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
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
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
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
HUMPHRYS: So you'd expect that
story on the blocking of arms sales to be accurate?
COOK: I've no reason to doubt it
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.
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
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
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
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
COOK: Thank you.