Robin Cook

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Robin Cook, December 1997
Robin Cook, December 1997

The Right Honourable Robert Finlayson Cook usually called Robin Cook (February 28, 1946, BellshillAugust 6, 2005, Inverness), was a politician in the British Labour Party. He was Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2001. He resigned from his post as Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council on March 17, 2003 in protest against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the time of his death he was president of the Foreign Policy Centre and a vice-president on the America APPG and the Global Security and Non-Proliferation APPG.


Background and personal life

Cook was born in Bellshill, Scotland, the only son of Peter and Christina Cook. His father was a science teacher and his grandfather was a miner before being blacklisted for being involved in a strike. He studied English Literature at Edinburgh University earning an MA, and after a brief period as a schoolteacher became a local councillor in Edinburgh in 1971. He was introduced to horse racing by his wife, Margaret Cook (whom he married in 1969 and with whom he had two sons, Peter and Christopher) and worked as a racing tipster in his spare time.

Shortly after he became Foreign Secretary, he ended his marriage with Margaret, revealing that he had an extra-marital affair with one of his staff, Gaynor Regan. Cook, it has been claimed, was forced in to a decision over his private life after a 'phone conversation with Alistair Campbell while about to go on holiday with his first wife; Campbell explained that the press was about to break the story of his affair with Gaynor Regan. After he chose at that moment to leave her, his estranged wife subsequently accused him of having had several extra-marital affairs and alleged he was an alcoholic. He married Ms Regan in 1998, shortly after his divorce was finalised.

On August 6, 2005, Cook collapsed while climbing the mountain Ben Stack in Sutherland, Scotland, with Gaynor Regan. He then fell down a ridge onto rocky terrain. He was taken by helicopter from the mountain to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness where he was pronounced dead on arrival at the age of 59.

The post mortem revealed that Cook died of hypertensive heart disease [1]. A funeral service was held on August 12, 2005, at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, even though Cook had been an atheist [2]. Gordon Brown gave the eulogy, and Madeleine Albright was one of the attendees, but British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on holiday, did not attend the funeral, possibly due to the mutual disenchantment between Cook and Blair regarding the war in Iraq.

Parliamentary career

He contested the Edinburgh North constituency in the 1970 general election, later becoming MP for Edinburgh Central in 1974, and representing Livingston from 1983 to the time of his death. He joined the left-wing Tribune Group of the Parliamentary Labour Party and frequently opposed the policies of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. He was an early supporter of constitutional and electoral reform (although he opposed devolution in the 1978 referendum, eventually coming out in favour on election night in 1983), and of efforts to gain more women MPs. He also supported unilateral nuclear disarmament and the abandoning of the Labour Party's euroscepticism of the 1970s and 1980s. Despite his role in modernising the party under Kinnock and Smith, Cook was said to be never fully commited to Blair's "New Labour" project, considering it a step too far to the right.

He became known as a brilliant parliamentary debater, and rose through the party ranks, becoming a frontbench spokesman in 1980, and reaching the Shadow Cabinet in 1987, as Shadow Social Services Secretary. He was campaign manager for Neil Kinnock's successful 1983 bid to become leader of the Labour Party, and was one of the key figures in the modernization of the Labour Party under Kinnock. He was Shadow Health Secretary (1989-92) and Shadow Trade Secretary (1992-94), before taking on foreign affairs in 1994, the post he would become most identified with (Shadow Foreign Secretary 1994-97, Foreign Secretary 1997-2001).

In 1994, following the death of John Smith, he ruled himself out of contention for the Labour leadership, apparently on the grounds that he was insufficiently attractive to be an election winner, although two close family bereavements in the week in which the decision had to be made may have contributed.

On 26 February 1996, following the publication of the Scott Report into the 'Arms-to-Iraq' affair, he made a famous speech in response to the then President of the Board of Trade Ian Lang in which he said "this is not just a Government which does not know how to accept blame; it is a Government which knows no shame". His parliamentary performance on the occasion of the publication of the five-volume, 2,000-page Scott Report — which he was given just two hours to read before the relevant debate — was widely praised on both sides of the House as one of the best performances the Commons had seen in years, and one of Cook's finest hours.

As Joint Chair (alongside Liberal Democrat MP Robert Maclennan) of the Labour-Liberal Democrat Joint Consultative Committee on Constitutional Reform, Cook brokered the 'Cook-Maclennan Agreement' that laid the basis for the fundamental reshaping of the British constitution outlined in Labour's 1997 General Election manifesto. This led to legislation for major reforms including Scottish and Welsh devolution, the Human Rights Act and removing the majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords. Others have remained elusive so far, such as a referendum on the electoral system and further House of Lords reform.

After his 2003 resignation from the Cabinet, Cook remained an active backbench Member of Parliament until his death. After leaving the Government, Cook was a leading analyst of the decision to go to war in Iraq, giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee which was later relevant during the Hutton and Butler inquiries. He was sceptical of the proposals contained in the Government's Higher Education Bill, and abstained on its Second Reading [3]. He also took strong positions in favour of both the proposed European Constitution [4] and a majority-elected House of Lords [5] [6], about which he said (whilst Leader of the Commons), "I do not see how [the House of Lords] can be a democratic second Chamber if it is also an election-free zone".

In the years after his exit from the Foreign Office, and particularly since his resignation from the Cabinet, Cook made up with Gordon Brown after decades of personal animosity[7] — an unlikely reconciliation after a mediation attempt by Frank Dobson in the early 1990s had seen Dobson conclude (to John Smith) "You're right. They hate each other." Cook and Brown focused on their common political ground, discussing how to firmly entrench progressive politics after the exit of Tony Blair.[8] Chris Smith said in 2005 that in recent years Cook had been setting out a vision of "libertarian, democratic socialism that was beginning to break the sometimes sterile boundaries of 'old' and 'New' Labour labels."[9] Some commentators and senior politicians said that Cook seemed destined for a senior Cabinet post under a Brown premiership.[10]

In Government

Foreign Secretary

With the election of a Labour government at the 1997 general election, Cook became Foreign Secretary. He was believed to have coveted the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer, but that job was reportedly promised by Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. He announced, to much scepticism, his intention to add "an ethical dimension" to foreign policy.

His term as Foreign Secretary was marked by British interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Both of these were controversial, the former because it was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council, and the latter because of allegations that the British company Sandline International had supplied arms to supporters of the deposed president in contravention of a United Nations embargo. Cook was also embarrassed when his apparent offer to mediate in the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir was rebuffed. The ethical dimension of his policies was subject to inevitable scrutiny, leading to criticism at times.

He is credited with having helped resolve the eight-year impasse over the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial by getting Libya to agree to hand over the two accused (Megrahi and Fhimah) in 1999, for trial in the neutral venue of the Netherlands but according to Scots law.

Leader of the House of Commons

After the 2001 general election he was moved, against his wishes, from the Foreign Office to be Leader of the House of Commons. This was widely seen as a demotion — although it is a Cabinet post, it is substantially less prestigious than the Foreign Office — and Cook nearly turned it down. In the event he accepted, and looking on the bright side welcomed the chance to spend more time on his favourite stage. According to The Observer, [11] it was Blair's fears over political battles within the Cabinet over Europe, and especially the euro, which saw him unexpectedly demote the pro-European Cook.

As Leader of the House he was responsible for reforming the hours and practices of the Commons and for leading the debate on reform of the House of Lords. He also spoke for the Government during the controversy surrounding the membership of Commons Select Committees which arose in 2001, where Government whips were accused of pushing aside the outspoken committee chairs Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson. He was President of the Party of European Socialists from May 2001 to April 2004.

In early 2003, during a live television appearance on BBC current affairs show Question Time, he was inadvertently referred to as "Robin cock" by David Dimbleby. Cook responded with attempted good humour with "Yes, David Bumblebee", and Dimbleby apologised twice on air for his slip. The episode also saw Cook in the uncomfortable position of defending the Government's stance over the impending invasion of Iraq, weeks before his resignation over the issue.

Resignation over Iraq war

Wikisource has original text related to this article:

In early 2003 he was reported to be one of the cabinet's chief opponents of military action against Iraq, and on March 17 he resigned from the Cabinet. In a statement giving his reasons for resigning he said, "I can't accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support." He also praised Blair's "heroic efforts" in pushing for the so-called second resolution regarding the Iraq disarmament crisis. Cook's resignation speech [12] in the House of Commons, received with an unprecedented standing ovation by fellow MPs, was described by the BBC's Andrew Marr as "without doubt one of the most effective, brilliant, resignation speeches in modern British politics." Most unusually for the British parliament, Cook's speech was met first with silence and then growing applause from all sides of the House (beginning with Labour and Liberal Democrat critics of the war), and from the public gallery.

Preceded by:
Thomas Oswald
MP for Edinburgh Central
Succeeded by:
Alex Fletcher
Preceded by:
No separate constituency
MP for Livingston
Succeeded by:
Jim Devine

Preceded by:
Malcolm Rifkind
Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by:
Jack Straw
Preceded by:
Margaret Beckett
Lord President of the Council
Succeeded by:
John Reid
Leader of the House of Commons


  • The Point of Departure by Robin Cook (Simon & Schuster, 2003) ISBN 0743252551

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