Paul Anderson, review of Robin Cook by John Kampfner (Gollancz, £16.99), Tribune, 3 October 1998

As instant political biographies go, John Kampfner’s Robin Cook is not bad. Too many examples of the genre are poorly researched, badly written hagiographies. Kampfner’s book is thorough, well crafted and for the most part balanced.

It is particularly good on Cook’s career before he became Foreign Secretary last year. Of course, there are a few errors of fact. Contrary to Kampfner’s belief, Kingsley Martin was not editor of the New Statesman in 1964 when Cook started reading it; and cruise missiles arrived in Britain in 1983, not 1980 as he states. But in context these are minor mistakes: on the important things, Kampfner’s research is meticulous.

His account of Cook’s formative years in the 1960s and 1970s, as student politician, Edinburgh councillor and radical back-bench MP, is superb; and he negotiates with aplomb the intricacies of Labour’s debates and internal power struggles in the 1980s and early 1990s. On Cook’s longstanding anti-militarism, his changing attitudes to devolution and Europe, his Keynesian interventionism in economic policy and his conversion to the cause of proportional representation, Kampfner is excellent.

His most revealing chapter is on Cook’s dithering after John Smith’s death over whether to stand against Tony Blair for the Labour leadership and his belated decision to jump on the Blair bandwagon. There is a strong case for believing that Cook’s failure of nerve was far more important than Gordon Brown’s at the same time. In spring 1994, Brown was in the political doldrums inside the Labour Party because of his caution in economic policy, while Cook’s reputation was riding high on the strength of his handling of the arms-to-Iraq scandal. Had Cook declared his intention to stand early – well, who knows? Kampfner has the sense not to answer this question directly, but he does make it clear that there were plenty of people who took Cook’s chances very seriously.

On Cook as Foreign Secretary, the book is less satisfactory. Kampfner tells the story competently enough, and much of his appraisal of Cook’s first year-and-a-bit in office is fair. He is undoubtedly right that the Foreign Secretary has had a torrid time in the press – particularly over his love life (a story retold here at unnecessary length) but also because of supposed “gaffes” over Kashmir, Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, and Sierra Leone. It is also incontrovertible that Cook has been frozen out of decision-making on European economic and monetary union and that he has been over-ruled on arms sales to Indonesia. As a loyal member of the government, he has been unable to act in public as a tribune of the Labour left.

But Kampfner is far too ready to write Cook off. The truth is that nothing that has gone wrong for the Foreign Secretary has irreversibly damaged his standing. His bad press over Israeli settlements and Sierra Leone was not deserved; and the worst should soon be over as far as publicity about his love life is concerned. He also has substantial achievements to his name: his role in normalising relations with Europe, his part in restraining the gung-ho instincts of Blair and Bill Clinton over Iraq and his changes to the culture of the Foreign Office.

Perhaps most important, Blair knows that he cannot get rid of him. Cook on the back benches as the figurehead the parliamentary left so obviously now lacks would be a nightmare for the Prime Minister. So he seems guaranteed a senior position for the foreseeable future, most likely continuing as Foreign Secretary but just possibly becoming Chancellor if Gordon Brown proves a disaster. If Blair opts for proportional representation for the Commons, moreover, Cook will become a crucial ally in Cabinet.

All of which is to say that Kampfner’s downbeat conclusion – “The man on whom so many had pinned their hopes in opposition had found himself a victim in government” – could all too easily look dated in a year’s time. I certainly hope so.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.