Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Robin Cook (1946-2005)


I can scarcely believe I have let so many days pass without publicly commemorating the death of my near-neighbour, Robin Cook MP. He collapsed and died while walking in the Scottish Highlands on Saturday. He was 59, younger than my father.

I had seen him a number of times around Chiswick - in the pet shop, on The Avenue (and credit to the person who saw a long avenue stretching up from north Chiswick to Acton and, casting aside all conventions of nomenclature, decided not to name it after Churchill or something connected with him - the roads around The Avenue are called Blenheim Road and Malborough Crescent, to take just two examples - but simply 'The Avenue'), jogging along Acton High Street (and looking jolly uncomfortable doing so). Having a famous neighbour is no big deal in Chiswick. But I do wish that I had taken the trouble to go up to him and tell him how much respect I had for him, how much I felt he was one of the few parliamentarians who combined intellect with conscience and had not, too much anyway, allowed the trappings of power to cloud his judgement. As Stephen Tall writes:
I have tried, and failed, to think of a single other Labour politician for whom I have such utter respect. Respect cuts two ways: one cannot help but respect Tony Blair for his acute stage management of political theatre, or the brio with which he practises his impresario art. But for Mr Cook I felt a respect borne of shared values, and admiration not merely for his coruscating intellect, but for the clear-sighted acuity with which he communicated his passionately held views.

There is no doubt that, for a public bored by politicians, Robin Cook was an easy figure of fun. His murmured delivery, coupled with his accent, meant impressionists could make him seem like an incomprehensible buffoon. He himself admitted that he was "too ugly to be Prime Minister". But these cosmetic considerations masked an extraordinary intellect. He surely must have been one of the single most intelligent men to have sat in parliament.

Writing in the Guardian, David Clark debunks a myth about Cook which actually leaves one more impressed by him:
The widely held belief that he read the Scott report in two hours cemented his reputation, but it also obscured the real source of his effectiveness as a politician. The reason he was able to master its contents so quickly was that he had familiarised himself with the inquiry's proceedings in such detail that he was able to anticipate which sections would contain the most damning conclusions. In this, the truth is scarcely less impressive than the fiction.

And I passed this man in the street! I doubt my words would have done much more than flatter (and maybe slightly embarrass) him. On principle, I leave public figures alone when I see them in 'real life' on the grounds that they probably feel they get too much attention already. I wish I had made an exception for him, though, to tell him that he was not alone in his beliefs, to remind him that there were many people who shared many of his views (I agreed with him not only about the Iraq War but also about electoral reform, two disparate issues on which he had strong views which went beyond simple tribalism).

Every time I saw him, he was alone, apparently deep in thought. That seems to have been his way. Too few of our politicians seem to think any more - look at the present Cabinet... hell, no, look at any MP. How many of them seem to think before they speak? How many of them seem to have arrived at their views through analysis of the facts, rather than from a quick glance at the leader columns or their own private polling? How many of them sleep easily at night, I wonder? If Cook's dreams were troubled, it would have been because he saw how much there was still to do, not because he was toeing a party line that he would have condemned as a private citizen.

It's a cliché to say that we have lost a great man. On this occasion, the cliché holds true.


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