Robin Cook: from ethical imperialist to anti-war activist: The former foreign secretary’s career mirrored the twists and turns of the liberal-left intelligentsia. (James Heartfield, 8/10/05, Spiked)
[I]t was as foreign secretary that Cook made his greatest contribution to New Labour’s distinct appeal. As a former supporter of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), Cook seemed to be an unlikely candidate for that job. But in fact he adapted the high moral stance of anti-militarism to formulate an ‘ethical foreign policy’ that claimed to stand above national interest. The government has a ‘moral responsibility’ to ensure there is an ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy and so ‘make Britain once again a force for good in the world’, he said. Within two months the government had demonstrated it by sending an undercover SAS force to kill a Bosnian Serb, Simo Drljaca, accused of crimes against humanity.
This seemingly utopian reformulation of Britain’s military strategy elevated ideological goals over mere self-defence. Even though it was criticised by Number 10’s advisers as a hostage to fortune, what came to be called ‘humanitarian intervention’ – in the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere – turned out to be an enhancement both of Britain’s military reach and the prime minister’s own standing.
Like Smith and Dobson, Cook’s rebellion only came after his demotion
Cook was shocked at his demotion to Leader of the House in 2001. Despite Cook’s successes, Blair was weary of his foreign secretary’s erratic outbursts. Cook found he had few friends outside of Number 10’s patronage. A breach with the front bench was looming.
Cook’s transition from champion of humanitarian intervention to opponent of the Iraq war mirrors the course of Britain’s liberal-left intelligentsia. Outraged at what they saw as the Tory Party’s unwillingness to intervene in Bosnia in the early 1990s, they became more strident supporters of militarism. But the framework of international legality and morality continued to sustain them. The failure of the UN Security Council to agree the intervention in Iraq was the point when many shifted ground to oppose rather than support another military intervention.
In parliament, it was pointed that many of the leaders of the opposition to Iraq were among the original supporters of New Labour – Frank Dobson, Chris Smith and the most senior Labour Party rebel, Robin Cook. But like Smith and Dobson, Cook’s rebellion only came after his demotion. His ‘forensic’ dissection of the legal case for war echoed the parliamentary performances of the early 1990s, except this time it was the Labour not the Tory front bench that was in the firing line.
Cook’s role as architect of New Labour’s ethical imperialism was promptly forgotten by the left, who embraced him as their new champion – though he was ambitious enough to keep his own distance from them, having already opened negotiations with Gordon Brown to re-enter the Cabinet.
It’s hardly a newsflash that the Left only supports the wars it gets to run.