On this day 20 years ago, Robin Cook tried to stop the Iraq war. I
Tonight, twenty years ago, I sat in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons to watch its late leader, Robin Cook, deliver what many came to regard as the greatest parliamentary speech of his time.
The previous days had been spent in her company preparing for that moment and the resignation that preceded it. It was an event full of mixed emotions and political significance, and it has lost none of its power in the time since.
My own involvement stemmed from the work I had done as a special adviser to Robin before resigning from the Foreign Office two years earlier. A few weeks before the speech, he had invited me for a private drink at his official residence, where he confided in me his intention to resign before the war. Would it help you with management? He didn’t want the career prospects of his current advisers to be tainted with rebellion, while I was a well-known troublemaker with nothing to lose. I accepted enthusiastically.
As soon as it became clear that there would be no UN Security Council mandate for war, work began. The first order of business was to strategize for his departure. He was determined not to break the crockery when leaving. It wasn’t his style, and it would have detracted from the seriousness of the problem, so he didn’t leave Downing Street for the TV cameras and there were no information wars. Their reasons would be given in parliament because their colleagues deserved to hear them directly and before anyone else.
Then there was the writing speech, with long conversations and rewrites stretching for days. As usual, the final version was entirely crafted by himself, with only one line of my original draft surviving the final edit. It was this care and pride in his own words that gave his voice its unique force of authority.
What I remember most about the moment of delivery was the excitement of the occasion and the mixture of sadness and relief that Robin took with her that day. Although he doesn’t show himself as well in the film, his physical demeanor and the crunch in his voice clearly conveyed it to those present. He explains the outburst of spontaneous applause that greeted him, in violation of parliamentary convention.
The speech is remembered for its moral courage and intellectual clarity, but did it make any difference? When I met Robin as I left the chamber, news came that Clare Short would stay in the cabinet (she wouldn’t be leaving for another two months) and any lingering hope that MPs would rebel in sufficient numbers vanished.
He could not stop an unnecessary war and the horrible suffering it unleashed, something he felt as a personal failure, but his intervention certainly changed our understanding of its consequences. Above all, it eliminated the excuse that the false pretext for regime change was the result of a simple intelligence failure. As he demonstrated in his speech, it was possible to read the assessments produced by our intelligence services and come to the correct conclusion that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Steve Bell 2000/Steve Bell
I had seen the same assessments until 2001 and I assumed from the way ministers talked that new intelligence must have been received after 9/11 to raise the threat level. Robin was quick to disabuse me of that notion at our February meeting. It was only later that I found out why. The visitor before me had been the chairman of the joint intelligence committee, John Scarlett, making one last unsuccessful attempt to make the case to support the conflict. The exchange is recorded in Robin’s diary. Unlike others, he would not subordinate his judgment to self-deception and the desirability of remaining in office.
The legacy of the discourse survives as a benchmark of political integrity. We are also left with many “what ifs”. Robin was one of the few politicians to emerge from the Iraq war with his reputation enhanced, so much so that he leaned toward a return to the cabinet under a different leader. My sense is that the great personal happiness he experienced after his resignation would have made him reluctant to accept, but we will never know because his life was cut short at the age of 59, just two years later.
What we certainly missed with his loss was the authority he would have brought as an elderly statesman with something to say about the tumultuous events of the past two decades. Ahead of most, he was already worried about Russia’s turn toward authoritarianism under Putin. Perhaps his wise advice would have prevented Labour from making so many mistakes in opposition. As a staunch advocate for the UK’s place in Europe, he might have been able to reach voters that other leaders in the Remain campaign failed to in 2016.
What endures in the absence of this is the example of one who was willing to make a personal sacrifice in the service of truth. It’s worth remembering, now more than ever.
David Clark was special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001