New Statesman & Society, 9 February 1996

Shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook didn’t really want his job and is now rumoured to be about to quit politics altogether. But Paul Anderson finds him as keen on taking on a ridiculous workload as he ever has been

For a man reported last week by the Daily Express to be so fed up with being snubbed by Tony Blair that he wanted to quit politics, shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook seems remarkably happy with his lot.

He is sitting in his Westminster office overlooking Whitehall, answering questions as confidently as ever. The phone rings three times as we talk, and twice it’s the leader’s office asking for help. Whatever the tensions in the Labour leadership as the election comes up, Cook is definitely in the loop. Blair knows that he needs Cook to keep the party’s soft left on board – and also for his remarkable skills in presenting arguments. Cook will have an exceptionally high-profile role in the next couple of months, simultaneously leading Labour’s response to the Scott report on arms sales to Iraq and pushing his party’s position in the run-up to the intergovernmental conference on European union. And he appears to relish the prospect.

Cook’s most pressing priority is Scott. He has been Labour’s leading protagonist on the arms-to-Iraq scandal since 1992, when as trade spokesperson his devastating parliamentary performances played a decisive role in forcing Prime Minister John Major to set up the inquiry under Lord Justice Sir Richard Scott, whose report will finally be published next week. Cook kept the Scott brief when he was shifted – against his preference – to the shadow foreign secretary’s job in 1994.

The report, which runs to four volumes and 2,000 pages, will be released at 3.30pm on 15 February – and the government has decreed that it will not be made available to the opposition (let alone the press) in advance of publication, even though ministers received copies this week.

“It’s a blatant attempt to manipulate media coverage in the government’s favour,” says Cook. “The Conservatives are desperate to limit the damage done by Scott, which is why Geoffrey Howe and others have been trying so hard to rubbish the inquiry. But they simply cannot get away from the fact that the scandal Scott has investigated took place under a Conservative government and involved Conservative ministers.”

Labour is sparing no effort to get the government to allow it to see the report before publication – and in the meantime is making as much as it can of leaks of early drafts that have already appeared in the media. Cook is particularly scathing about the extracts published by the Sunday Times last weekend, in which Chief Secretary to the Treasury William Waldegrave was excoriated by Scott for misleading parliament and the public about defence-related exports to Iraq when he was a junior Foreign Office minister. “If the final report includes anything like that sort of criticism, Waldegrave should resign,” he says.

The parliamentary debate on Scott, likely within a week of publication, will be a crucial set-piece, comparable to the Westland debate ten years ago, and Cook knows he cannot blow it. But the Tories are on the defensive, and they know that the best they can hope for is to weather the storm.

By contrast, on Europe, his other big brief, there is a surprising optimism on the Tory benches. John Major’s strategy since last summer’s leadership election, of marginalising the hardcore Eurosceptic right in the cabinet while getting the government to adopt a populist nationalist anti-European rhetoric, has served its cynical purpose better than most commentators expected. Although the most Europhile Tories, including Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, deplore it – and there remains a massive split even in the cabinet on economic and monetary union – there is growing confidence among the rest that they now have a good chance to make political capital out of Labour’s supposed “federalism” and willingness to kow-tow to Brussels.

Cook is unworried. He spent his first year as shadow foreign secretary repositioning Labour on Europe, and believes that the party policy he forged is more than robust and popular enough to withstand any Tory assault. “For a start,” he says, “it is simply absurd to describe us as federalists. Labour’s vision of Europe is of independent member-states voluntarily coming together to cooperate. We do not want to surrender our independence to some kind of super-state. At the same time, however, Britain will never get the best deal from Europe by remaining isolated. Being constantly the odd one out is a very difficult position to bargain from.” The new Labour line is a skilfully negotiated compromise between the party’s Eurosceptic and Euroenthusiast wings – and it looks a lot more likely to hold until the election than the Tories’ fragile peace. Labour’s Euro-rebels have been notable by their silence in the past year. But what does the Labour consensus mean in practice? To start with the most controversial issue for both parties,

Labour is in favour of economic and monetary union (EMU) – but not on any terms. It would back it only with the explicit consent of the British people (not necessarily a referendum: a general election “in which the public had a clear choice and the result was clear-cut” might settle it) and only at a reasonable price.

“I don’t think that anyone should underrate the very strong political will behind the creation of a single currency on the part of French president Jacques Chirac and German chancellor Helmut Kohl,” says Cook.” But there are undoubtedly problems with the Maastricht timetable for EMU. We can see the benefits of a single currency, but it can only work if there is real economic convergence among the participating countries – in terms of productivity, innovation and output, as well as public-sector deficits and inflation. Unless we get that, there has to be a question-mark over whether we will be able to give up for all time the right to devalue. Devaluation has been the way that Britain has compensated for its failure to compete over the past 30 years. It is not a strategy, but it does enable you to compensate for the failure of strategy.”

If there are echoes here of Bryan Gould and Peter Shore, the anti-European Labour Keynesians who were the most trenchant devaluationist opponents inside the party of its pro-Europe turn in the late 19805, they are faint. For Cook, the goal is not a go-it-alone economic policy, but a coordinated European attempt at reflation along the lines advocated by former European Commission president Jacques Delors in his (now-abandoned) programme to compensate for the Maastricht treaty’s deflationary consequences.

“For me the most important challenge facing Europe is how we reconnect with the peoples of Europe,” says Cook. “The problem with Maastricht is that the political elites became uncoupled from the concerns and aspirations of their peoples. We have got to get Europe back on to a people’s agenda, and the first priority is jobs.”

Sadly, he goes on, the Delors package has been lost – “largely because of sabotage and obstruction by the British Conservative government” – and there can be no return to its proposals: “They’re now four years old and Europe’s economies have moved on since then.” But “coordinated action to stimulate the economies of Europe and get them moving again” remains imperative.

“Maastricht committed every country to get its deficit down to 3 per cent, in other words to deflate. Delors rightly recognised that we needed to take compensatory measures if this was not to affect demand. In the past three years, Europe has been straining to meet the deficit criteria, but without any means to maintain demand. We have got to get that kind of reflationary package in place again to tackle unemployment.”

Not that some sort of Euro-Keynesian demand management is the whole story: there’s also the question of the quality of the jobs that Europe creates. Here, says Cook, “the specific issue for us is the government’s refusal to sign up for the social chapter. I am greatly entertained by the Tories’ intention to fight the next election promising that people in Britain will have fewer rights and worse working conditions than people on the continent.”

The social chapter, he continues, fits perfectly with Labour’s commitment to a “stakeholder society”, the “big idea” embraced by Tony Blair last month as Labour’s over-arching theme. “The Tories are barking up the wrong tree if they claim that the social chapter will compromise competitiveness. Its key commitment is to more consultation of workers. A workforce that knows the strategy of a company and is involved in drawing it up will be more committed to it and therefore more competitive. Continental companies with a culture of consensus and consultation have been able to implement long-term investment strategies – unlike most companies in Britain, where we have a culture of confrontation between management and the workforce and a tradition of keeping the workforce in the dark.”

If EMU and the social chapter are likely to be the European issues that figure most prominently in the election campaign, the most pressing question now is the forthcoming intergovernmental conference, the “follow-up-to-Maastricht” negotiations that will attempt to reach agreement on reform of the European Union’s political institutions and enlargement of the EU to include eastern Europe.

On the institutions, Cook says that the principle of Labour policy, set out in a document passed by its annual conference last year, is that “the European Commission should be accountable to the European Parliament, while the Council of Ministers should be more accountable to national parliaments”. Both national parliaments and the European Parliament should therefore be given more powers. Labour rejects the idea of a “two-tier” or “a la carte” Europe; wants majority voting in the Council of Ministers extended to cover social affairs, the environment and industrial policy, but not home affairs, taxation or security policy; and backs a simplification all round of the EU’s decision-making procedures.

But it is enlargement to the east, initially to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and possibly Slovenia, that Cook thinks is the most important task of the IGC. “We need to ensure that the countries of central Europe go down the road of postwar western Europe, not that of the post-communist Balkans,” he says, although he is a realist about the problems of enlargement, both for existing members and for the central European countries. There is no way the existing EU could cope with enlargement without reform, he says: in particular, and the Common Agricultural Policy has to be radically changed if the demands of eastern-central Europe upon it are not to prove intolerable. On the other side, the east-central European countries will find the shock of opening up their inefficient economies to western European competition too much to bear if it is not carefully managed.

“Both sides need a period of adjustment,” says Cook. “One possible way forward is to put some more rungs on the ladder, to allow the countries of eastern-central Europe more gradual entry to the EU – so they could join a political union that is not a free-trade area, for example, and could then join a free-trade area without signing up for some aspects of economic and monetary union. Enlargement also means looking seriously at the EU’s institutions, which are still to a large degree those of a European Community of six and are not going to work with an EU of 26. We have to make sure that the institutions work more effectively and efficiently, and we need to improve democratic accountability.”

All of which amounts to a position as comprehensive as anyone would want, and there are few Labour dissidents who are prepared to break ranks on it this side of a general election. In the longer run, however, the tensions inherent in Labour’s Euro-policy could provoke real controversy. Even now, Labour’s Europhiles talk sotto voce of the incompatibility of EU enlargement and a Europe-wide strategy for jobs, while its Eurosceptics are uneasy about how far a Labour government would insist on its tough line on convergence conditions for EMU.

In other words, Cook has done the business in opposition – which is no mean feat given the depth of Labour feeling on Europe in recent years. In power, however, the story could be very different.

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