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The Point of Departure: Diaries From the Front Bench Paperback – 2 Aug 2004
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This book is great fun to read. It has the authentic touch of both the great and the trivial issues that dominate the daily life and the grind of ministers in any government" Guardian 'Robin Cook's Point of Departure provides the best insight yet into the workings of the Blair cabinet. His diary entries are highly readable, and sometimes very funny' Elinor Goodman, Books of the Year, Sunday Telegraph 30/11 'Cook does not accuse Blair of deliberate deception. Cook's restraint makes an even more damning case. He guides the reader towards a devastating guilty verdict on the Prime Minister without making too many sweeping judgments himself. While narrating a tragic and humiliating failure in foreign policy, Cook also manages to be very funny' Independent on Sunday, Political Books of the Year 14/12 'Instant history can tell us how events appeared before they became obscured in the fog of hindsight. For hindsight is the great enemy of the historian. We forget, all too easily, that what is now in the past once lay in the future. Instant history, especially when, as with Robin Cook's Point of Departure, it is based on the diary of a participant, is history written when the outcome was still unknown' FT, UK Politics 'The best-written and most thoroughly researched of the post-election batch of cabinet biographies,' Peter Kellner, Evening Standard. 'This thoroughly researched and well-crafted biography has both revelations and insights to offer about the life of one of the most intriguing members of this government,' Andrew Rawnsley, Observer 'An admirable instant biography, taking in all its subject's trials and tribulations since he came to office,' Anthony Howard's political books of the year, 1998, Sunday Times "Devastating on how Blair found himself taking Britain to war in the shadow of President Bush, after 'grossly distorting', in Cook's phrase, the threat of Saddam's weapon's to the world" Sunday Times 29/8
About the Author
Robin Cook was appointed Leader of the House of Commons and President of the Council in June 2002. He held a number of senior positions in Opposition - Shadow Foreign Secretary, Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, Shadow Health Secretary and Social Services Secretary - before becoming Foreign Secretary from 1997 until 2001
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The second main narrative strand focuses upon his attempts to reform Parliament and strengthen it as an institution. He clearly loves Parliament, and works hard to ensure that the House of Commons is a stronger chamber.
All through this book there is a real sense of frustration - mainly directed at Tony Blair. He is frustrated that the Labour Party feels unable to resist moves towards war I Iraq, and through the book adopts a consistent and entirely logical argument as to why this should be the case. He is also deeply frustrated that the Government cannot see the merits of Parliamentary reform, on which he was thwarted a number of times, often by other figures in the Government.
This is an exceptionally interesting book on a number of levels. For those interested in politics it reveals the process through which policy passes - I was surprised at how much dissent there was within the government towards different aspects of the Government's proposals. At the same time it was interesting how united ideologically the Labour party is, with the exception of Number 10. Robin Cook appears to be friendly with a number of Ministers who are usually regarded as being Blairite - most specifically Alan Milburn and Steven Byers.
There also a lot here for the casual reader - the book is shot through with moments of humour, and it is interesting to read about the peculiarities of ministerial life. This book is definitely worth investigation.
In actuality, these diaries cover the second stage of Cook's government career, after the 2001 general election, when he was appointed as (demoted to) Leader of the House of Commons, essentially a role that put him in charge of government business in the House. Let it be said, and this is unquestionably clear from the diaries, Cook was bitter at Blair (and his sidekick Alastair Campbell) about this demotion, though in fairness to Blair, Cook was still being offered a senior and important government role. It was a demotion, yes, but not a sacking: his dignity was intact. And to his credit, Cook did take to the role enthusiastically, along the way bolstering New Labour's parliamentary and procedural scruple. Cook's insistence that military intervention in Iraq should be put to a parliamentary vote is one example given due emphasis in this book, though the Blair government would always disrespect Parliament, something that would have become an increasing point of tension had Cook lived.
It was during Cook's tenure as Leader of the House that the 9/11 tragedy occurred and the so-called 'War On Terror' commenced. What these diaries show is that Cook did not oppose the Iraq War. His objection to military action was really based on a point of legal scruple, that the government should have obtained a specific U.N. Security Council Resolution that would authorise military action. Cook's later, post mortem, canonisation as some kind of political saint and anti-war activist is difficult to take given that, as a long-standing member of an actively war-making Labour government - most specially during the first term between 1997 and 2001 - he had almost as much blood on his hands as Blair.
I enjoyed reading these diaries. They are well-written and while there is precious little light relief - Cook is a very earnest and serious personality, something that very definitely comes across - anyone with an interest in politics will find fascinating Cook's account of the tumult of the early Noughties. The downside is really towards the end as Cook's self-righteousness does become a little nauseating. I could take it from, say, a Galloway or some other politician with 'clean hands' ('clean' in the sense that personalities such as Galloway have not served in government office), but the fact is Robin Cook had willingly participated in prosecuting wars and military action in the past (Kosovo, Sierra Leone), and on equally flimsy pretexts, and so his agonising over UK involvement in Iraq is a little unconvincing, to be frank. Anti-war activist? Not likely. That his new-found 'pseudo-pacifism' came in the wake of his demotion is, I think, of some significance. Cook was also cushioned by the assurance that he had a lot of support, both on the Labour backbenches and in the Labour Party out in the country, so his political base was safe. Nevertheless, Cook's point of dissension from the Blair government was brave, and while I would not say it rises to the heights of political courage, it still took a modicum of courage because most of the tabloid newspapers were strongly for the Iraq War and would savagely ridicule and malign many of those MPs who voted against military action. Furthermore, it should be remembered that a significant proportion of the public supported the war. Indeed, polling conducted at the time tended to show a majority of people in favour of war (a historical fact that is now overlooked and forgotten). So, to oppose the Iraq War, even on the very technical grounds exhibited by Cook, was not an easy thing.
I can recommend this book wholeheartedly, and not only to those with an interest in the politics of the Iraq War. Robin Cook, a decorous parliamentarian, was in his element as Leader of the House and in a sense these diaries are a study of that interesting but oft-overlooked constitutional role. Anyone with an interest in the Labour Party will also find relevant material here because Robin Cook was very definitely a 'Party man' - unlike many of his New Labour colleagues, he took the Labour Party seriously - and consequently much of this diary is taken up with liaison on Labour Party matters and the minutiae and gossip of the Party.
One annoyance is the lack of an index. If you are going to publish your diaries, you really should have an index at the back. This is partly just out of simple courtesy to the reader, but mainly because most people will want to read diaries by dipping in and out of them, something that becomes very difficult - if not impossible - without an index to guide you to the relevant topics. Consequently, these diaries are quite difficult to navigate at times.
Cook, like many another superficially cerebral Scottish politico (cf David Steel) came to Parliament from a background in University achievement and solid political base-building. Eventually he became Foreign Secretary, but made the mistake of criticizing Israel, after which his relationship with his secretary (later, wife) Gaynor, suddenly came to public view, leaving an angry first wife floundering noisily in the wake of the affaire.
The book is a reasonably good read and does have some startling and disturbing insights, or, rather, anecdotes, into the Blair type of administration. Particularly dark is the way people such as a journalistic careerist, Alastair Campbell, exercized direct power over ministers, sometimes mouthdroppingly so, as when Campbell takes Cook's briefcase and tells him, damn nears ORDERS him, to go do something! There was a time when it was something to be a British Cabinet Minister...
Cook, like Alan Clark before him, seems to covet his M.P. and ministerial rank and is willing to rather kowtow to the Prime Minister to retain both. A weak Foreign Secretary, he found a better role as Leader of the House. Worth reading.
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