BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 26.05.02

Interview: ROBIN COOK MP, Leader of the House of Commons

suggests that the British Government will stop supplying arms to India and Pakistan while they dispute Kashmir, decribes the latest state of the war against terrorism and advocates his changes to the conduct of Parliament as a way of re-connecting the public with politics.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: But first, there's a feeling of helplessness, when we watch much of what's happening in the world right now. India and Pakistan squaring up each other with nuclear weapons, the far right making gains across the Channel, the war against terrorism, apparently stalled, and here at home, well, the most common complaint voiced by voters these days for a while now is that they feel powerless. Politicians do things and we grumble a bit, shrug our shoulders, maybe cast our votes and let them get on with it. At least that's we used to do. Now fewer of us bother even to vote and if we do, more of us are turning to independents or extremists... not just in this country but across the Continent too. What needs to happen, to use the current jargon, is that there must be a re-connection between politics and people. A tall order perhaps in these sceptical times. Well one of the people charged with that responsibility is the Leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook and he's in our Edinburgh studio. Good afternoon Mr. Cook. ROBIN COOK MP: Good afternoon John. HUMPHRYS: Formerly of course, Foreign Secretary, and I think you were the last Foreign Secretary to go to India and Pakistan, so your view on what's happening there at the moment over Kashmir, it is looking pretty scary isn't it? COOK: It's very grave, and it's very worrying. I would say John that I think the last half-century of conflict and argument over Kashmir has been a tragedy for Kashmir, but even it's been a tragedy for both Pakistan and for India. They trade very little between themselves, less than five per cent, they've had now two generations of hostility against each other, they would gain so much more if they were able to co-operate and trade like any normal two countries side by side and assist each other in making sure that they do take forward the opportunities for development for the people instead of investing as they do so much in defence. Indeed, Pakistan still spends far more on its defence and its military than it does on education which is crazy for such a poor country. This is not just a flash point for the present time, although it's a very worrying one at the present time, it's also strategic problems with both countries. HUMPHRYS: And some of that defence spending obviously has been with us, as you would expect. There are reports in the Independent this morning that we had put a block on negotiating the sale of Hawk jets to India. Is that right? COOK: Well I've seen that story John, I cannot confirm it, I mean, I've seen it only a couple of hours ago on a Sunday morning, but it would make sense. I would point out to you that, as that story makes plain, we actually sell very little in the way of weaponry to Pakistan, the major block we put on Pakistan was first of all when they carried out their nuclear tests some time ago and then of course when the military took over in Pakistan. Since then we've provided very little in the way of export of arms to Pakistan, mainly for the Navy, and indeed we need the Navy to operate in stopping the drugs running around the area. HUMPHRYS: But quite a lot to India, and as the code of conduct that you were partly responsible for bringing in in nineteen-ninety-seven makes clear that we're committed not, I think it's going to be incorporated in a Bill, isn't it, we are committed not to supply arms in areas of instability, arms that may be used to attack others, so it would make sense if we were not going, it would be quite right for us not to sell arms to India or Pakistan at this time, wouldn't it? COOK: In, in present circumstances, it would be plainly wholly consistent with those criteria that we set out that we would not provide weapons to places where there is a risk that those weapons would help to fuel tension. What both sides now need to do is to step back from any military solution to the problem because ultimately no military solution is going to be permanent or stable and look for a way in which they can find a diplomatic solution to enhance the relations between the two countries, and find a way in which they can find a just solution to the situation in Kashmir that's also acceptable to the people of Kashmir. HUMPHRYS: So you'd expect that story on the blocking of arms sales to be accurate? COOK: I've no reason to doubt it John. HUMPHRYS: Right. Can we look at the much wider picture? Obviously what's happening over Kashmir at the moment is not good from the perspective of the war on terrorism, but there are, there are other influences of that war, aren't there? And this addresses the wider question that I mentioned in my introduction and that is bringing people closer to politics and the strength of democracy in Europe as we speak, is there a worry in your mind that if people feel that the most powerful country in the world, the United States, its leader, is going around Europe in effect saying, we're going to do it our way, we'd like you to join us, but if you don't, well so be it - does that lead to a sense, an increasing sense, on the part of many of people of powerlessness in politics, a sense of alienation almost? COOK: Well I think that you're jumping quite a few fences at the one go there John, I mean if I can just take one or two of them first of all. On the question of global terrorism, there is a problem of global terrorism, and it needs a global solution, and if you cast your mind back to September the eleventh and the attack on the Trade, twin towers of the Trade Center, at that time, the United States did set out to build a broad international coalition and was successful in doing it, indeed as the former Foreign Secretary, I must say I was pleasantly surprised at just how many nations came behind that determination that we were going to root out al-Qaeda and prevent it from being a threat to any of us in the future, reflecting the fact that so many nations lost their citizens in the attack on the Twin Towers. That is the way forward and it is very important that we continue to build that international consensus and use the United Nations as the place to take it forward. On the other point you make about the gulf between politicians and those who elect them, that is an issue that does seriously worry me, and that's one of the reasons why I am so keen that we should modernise parliament, so that it looks relevant, so it looks as if it belongs to the same century and sounds as if it belongs to the same century as the people who vote for it, and that's why it's so important we should reform it. HUMPHRYS: And I'd like to come on to that in a moment if I may. But just to, just to deal with President Bush, again, I mean, if he says in effect, as he is apparently saying, look we want your unconditional support, we are his closest allies of course and we are very proud of that fact. Should we offer it to him? Are we, are we saying, yes, you have our unconditional support? COOK: Well you're quite right John in that Britain is the longest ally of the United States, it is, it was a very intimate relationship both in military and intelligence terms, we are each other's strongest economic trading partner, we have a lot of cultural ties, we are very powerful friends and allies, and that continues whatever the administration in Washington, or indeed, for that matter in London, now that of course cuts both ways. It does mean that we have to support each other when we're in trouble, but it also means we can talk frankly to each and I'm quite sure that the United States, because of that, is now better aware of the position, of the opinion of Britain and the opinion of Europe because of what we're able to say with our inside track. HUMPHRYS: You mention the United Nations there, if Washington did decide that it was going to attack Iraq for instance, some sort of invasion of Iraq, is it your view that there ought to be a specific United Nations resolution making that possible. COOK: Well the discussion about this far too quickly in my view slips off into the legalistic view of should there be a resolution and what is the mandate. I think what is much more important is that the United Nations is the forum of the international community. It is the place where you look for building up that broad international coalition and that wider understanding. And of course, it is within the United Nations that the United Kingdom and the United States have been working over the past year to secure a new resolution which will make sure that we have the right barriers in place to stop Iraq acquiring the material for weapons of mass destruction but lifting the barriers to the people of Iraq getting access to economic and humanitarian goods. And that was very much a British initiative and has been concluded only in the last two months at the United Nations. HUMPHRYS: These legalistic things as you say, become terribly important, don't they, when events change? And your colleague Clare Short was quite happy to say yes, she thought there ought to be a specific United Nations resolution. Without it, it would be very difficult to gain the kind of support that, that you yourself, I'm sure, thinks is necessary for such an action? COOK: Yes, but before you get to the resolution you would have to have that wider discussion with the United Nations and you would have to build up a consensus and I would not disagree with the thrust of what Clare was saying, and that is that you would need to have backing of other colleagues within United Nations and you would need to have support of the General Secretary for the action you took. It would be very difficult to proceed in circumstances where you were opposed by those other forces and as I said John, let's not lose sight of the fact that we have just within the United Nations achieved a unanimous decision, a total consensus for the new measures against Iraq. HUMPHRYS: Alright, well let's, thanks for that, let's move on from you being Foreign Secretary as were to being Leader of the House of Commons! Which is where... COOK: ...I'm very happy to talk to you if you are happy. HUMPHRYS: ...absolutely. Your job as you say is to try to make parliament be seen to be doing an effective job, and that's the only way it's going to get the respect of the public which is so important, and you have introduced some changes, some of which people think are very important changes, but you've also had one or two setbacks and I'm thinking particularly of you wanting the Chairman of the Select Committees to be elected by MPs and not selected by party managers and Whips, and that sort of thing. Now that was thrown out last week in, in rather unusual circumstances. That was a setback for you, wasn't it? COOK: Well it was a free vote, and if you're going to be Leader of the House of Commons you have to respect the outcome of a free vote in the House of Commons. What I did was I fulfilled the commitment I gave a year ago that we would offer to the House of Commons a new way of nominating people to the Select Committee, so that they were more in the hands of parliament than in the hands of the Party Whips. In the event, the House took a different view and that's the nature of politics and the nature of democracy. HUMPHRYS: ...but... COOK: ...I would point out John, if I can just finish on this one that, I would say now that we had about half a dozen resolutions on Select Committees, on one of them the House came to a different view to the one that I was offering them, but all the others went through and as a result of that, we will now have more specialist staff for the Select Committees, more administrative help, a clearer focus for them, a bigger role for them in scrutinising draft legislation, so we have taken some very big steps to strengthen the Select Committee system and Tony Blair himself has independently of that announced that he will give evidence to the Liaison Committee, and that makes him the first Prime Minister ever to get evidence to investigate a Select Committee, so I'm confident that we're on the right track, and the overall record and strength in Select Committees is positive. HUMPHRYS: Those are the changes that I was referring to, but you said, free vote. I mean was it really a free vote, technically it was, but we had this bizarre spectacle of the Labour Whips, indeed the Whips standing in the Lobby saying to MPs, or outside the Lobby, saying to MPs as they came out to vote, PLP Parliamentary Labour Party - that way - so it was perfectly clear that they were leaning on MPs. Now that wasn't the right thing to do, or did you know that they were going to do that? COOK: Well I'm very happy to say John, nobody attempted to lean on me, and they would have got short shrift if they had. HUMPHRYS: ...well remember.... COOK: If you look at the result though John, there was a Labour majority for the reform, despite all the things that you describe, most of those Labour MPs voting voted for change and voted for reform. The motion was voting down by a very large majority of the Conservative MPs who are voting who voted against it and, quite why the Conservative Party would wish to reject a proposal that would result in perhaps rather less role for Government Whips is slightly beyond me, perhaps some ten years from now they might explain it in their memoirs but it did seem strange that the Opposition should be voting against a measure intended to strengthen parliament. HUMPHRYS; But even if a free vote is seen to be rigged - as some people on your own side clearly thought it was being rigged then people are entitled to say "Mm, I'm not quite sure about the power of parliament to scrutinise in the way that they ought to be scrutinising". There were reports this morning incidentally that Tony Blair himself has rebuked the Whips for doing - well some of the Whips, for doing what they did. Is that right and should they have been rebuked? COOK; Well, I'm not aware whether or not that story is right, indeed I haven't seen that story. I find that Sunday is too short to read all the Sunday papers John, and there are other things to do. But on the question of the future which I think it is very important, we move forward and look forward, we have decided within the Labour Party that where there are free votes it is very important that members are left to come to their own conclusion, and that's why we have recorded our view that in future occasions the Whips should not be expressing a view to members in a free vote. I think that's right and it's very important that we get that clearly established before we have the free votes that will be coming on future reforms of the House and indeed on the reform of the House of Lords. HUMPHRYS; Right. So we won't have any more of what we saw the last time around then, and you think that will help reassure people that parliament is doing its job of scrutinising the executive? COOK; Well, it is very important that parliament should do that and should command the respect of the public for doing the job well. And that's the whole thrust of the reforms that I want to bring before parliament. I am operating the principle that we need each other, government and parliament. I don't think there's a tension between a vigorous parliament carrying out its job of scrutiny and a successful government. On the contrary, I keep saying good scrutiny makes for good government, it keeps us on our toes, and that's why at the heart of the package I'll be bringing forward will be better measures to scrutinise government legislation, to do it in draft, to give them the act earlier, to have longer to do it, to make sure we've a full year to consider each Bill and to consider the opinion of the people outside parliament as well as we take it forward,. HUMPHRYS; And another important aspect of parliament's operation is obviously the way the House of Lords is constituted and the way it behaves. Can you again restore faith, because that's what we're talking about, restore the faith of people in the way parliament works, if you have a House of Lords that is not - the majority of them have not been elected? COOK; Well, if I can just respond to your preamble to that John, I do think, yes we are restoring the respect for parliament as having the right to make this decision because we did ourselves announce a couple of weeks ago they we're going to let parliament decide the key issue which is what should be the composition, how many should be elected, and that puts parliament in the driving seat which is quite right, because this is about a reform of the second chamber of parliament. As to what parliament will decide, well, that's a matter for MPs, and for members of the House of Lords, but it's interesting that when the Public Administration Select Committee carried out its survey of the opinion of MPs it did discover that the largest single preference was for a mainly elected second chamber. HUMPHRYS; Ah, so your guess then would be that we will end up with a largely elected second chamber? COOK; I'm not guessing John, and it would be wrong - premature of me and wrong of me to try and pre-empt what parliament may decide. It is going to be a genuine free vote, it's not for me to tell them how to vote, but so far the surveys do point in that direction. HUMPHRYS; You hold the media in part, you and many of your colleagues I dare say for lowering the tone of politics in this country. You talked about what is it -"mud wrestling, verses serious consideration of party politics"...... some of which as you say may be mildly boring, but that's partly responsible for turning politics into the soap opera that in some respects it's become. But politicians themselves bear responsibility for this as well don't they. I mean.... only if ministers behaved rather differently, rather better some would say, then we would have greater respect for the institution as a whole? COOK; Well, we're both in this together John, and neither side can actually move forward without the other also agreeing that it's going to change its practise. What I was saying in my speech last Wednesday is that we have ended up with political reporting being too much preoccupied with the things that MPs and journalists like to talk about, effectively the gossip of the Westminster village, the personalities, not the policies as they affect the real people outside there. Now, we've got to change that, we've got to get back so that the political reporting is about the problems in people's lives and the solutions that politics can offer to it. It should not be endlessly about the office gossip and the Westminster village gossip about who last sent an E-mail to somebody else and at what particular date they rang each other up. It's very interesting John and I make the point in the course of my speech that the day in which Steven Byers made a statement about the resignation of Martin Sixsmith was the day in which the BBC outside London and the South-East had its lowest ratings for a year. Now, the public out there want to hear politicians talking about the issues that matter to them. We possibly could do rather less with the press and politicians talking about the issues that matter to lobby journalists and MPs. HUMPHRYS; But if you've lost some respect for the media and clearly you have along with many of your colleagues because of the way that we go about doing our business, perhaps ministers have also lost respect for parliament, or at least are seen to have lost a certain amount of the respect that they ought to have for parliament. Maybe they have..... I won't go into specifics here, but you mentioned Stephen Byers earlier, but we have neither the time nor I suspect the inclination to re-run that all over again. COOK: I'm happy to agree with you totally on that John. HUMPHRYS; I thought that probably you might be. But if ministers are endlessly being accused of not being open enough to parliament, occasionally misleading parliament, then that is going to feed this whole rather unhealthy atmosphere isn't it? COOK; Well, we are trying very hard to make sure that we do take parliament seriously and that we take parliament as a whole. That's the whole point of my having been appointed Leader of the House and carrying out reforms which will strengthen parliament, it's the whole point of Tony Blair agreeing - historically he's the first Prime Minister ever to agree to do this, that twice a year he'll appear in front of all the chairs of the Select Committees in the Liaison Committee. These are very positive steps forward and I intend to make sure that we build on them and do more. I want to see our exchanges in the House of Commons more topical. That's why I'm proposing we cut down the period of notice. If we'd wanted to stop these exchanges being topical we would have invented a rule saying you've got to table your question two weeks in advance. I want to make sure we change that rule. All that will add up to a parliament that is more open, is it better able to do an effective job which is what the back-bench MPs want to do. Can I just make one point. I very much agree with you that politicians also have a role to play in turning this round. I do think that there is a big difficulty now, that if we say anything original, anything imaginative, or anything that's not already in the script, the press are liable to jump on us for either committing a gaff or starting a party split. I do think that if we want the public to respect politicians, politicians have got to be able to speak freely, individually, they've got to come up with the original thought which is then not immediately challenged because it is not part of the party mantra, and the press have got to give us the space to do that. If we do that then I think we may restore some respect for politicians. People who think for themselves don't simply recycle their ...... HUMPHRYS; That's an honour that you've accurately described......But at look at when it began all of this. It rather began around the time that you particularly, your party particularly turned spinning into a very fine art and so people became suspicious and then every time a minister said something that wasn't you know, on his or her pager, then people would say: Aha we've got a story at last! So maybe a bit less spinning from your side and a bit more openness on the other side, then we'll go somewhere. COOK; Well John, we can both go through the history, and I wouldn't disagree with some of the things that you have just said there. What seems to me important is that we make sure that the future is different and we build on that. Now, we both need to agree to do this. Politicians I think should be able and certainly would want to speak more frankly, more openly, certainly many of my colleagues would want to be able to speak more candidly, more openly, but we need a press that takes that in a mature and balanced way and doesn't immediately take the least spark of originality and fan it into a great flame in the headlines. HUMPHRYS; Or a more courageous minister who says; I don't care what they do with it, but I'm going to say it anyway. Maybe that's the way to do. COOK: Well, in that case you'll need a media that rewards courage and does not punish it, John. HUMPHRYS; Robin Cook, thank you very much indeed. COOK: Thank you.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.