, but the far-leftism of his Red Paper on Scotland (1975) has collapsed into a naïve neo-liberalism which, combined with statistical jugglery and technological ignorance, now looks disaster-bound. Rumours of some sort of Brown-Cook concordat are probably genuine: as premier Gordon would have needed someone with Robin’s policy-making skills to get him out of the mess.

The tragedy is that the memory of a “great parliamentarian” won’t last more than a few years, and that he threw away much of his energy on promoting the cause of Neil Kinnock, inferior to him in practically every respect. Had it been Cook versus Thatcher on Westland, 1986, history would have been rewritten. On the strength of The Point of Departure Robin should have published much more, which his predecessor as Labour foreign secretary Tony Crosland, who died at almost the same age, managed to do. There may be the chance of salving an In Place of Fear from the columns and essays, but too late, too late.

A line has been peddled by the hoodiecraws of Scottish politics, Brian Wilson and Tim Luckhurst, that Cook’s distaste for devolution was consistent to the end (“Better serve in Westminster than rule in Holyrood”). Usually accompanied by “last of the great tradition” threnodies, this won’t hold up. Cook was impressed by the procedures of the new parliament and they underlay his attempts to reform Westminster as leader of the House of Commons, 2001-03. Trying to combine Westminster effectiveness with Scottish residence now seems almost suicidal.

The lifestyle of the Scottish 1960s university generation – John Smith, Donald Dewar, John Mackintosh, and now Robin – hasn't been long-lived, and ought to carry a health warning: too many late nights, timetable tensions, cramped jets, buffet suppers, bars. Seen from my own post-hospital state, it all seems an unanswerable argument for autonomy.

If the outpourings of the last few days seem somewhat overdone, it may be the “Diana effect”, working in reverse. The politics of presentation were said to disadvantage Cook. Presentation has given us the politics of Dorian Gray, and we’re sick of the sight of him.

Here, another aspect of Cook comes, literally, into play: the horseriding. Robin was formidably literate, started a PhD on Charles Dickens, and knew how the master used Sleary’s horse-riding circus to condemn the “mechanism” of Coketown in Hard Times. Horses were Robin’s other world, of craft and chance and comradeship, of Anthony Trollope, Siegfried Sassoon and RB Cunninghame-Graham, far from the oafish laddishness of footie, feigned for the tabloids.

Let him go out to the words of Yeats:

“Sing on: somewhere at some new moon,
We’ll learn that sleeping is not death,
Hearing the whole earth change its tune,
Its flesh being wild, and it again
Crying aloud as the racecourse is,
And we find hearteners among men
That ride upon horses.”

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