The sudden death of Robin Cook is a major blow to the Labour Party as it was traditionally conceived, as a party of progressive social reform.
Since his death, Cook has been rightly praised for the principled stand he took against the Iraq war. On 17 March 2003, having resigned from the Cabinet, he made a powerful speech to the House of Commons warning against the military adventure that was then only days away.
“Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction,” he said. “Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create?”
History has certainly vindicated Cook. Tony Blair, with his endless lies and evasions, looks very shabby in comparison.
All the same, Cook was more a maker of New Labour than its enemy. First elected to parliament in 1974 at the age of 28, he was one of the clever and ambitious Scottish politicians who helped rescue Labour after its disastrous defeats in 1983 and 1987.
Though on the left of the party, Cook was close to Neil Kinnock, and helped him to move Labour rightwards. On BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme last Sunday, Kinnock paid tribute to the help Cook gave him in getting Labour to drop its commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament.
The logical outcome of this bonfire of distinctively Labour policies was Blair and New Labour. But Cook did not belong to the inner circle of “modernisers”, in part because of his obscure feud with Gordon Brown.
In the run-up to Labour’s electoral triumph in May 1997 Cook made a number of speeches in which he sought to take his distance from Blair and Brown. “Labour must speak for the poor,” he told the Scottish TUC in April 1996.
But very little of this survived his appointment as foreign secretary in 1997. He was weakened almost from the start by the messy break-up of his first marriage. This made him dependent on the Downing Street spin machine for protection against the media.
Cook announced there would be an “ethical dimension” to New Labour’s foreign policy, but failed to stop British arms sales to Indonesia. He became embroiled in an even murkier affair in Sierra Leone, where the British high commissioner helped to arm one side in a civil war, in defiance of a United Nations embargo.
Worst of all, Cook was an enthusiast for Nato’s disastrous war on Yugoslavia in 1999. He worked closely with the war’s architect, the dreadful Madeleine Albright, US secretary of state under president Bill Clinton.
The war was supposed to protect Kosovo’s Albanian majority against the Serbian dominated Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milosevic. Instead it precipitated the wholesale ethnic cleansing of the Albanians.
Massive bombing directed at Yugoslavia’s civilian infrastructure forced Milosevic to withdraw his army from Kosovo. Today the province is a Nato protectorate where many of the Serbian minority have been ethnically cleansed.
Cook therefore shared with Blair the idea that the Western powers can intervene militarily in countries that they deem to be violating human rights. He simply opposed applying this principle to the case of Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
This stand was greatly to Cook’s credit. But it is important to see that it was quite narrowly based. During the last general election, Cook used the moral capital he had built with opponents of the war to persuade them to vote Labour. “Old Labour sympathisers can back this government not through gritted teeth but with enthusiasm,” he wrote.
Cook wasn’t motivated by loyalty to Blair, who had humiliatingly demoted him from the foreign office after the 2001 election. He was trying to save the Labour Party.
But in trying to stem the haemorrhage of votes from Labour, he helped to keep Blair in office — with the results we see today. In this, as in his entire career, Robin Cook showed what little space is now left for those seeking to pursue traditional Labour politics within the Labour Party.