While the abiding impact of his memoirs The Point of Departure is to remind us that British politics lost one of its better representatives when Robin Cook died, the book serves two important purposes.
Firstly, his comprehensive dismantling of the supposed case for putting troops in Iraq in 2003 lands a far greater blow on the credibility of Tony Blair than I fear any tribunal will ever muster.
Far from having an axe to grind, Cook, who died in 2005 after spells as Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House, is unabashed in his admiration of what Blair and the Labour Party achieved between 1997 and 2003. When even your staunchest allies feel obliged to resign from cabinet and then be so publicly critical of your thinking as this, you must have put in some pretty lousy days at the office.
While his stand on the Iraq debacle is the central theme of the book, however, the Scot scores some equally valid points when he turns to media matters.
This is no mere tit-for-tatting under the euphemistic guise of ‘setting the record straight’. Having first-hand experience of seeing the press at work, I am forced to concede that he has the Fourth Estate weighed up to a T when describing the harm he believed it does to politics in Britain.
I reproduce extracts below. They should be mandatory reading for anyone who plans on entering this particular bearpit with a pen and notebook.
“…the adversarial mode which is now all the range among broadcasters is part of the reason for the growing alienation of the public from political debate.
“…reducing every political interview to a one-dimensional confrontation suppresses any chance of an honest and balanced discussion of the real dilemma.
“Between [politicians and the media] we have created a style of political discourse which is aggressive and overpersonalised and which has become a barrier between us and our joint public.
“[Politicians] are in danger of seriously boring our voters…leaders today bang away at the same phrase that they are told works well on focus groups…nobody in the party must say anything original…This is deeply baffling behaviour to our electors, who live in a defiantly individualist society…
“The reason why politicians stick to their hymn sheet is that they are dealing with a media which is no longer capable of handling an original idea but knows how to report a personality conflict.
“The irony is that the press constantly complain that politicians are boring but they are not going to dare to be interesting unless the media starts to reward rather than punish originality.
“[Voters] want more MPs with whom they can feel some psychological empathy – MPs who have thrown away their pagers, speak what they think and demonstrate real passion for a cause…most of my colleagues would be happy to rise to that challenge if they felt it was safe to come out of the bunker.
“Today’s headline writers want drama and drama requires conflict and exposure, not progress and solutions…The awkward truth is that serious politics does not throw up a novelty every day for the next morning’s edition. As a result the search for novelty often ends in treasuring trivia.
“Politicians find themselves conscripted to parts in a soap opera, in which the plot line is solely about who is on the way up, who is on the way down and who is on the way out…The elector is reduced to being a spectator rather than the owner of the process.”