For many years my parents lived close to Raigmore, at Incheswood, and that was the road from which the BBC were taking their picture. I have many happy memories of Inverness, and the hospital itself is a wonderful facility with cheerful and helpful staff. But I visited both my father and my grandfather in that hospital shortly before their deaths, and a chill enters my heart when I see it.
I now learnt of the death of Robin Cook, and felt a real sorrow.
I was one of a few enthusiasts in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who welcomed the arrival of Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary and his declaration of an “Ethical foreign policy”. The majority were hostile and cynical, but not nearly so much as was Tony Blair.
Within a very few weeks, Blair arranged Robin Cook’s defeat at Cabinet when Cook wanted to stop the export of British Aerospace Hawk jets to the Suharto regime of Indonesia, which has a strong history of vicious repression of its disparate peoples. I was told by a Cabinet Minister who sided with Cook, that Blair managed Cook’s cabinet defeat in as confrontational and humiliating a manner as possible.
Plainly there would be no ethical foreign policy under Blair, and “New Labour” would be even snugger in bed with the arms industry than the old version. One of Blair’s lead men on Hawks to Indonesia was Jack Straw, who declared in the register of members’ interests that 50% of his election expenses had been paid by Lord Taylor, a Director of British Aerospace.
By one of life’s sad ironies I was closely involved in an episode which held the ethical foreign policy up to media ridicule, from which it never recovered. A mercenary outfit called Sandline claimed to have been given the go-ahead by the FCO to ship weapons to Sierra Leone, to help President Kabbah recover his country from rebels. The problem was this breached a UN arms embargo. Both the Tory media and the pro-Blair Murdoch media had a frenzy, attacking Cook for claiming to be ethical while breaching UN law.
In fact, while Sandline had close connections with the British High Commission in Sierra Leone, they were simply lying about being given permission to ship arms. I can say that with certainty, because it was I they claimed gave the permission.
The storm passed, but ethical foreign policy disappeared as a term of art. The crisis brought me into closer and more intense personal contact with Robin Cook than I might normally have expected, and for that I am grateful.
His famous gnomic and ginger appearance is much commented upon, but I have never seen anyone describe his eyes, which is a pity. He had really startling eyes, of an extraordinarily light, bright, limpid blue. They absolutely held you, and as you spoke they were searching you out. I found him both funny and kind.
He had his faults. Very self-obsessed, the first time I ever met him I was kept waiting in his outer office for over three hours. No respecter of persons, he famously once did much the same to Princess Diana (well, maybe not three hours, but a lot longer than she was used to).
I met him again in Ghana, when he accompanied the Queen on a State Visit. He got so deeply into a conversation with a journalist that he missed the convoy as it departed from a Durbar, and had to be rescued from the massive crowds, having apparently lost interest in what the Queen and the Government of Ghana might be doing.
At that time, he was interviewing for a new Private Secretary. Deciding that this would be a useful way to fill out the hours spent as a courtier, he had the candidates flown out to Ghana at public expense to be interviewed – including at least one candidate, then Head of the FCO’s United Nations Department, whose London office was a thirty second walk from his.
So I observed him as self-centred and irascible, but at the same time kind, witty and deeply intelligent. I agreed with him on ethical foreign policy, and on the Iraq war. But where we will now miss his influence most of all, was his passionate commitment to individual liberty and balanced democracy.
Cook was the country’s most influential advocate of proportional representation, the surest safeguard against abuse of power by narrow and unrepresentative government. He also wanted to see executive authority checked by a powerful and fully elected House of Lords. This was the great work of his second ministerial post, as Leader of the House. It should not be forgotten that just as Blair deliberately blocked Cook over ethical foreign policy, so he blocked an elected House of Lords. And Blair blocked it for exactly the reason Cook wanted it, because it would be a brake on the Prime Minister’s authority.
It amazes me that, when Blair made clear he wanted a largely appointed House of Lords, most people still didn’t tumble to just how power-mad the man is. Now we face proposals to hold people for three months without charge, and to deport people for entering the wrong bookshop or visiting the wrong website. We are to accept “assurances” from murderous regimes that they won’t torture or kill dissidents we hand over to them.
Blair bangs on as if it wasn’t already illegal to be a terrorist, to kill people, to make or supply bombs or assist those who do. It is noteworthy that the alleged London bomber now charged is facing longstanding laws, like murder and conspiracy to murder, without any need for the raft of new legislation already in place, let alone Blair’s latest proposals.
What kind of society are we turning into? Blair talks of designating suspect bookshops, and I have just received my fourth official letter from the government reminding me that my own book, which I haven’t even finished yet, is banned from being published.
Robin Cook was a man of principle and lover of liberty, and he hated all of this. The last, brilliant, Guardian article I read by him was arguing against purchasing a replacement for trident missiles, while claiming that Blair had already taken that decision. He also stated baldly that the policy of Bush and Blair was creating terrorism, not defeating it.
These are the most dangerous times for liberty in the UK since the government of Lord Liverpool. Those of us who believe freedom is important, face a huge battle over many years, and against great odds. We have lost our best leader.