Monday, 29 February 2016

Robin Cook at Seventy

On February 28th Robert (Robin) Finlayson Cook would have been seventy. As I have just reached the age at which he died in 2005 I realise how much life he had in front of him. His death was a great loss to our politics. I worked with him when he was Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary and I felt he would make a very good Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Sadly there where Blairites and Brownites but few Cookites not a one to tolerate fools, essential as Jeremy Corbyn has discovered in managing the Parliamentary Labour Party, he was poor at cultivating his supporters in the party

I suspect that today he is best remembered for departure from high office. Immortalised on You Tube, his 2003 resignation speech contains the most incisive demolition of the case against the War in Iraq that you will find from a man who had been foreign secretary from 1997 until 2001 and therefore knew what he was talking about. This was the very first speech ever to receive a standing ovation from members.

The loss of Cook to the government was indeed a great tragedy but the much greater tragedy was the fact that he was right. Amongst those who heard that speech who can forget the words;

Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term - namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target.

It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s when US companies sold Saddam anthrax agents and the then British Government approved chemical and munitions 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?”

That speech and the comment about British approved munitions factories took me back to the 15th February 1993 and Cook’s parliamentary demolition of Ian Lang the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry over the Scott Report.

To be precise it was the Report of the Inquiry into the Export of Defence Equipment and Dual-Use Goods to Iraq and Related Prosecutions, undertaken by Sir Richard Scott Lord Justice of Appeal. They must have thought he was a safe pair of hands.

I played a very small part in Cook’s preparation for that debate. Whilst ministers had eight days to read the report, all 2386 pages, it was only released to the opposition three hours before the debate. About eight of us who had been following the twists and turns of the inquiry took chunks of it and read them drawing anything we thought relevant to Cooks attention.

I remember at one point with a colleague just checking in the dictionary to see if “dissembling” meant what we thought it meant. It did, it is to conceal or disguise, to assume a false appearance of something in everyday language it is lying.

The way the Report was presented by the press you would think it was ambiguous that was not the case it was in fact clear and easy to read. Apart from the occasional double negative, its narrative was compelling and its conclusions plain as a pikestaff Scott was a very literate author. Some of his language like the use of words like dissembling was enough for the largely illiterate press to accuse him of obscurantism. This was of course what the government had wanted - a smoke screen!
When we think what has happened since the whole affair now seems amazing.  In the late 1980s, Coventry based machine tool firm Matrix Chruchill had been bought by the Iraqi government and was exporting machines used in arms manufacture to Iraq.
Such exports are subject to government approval, and Matrix Churchill had all the necessary paperwork, as in 1988 export controls had been relaxed. This relaxation however had never been announced – indeed, even when asked in parliament whether controls had been relaxed, Ministers said they had not.
HM Customs and Excise, unaware of the change in policy, where suspicious that Matrix Churchill where exporting arms components illegally in 1991 the directors were prosecuted for breach of export controls. The trial was a fiasco. The Government sought public interest immunity but this was overturned by the trial judge, forcing key documents to be handed over to the defence.
The trial collapsed when former minister Alan Clarke admitted with typical sangfroid that he had been 'economical with the actualit√©’ in answer to parliamentary questions about what he knew about export licenses to Iraq.
Cook’s demolition of the Government almost bought them down as they only won the vote 320 to 319! It turned out that one of the Directors of Matrix Churchill was working for the security services all along.
Before Scott the Government had been prepared to allow innocent people to go to prison - now the appeal court quashed a string of convictions - of Ali Daghir, managing director of Euromac, of Paul Grecian, managing director of Ordtec, and of Reginald Dunk, of the trading firm, Atlantic Commercial. Some of them won compensation Dunk received over £2m.  James Edmiston, managing director of the Sterling machine gun manufacturer took over 20years but won eventually £5m but no apology. Charged with Dunk but acquitted, the charges had forced him to sell the company and he was later declared bankrupt.
So why where the Government secretly arming Iraq? Well you have to go back to the Iran/Iraq war in 1980 when government policy was not to support either side but when Iraq looked like losing the USA and the British started covertly supporting Iraq
Cook did the nation a great service on that day as he did again in 2003 over the Iraq War. If only he had remained Foreign Secretary and there had been a Prime Minister who shared his ambition for an ethical foreign policy today the whole could would now be a better place.

The conspicuous absentee at Cook’s funeral was Tony Blair perhaps that shows us that despite appearances he does have some shame. 

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