Remembering British anti-Iraq war politician Robin Cook

This video from the British Parliment in London says about itself:

The late Robin Cook MP’s resignation speech to Parliament (in full), on 17 March 2003.

By Nick Matthews in Britain:

What might have been: Robin Cook at 70

Wednesday 24th February 2016

More than a decade after the principled Labour MP died, NICK MATTHEWS looks back at his bravura stand against the government’s Iraq arms deception

ON FEBRUARY 28 Robert “Robin” Finlayson Cook would have been 70. 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.

Sadly there were Blairites and Brownites but few Cookites. Unfortunately 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 YouTube, 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. For those who heard that speech, who can forget his words?

“Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term,” he said.

“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 February 15 1993 and Cook’s parliamentary demolition of Ian Lang, then the trade and industry secretary, over the Scott Report into Britain’s sale of arms to Iraq.

The report was written by Sir Richard Scott, Lord Justice of Appeal. The Establishment must have thought he was a safe pair of hands, but the report was critical of the government’s actions and evasions.

I played a very small part in Cook’s preparation for that debate. While ministers had eight days to read the report — all 2,386 pages of it — 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 Cook’s 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 — but in fact clear and easy to read.

When we think what has happened since, the whole affair now seems amazing. In the late 1980s Coventry-based machine tool firm Matrix Churchill 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 export controls had been relaxed in 1988. 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, was suspicious that Matrix Churchill were 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 Clark admitted with typical sangfroid that he had been “economical with the actualité” 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.

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 world would now be a better place.

The conspicuous absence at Cook’s funeral of Tony Blair perhaps shows us that despite appearances, Blair does have some shame.

9 thoughts on “Remembering British anti-Iraq war politician Robin Cook

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