24 February 2011

It is to be hoped that the ghost of Robin Cook is haunting the Prime Minister: his proclamation that Britain has been wrong to back authoritarian regimes, while defending Britain’s arms exports industry deserves a savage quip from the former, late Foreign Secretary.

Cook’s fate confounds the idea that foreign policy is somehow made up as it goes along, framed by personal affinities and pragmatism, enunciated this week by the amiable and clever Conservative columnist Daniel Finklestein on the Today programme.

It was only in the field of foreign policy and international relations that Labour appeared, albeit briefly, radical, democratic and progressive after the May 1997 election victory.

With Cook in the Foreign Office and Clare Short in international development (not to mention Mo Mowlam handling Northern Ireland), the possibility of an approach to international diplomacy grounded in human rights seemed uniquely possible.

That  prospectus was swiftly quashed by Tony Blair. When Cook launched his maxim: an ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy – quckly spun into ‘an ethical foreign policy’ – it was unceremoniously binned by Blair.

Read John Kampfner’s shocking account in Blair’s Wars of how Tony Blair and his aide de camp – and mentor – Jonathan Powell humiliated Cook and adopted instead the ‘new imperialism.’

Kampfner explains that Blair went to war five times in six years, and it was that statistic that impelled him to write the book.

Although Cook’s approach – to base foreign policy on human rights – had been cleared with Downing Street, it was not to Blair’s taste.

The tactical difficulties of re-orientating Britain away from arms exports to repressive regimes -  and rupturing the historic intimacies between Downing Street and the arms manufacturers -  gave Blair a weapon against Cook. The Foreign Secretary’s detailed plans for releasing Britain from contractual obligations to dictatorships buying arms from Britain  were scrutinised by Blair’s men.  The scowlers vetted line by line his criteria for arms sales – Cook’s template for a new ethic in one of Britain’s foremost export industries.   Before the year was out the ‘ethical dimension’ faded  and Blair himself promoted the  ‘hug ‘em close’ mantra that sealed a UK-US united, imperial front.

The arms exporters were safe, and supported by the Prime Minister. Wars would be waged. Indecent tyrannies would be re-armed and reassured.

All until 2011 when New Labour’s New Imperialism and the special relationship between the UK and the US, and the West and Israel, began to shudder in the astounding aftermath of the largely secular people’s revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Downing Street and the White House were scandalously slow to welcome the revolutionary uprisings. The new imperialist rhetoric of humanitarian warfare was suddenly exposed: the West appeared befuddled.

Secular or sectarian, it didn’t matter – Downing Street has sponsored muslimists and their enemies – the specialist relationship has nurtured, funded, armed them all in the name of stability, the cold war, Israel and above all ‘our interests’.

Cameron has been scorned for the arms traders who have been his cohorts during his Middle East tour. ‘Shameful,’ protests War on Want. It is.  ‘Stop it,’ insists the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. Yes!

David Cameron lanced embarrassment by insisting on 21 February that the arms trade ‘is very much in Britain’s interests.’

No doubt he feels comforted by his new friend, the Observer’s   Nick Cohen, who’s commentary on the Middle East uprisings has been, yet again, to rant about muslim clerics – surely the least influential or interesting presence on the streets of Tunisia or Egypt so far. Cohen couldn’t see the heroic and secular wood for his islamist trees.

Cohen wrote in the Observer on 6 February that ‘David Cameron seems to be prepared to stand up for elementary principles. He was almost pitch-perfect in his speech in Germany as he rejected with the required scorn the right’s argument that a clash of civilisations made Muslims and democracy incompatible and the double-standard of the multi-culturalists, who hold that one can oppose fascistic doctrines when they are held by white-skinned demagogues but not when they are propagated by brown-skinned reactionaries.’

How does any of this blether clarify the Western powers’ complicity in hollowing out civil society and radical, democratic political movement is the Middle East, and how they should make amends.

Blair should be ashamed. David Cameron should be ashamed.

Robin Cook is dead. Long live Robin Cook.

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