A pleasure to meet up with Robin Cook MP, the distinguished member for Livingston, former Foreign Secretary, and notorious racing enthusiast. The occasion was the Oldie Literary lunch in Edinburgh yesterday, which I was hosting on behalf of our clients Swan Hellenic. Other guests included the travel writer Charlie Connelly, author of ‘Attention All Shipping’. All went well.
Cook comports himself in a friendly, open manner, but there’s a touch of statesmanlike gravitas present which marks him for the senior figure he now cuts in Labour mythology (notwithstanding that he’s a gift to Jon Culshaw).
In the traumatic days when his private life was filling the Sunday papers, prior to his ex-wife’s book filling the remainder bins at Waterstones, it struck me that once that balloon had gone up he played the media superbly and emerged with a public image enhanced by his candour. Eventually prised from the Foreign Office to make way for Jack Straw, he was one of the most influential and effective Leaders of the House in a generation. He oversaw the reform of the Commons’ working hours into something more in keeping with the 21st century, and tried to make that most male-dominated of institutions more female-friendly. When he resigned from Blair’s cabinet’s over the latter’s leap into bed with George W. Bush, he couldn’t have chosen a more honourable issue.
Speaking about those events he betrays not a whiff of bitterness. He reserves a mischievous irony for a comment that the biggest change since the invasion of Iraq is that British foreign policy is now decided in Washington instead of London. Nor is he slow to point out the absurdity that the USA’s response to the violence was simply more and more violence.
Born in 1946, Robin read English Literature at Edinburgh University, and is as much a Man of Letters as he is a Man of the Turf. When someone suggested he should by now be basking on the red benches of the House of Lords he emitted a polite groan and reminded those in earshot that he had no time whatsoever for any form of unelected chamber. It reminded me of the opening words of his magnificent resignation speech in March 2003, just before the troops left for the Middle East…
‘This is the first time for 20 years that I have addressed the House from the backbenches. I must confess that I had forgotten how much better the view is from here ‘