The Point of Departure:  Diaries from the front bench.

                             by Robin Cook.  Simon and Schuster, London, 2004, 384 pp., £7.99, ISBN 0-7434-8377-4. 

John Denham resigned quietly from government over the Iraq war. George Galloway resigned less quietly for the same reason. And Robin Cook resigned as Father of the House after giving a famous resignation speech which drew applause in the Commons, in which he disassociated himself from the government’s decision to go to war, a speech quoted in full in an appendix to his book. As former Foreign Secretary and subsequently Leader of the House he was close to Tony Blair, and had important person-to person talks with him over policy in general, and the looming war against Iraq in particular.  He describes Cabinet meetings, and – especially valuable – analyses Blair’s autocratic instincts which led him to promote his own agenda for this foolish war.  He praises Blair’s leadership when it came to managing the economy, and insists in several places that Labour has not received enough credit for large improvements in health care, education and social welfare.  Unfortunately the Iraq war has cast a long shadow over domestic government policy.

Cook is careful not to call Blair a liar (perhaps for legal reasons) and then explains carefully how the prime minister must have been aware of the dubious nature of the intelligence and the reservations which intelligence itself placed on the data upon which the case for war was erected. (See especially page 339)

Cook’s own assessment of why Blair acted single-handedly to promote George Bush’s war is that Blair valued very highly the special relationship with the US, and thought he could use it as a lever to moderate US foreign policy.  Blair’s delusion is the best possible construction that could be placed on the prime minister’s action in supporting the war.  Blair hoped to legitimise the war by obtaining a UN Security Council resolution, and when that failed, found himself backed into a position where he had to commit British forces anyway.

KPN readers will know the history of the Iraq war, but will find much to confirm and justify their anti-war stance in this valuable, well-written book – hard, behind-the-scenes information.  In addition though, Cook was an extremely clear and intelligent writer on the economy.  He explained the weaknesses of Thatcheresque market forces, and where they lead (page 362), and how a Labour programme should modify laissez-faire so that the market economy can work for society, rather than having society twisted to facilitate market forces.

Cook had the instincts of a true democrat.  In common with other analysts, he was concerned that executive power was overriding the power of the House of Commons when it came to important decisions.  ‘The real tension today within our political system is not an imaginary tussle between Lords and Commons for primacy, but the struggle to make the Executive more accountable to scrutiny in Parliament’ (page 280).   He explains ‘the curiosity of the British constitution’, the royal prerogative, which allows British prime ministers to declare war without reference to parliament (page 187), and deplores the ways in which the Executive can control Parliament (also page 187).  He explains the strange logic (if that is the word) of a Motion for Adjournment, in which a debate can be held on, for example, committing British troops to a war, so there is no risk of any serious consequence following a government defeat.   He was keen to see the reform of the House of Lords, for which he had some responsibility, take the form of a fully elected Chamber, an idea foreign to that of his autocratic leader, who favoured an appointed membership. 

Robin Cook’s death last week while trekking in Scotland came as a terrible shock.  We are very fortunate that he wrote his memoirs before he died, and updated them so recently.  The Point of Departure has been acclaimed by critics.  It is ‘the best insight yet into the workings of the Blair cabinet’ (Goodman), and ‘the most damning account of Britain’s decision to attack Iraq’ (Hurd).  This book will be in print a long time yet, and may become a classic.  However, don’t take a risk.  Buy it now.