Robin Cook Resignation Speech: ‘Why so urgent?’

By Chris McCarthy

Our difficulty in getting support…is that neither the international community nor the British public is convinced that there is an urgent and compelling reason for this military action in Iraq.

Robin Cook MP, 17 March 2003

Earlier this month The Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, cited the hacking scandal as profound a crisis for David Cameron as Black Wednesday was for John Major, and as the pound’s devaluation was for Harold Wilson. “In the careers of all prime ministers there comes a turning point. He or she makes a fatal mistake from which there is no ultimate recovery.” Whether this is that moment for Cameron will be born out in time but in early 2003 that defining point had arrived for Tony Blair as he prepared the country for war in Iraq.

After a small spike for Blair in the polls, his ratings dived by double digits as the rapid success of the initial invasion dissipated and the likelihood of a prolonged, costly campaign grew. In a rebel amendment in the Commons opposing the government’s stance on Iraq, on the same night a vote would be taken on support for sending UK forces into combat, 139 Labour MPs voted against their party. Two days earlier hundreds of thousands of demonstrators (some estimates put the figure closer to two million) marched through the streets of London against the proposed war.

Amongst the parliamentary voices of disapproval and public demonstrations of opposition, one solitary voice would penetrate with greater searing sharpness than any other. A Member of Parliament since February 1974 and a front-bencher for over 20 years, Robin Cook’s resignation speech as Leader of the Commons ranks as one of the greatest Parliamentary displays in the last 50 years.

Cook’s gifted debating skills were well known to Parliament and the clinical precision with which he dismantled the case for war showcased the best of his incisive and devastating capabilities. This was not a speech crafted in the mould and with the intentions of Geoffrey Howe’s resignation in 1990 that precipitated the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Cook clearly respected his leader and was proud of his government: “I hope that he will continue to be the leader of our party, and I hope that he will continue to be successful…I will give no comfort to those who want to use this crisis to displace him.”

It was with a “heavy heart” that Cook tendered his resignation but he could not commit himself as a government minister to “support a war without international agreement or domestic support.” Over the next 11 minutes the MP for Livingstone would dismantle every argument put forward at the time for committing troops to war.

In the preceding weeks France had come under “bucket loads of commentary” and criticism for what was presented by some as blind obstinacy to a second UN resolution calling for action. France was being made a scapegoat, argued Cook: “We delude ourselves if we think that the degree of international hostility [to the war] is all the result of President Chirac.”

The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we area leading partner – not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council.

Tony Blair’s failure to secure a broader international consensus for action in Iraq would stain the Labour government and Britain’s reputation for years. The rifts between Britain and her allies were already revealing themselves in the months preceding the invasion and the political fallout would compound the loss of life, civilian and military, to create possibly the greatest foreign policy fiasco since the Suez Crisis. Cook’s words on the eve of war proved very prescient: “Tonight the international partnerships most important to us are weakened: the European Union is divided; the Security Council is in stalemate. Those are heavy casualties of a war in which a shot has yet to be fired.”

The infamous ‘dossier’ arguing the case for war would gain notoriety in subsequent enquiries and rested, fundamentally, on the claim that Iraq posed an immediate and capable threat to the United Kingdom. That case, argued Cook in devastating fashion, had yet to be made compelling and the toxins and chemical munitions Iraq probably still possessed, it had done so since the 1980s when US companies and the British government sold them anthrax agents and approved chemical factories.

Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create? Why is it necessary to resort to war this week, while Saddam’s ambition to complete his weapons programme is blocked by the presence of UN inspectors?

Cook’s most damning criticism was reserved for Britain’s Atlantic ally. Suspicion lingered that President Bush had used less-than-convincing and tenable evidence to justify a war his administration had been harbouring for several years (and for some officials as far back as the elder Bush’s administration and the first Gulf War). When Cook questioned the legitimacy of Bush’s presidency and its consequences for Britain’s armed forces, it brought one of the loudest cheers from the Commons during his speech:

What has come to trouble me most over past weeks is the suspicion that if the hanging chads in Florida had gone the other war and Al Gore had been elected, we would not now be about to commit British troops.

None of the arguments Cook put forward against going to war were new or revelatory but the manner in which they were assembled – orderly, structured, comprehensive – and the style and tone that marked their delivery – erudite, firm, pointed – elevated them into a devastating critique. In a war that had “neither international agreement nor domestic support,” the former Foreign Secretary eloquently captured why.

He died of a heart attack two years later and the epitaph on his gravestone aptly captures the lasting significance of his speech: “I may not have succeeded in halting the war but I did secure the right of parliament to decide on war.”

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