A man who saw politics as a calling, not a career
by Lloyd Axworthy
Description: Lloyd Axworthy, President of the University of Winnipeg, recalls the life of former British minister Robin Cook and describes him as "a man of exceptional talent and experience" who who worked hard for social justice, democratic rights and an "ethica
Date: 08 August 2005
Source: The Globe and Mail, A15
I last spoke to Robin Cook, the former British cabinet minister who died on Saturday, three months ago. It was in Vancouver during a gathering of former foreign ministers who, through former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright's instigation, come together every six months or so to ponder the parlous state of world affairs and then offer some collective views on how to make such matters a little better.
One of the benefits in attending these sessions was to listen to Robin dissect an issue, parse a problem, and with a wit honed by years in the parliamentary pit, sum up with a precise and original set of solutions.
But the real value was in the private moments when this man of exceptional talent and experience would share his thoughts about the declining state of political morality and the dangerous trends of leaders in modern democracies to use scam and sham to justify unwarranted wars. He lamented the growing power of those who advance policies of military crusades not informed by a search for peace. These were not the bravura views of the ”warriors“ of Washington or Whitehall, but a man steeped in the dissenting religious traditions of his native Scotland. As foreign secretary of Great Britain, he sought to apply an ethical foreign policy, establishing standards of behaviour that would limit the use of force or ensure that force, when necessary was use to advance the protection of people.
In Kosovo, he was an eloquent voice in advancing the case for intervention to stop the ethnic cleansing. In doing so, he helped advance the notion that the international community has a ”responsibility to protect“ innocent people being persecuted by their own government.
His finest hour, however, was in resigning from Tony Blairs’ government over its decision to join forces with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. It was a rare act of political courage, not often witnessed in today’s political arenas. It spoke to two ingredients of political life that are necessary I keeping the public trust. One is principle. He resigned because he believed the war was wrong, and he gave up the trappings of power and perks because of that belief. It was a simple, basic reflection of a man who saw politics as a calling, not as a career.
And second, he protested a decision made behind closed doors, using false arguments, ignoring the rights of Parliament to be the crucible where important decisions on war and peace are to be made by elected representatives in full public view. After his resignation, Robin was the House leader for the Blair government, actively engaged in a broad plan of parliamentary reform.
I had breakfast with him shortly after he had been removed from his cherished foreign secretary’s post and commiserated at what appeared to be a diminished role. But, in typical style, he was already launched in an enthusiastic scheme for modernizing British parliamentary democracy. It was a fitting task for someone who so deeply believed in the integrity of voters making decisions, not bureaucratic, business or political elites.
While Robin Cook was never a household name in this country, we should mourn his passing. He was a good man who worked hard for social justice, democratic rights and an ”ethical foreign policy,“ values that most Canadian would deem important in a political leader.
Most of all, we must recognize the pivotal place he occupies in standing up for a belief against the pressure of his leader, his party, his government; espousing an unpopular position and thereby helping to give direction and voice to general public unease against an unjust war. The debate that Robin Cook helped launch about the duplicity of the leadership in Britain and the U.S. over the reasons for going into Iraq goes on because it goes to the very heart of any democracy, which is the public right to know and not to be deceived.
The sorry aftermath of the Iraq invasion that plays out every day in the casualty counts, and the growing anger of young Middle Easter Muslims against what they see as an imposition of Western rule is testimony to his singular act of personal and political bravery in contesting the rationale for this military misadventure. His was an example of truth speaking to power, a quality in ever-diminishing supply in today’s world of hype and counterterrorist hysteria.
Lloyd Axworthy, former foreign affairs minister and author of Navigating a New World: Canada’s Global Future, is president of the University of Winnipeg.