Robin Cook at Heartbreak Hotel

Christopher Harvie remembers Robin Cook (‘a Machiavelli of the Tribune left’) and his changing attitude to devolution – “by 1983 he had smartly changed step and by 1997 was even eyeing power in Holyrood” …

I

‘What would Robin have made of that?’ I thought, looking at yet another horrid photo of the proposed ‘international luxury hotel’ aimed atom-bomb-like at Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. In 2009 I had done his entry for the Dictionary of National Biography.

Back to 1963 when Cook, like the rest of us Royal High sixth-year pupils, processed out the great marble door to Thomas Hamilton’s podium and its Doric colonnade, borrowed from Athens’s Theseium. The peak of Arthur’s Seat jabbed in the East and Edinburgh’s Old Town to the West: primeval Scotland and the reeking smithy of modern democracy.

Robin was one of the last Edinburgh University generation to concern itself with formal debating – cabal took over with Gordon Brown – yet Royal High School Hall would become in the mid-1970s the chamber-in-waiting of the Scottish Assembly bill tabled by the Callaghan government in 1977.

Though this wasn’t Cook’s finest hour. A Machiavelli of the Tribune left, he swayed from devolution scepticism to support and then in 1979 backed quite ruthless opposition – doing Mrs Thatcher’s work for her. Yet in the wilderness years that followed he went on to show that devolution could be an opportunity. By 1983 he had smartly changed step and by 1997 was even eyeing power in Holyrood.

II

Cook would have been a formidable First Minister: more of a devolution – and even federal – convert than anyone on Labour’s front bench. While Foreign Secretary and fighting at the same weight as Germany’s Joshka Fischer he made no secret of his wish for the St Andrews House job, having no great regard for Donald Dewar. Alistair Campbell curbed him by exposing his affair with his secretary, Gaynor Regan, but he retained his cleverness, notably after 2000 as Leader of the House, and respected what Holyrood had achieved. Had he made First Minister he would probably have been to Downing Street, what someone said of Lord Curzon as Viceroy in India 1900-1905, ‘the leader of an independent and not always friendly power’.

III

As things fall apart, Royal High with its debating and committee chambers and nearness to Holyrood ought to be Cook’s monument: as home to the British-Irish Council, a benign international institution with Franco-German backing. Edinburgh has spent too much on fetish buildings for banksters or third-rate tourist tat and these now seem likely to lose the city its UNESCO status as cultural monument. Duddingston Properties’ proposed Black Glass Lubianka Hotel squats on the precinct of Tommy Tait’s decent Art Deco St Andrews House, the Scottish government HQ since 1939, and will sure-as-fate attract mobs with rocks.

At the same time keeping ‘These Islands’ together will rapidly get more difficult, both given the size of the task and the clownishness that radiates from London’s Brexiteers. This will inevitably inspire equivalent resistance in Europe and Ireland as border conventions and ‘use and wont’ are chipped away and the Democratic Unionists, from the dreary stadiums of Stormont and Ibrox, present the perky opportunism of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson with their bill.

IV

In ‘These Islands’ our key potential non-London institution is the British-Irish Council: Edinburgh-based since 2001 but, housed in an anonymous Haymarket office block, hardly fitted to manage Britain’s one land frontier with the EU. Has the record so far of the London government suggested much latent talent being brought into play? No, as the collapse of May’s authority shows: and least of all among the Scottish wings of UK political parties. Cook and Brown conveyed a sort of tragic hubris – but Kezia? Ruth? Willie? The office juniors doing Snapchat on a small stage?

Yet with such a British Islands confederal body sited in Edinburgh, financial and juridical input particularly from the littoral states of the North Sea Region could gain control and reorganisation of crucial areas such as power and transport. If the fulcrum is ‘up here’ not ‘down there’ who would object to getting Franco-German backing for a Scottish Free State takeover of a zombie bank like RBS as the basis for German-type regional banking; a Europe-financed buyout of a public-private guddle like Network Rail; Norwegian finance for new-generation low-carbon exploitation of the billions of tons of coal-equivalent sloshing around in the North Sea?

As for our City Varieties’ ‘drama in muslin’, that proto-Brexiteer William Cobbett, no less, forecast its measure on a rural ride in 1825:

‘They flee from the dirty work as cunning horses do from the bridle.
What misery is all this! What a mass of materials for producing that
general and dreadful convulsion that must, first or last, come and
blow this funding and jobbing and enslaving and starving system to
atoms!’

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Comments (7)

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  1. Robin Kinross says:

    Intriguing. I will always remember Robin Cook in 2002, at a Charter 88 conference in London, confiding in his audience, and describing his astonishment on his arrival as a member of the Westminster parliament – as if it was a place he could hardly believe still existed.

    John Kampfner in his biography of Cook quoted this statement, from Cook in 1987:
    ‘After eight years of Thatcherism one of the reasons I find the demand for a Scottish assembly so exciting, so attractive, so appealing is because it will create an unstable situation in the rest of the British constitution.’

    For some of us that has always been one of the great attractions of independence: that it will mean a remake for the whole of the UK, and very probably an end to the Old Regime.

    We always say “what if John Smith had lived?”. But as interesting is “what if Robin Cook had lived?” For one thing, Scottish Labour might be in a rather different place.

  2. Graeme Purves says:

    Robin Cook directed a production of Antigone in the Old Royal High School Hall in 1963. I remember attending with my mum and grandma. It was my first experience of grown-up theatre and it had a profound impact on me.

    Will Edinburgh’s civic conscience be granted a decent burial under a suitable classical monument in the Old Calton Cemetery, or should it be left to rot in the street like Polyneices as a warning to others?

  3. George Gunn says:

    Theresa May as unbending, strong and stable, foolish Creon?

  4. Ian Reynolds says:

    Someone once said “You do not appreciate how good the day has been until the evening”.

  5. Alf Baird says:

    Another relatively privileged Anglicised-educated individual who never saw his ain nation worthy of statehood.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      Aye, that wad be his education at the toonis scule?

  6. Graeme Purves says:

    Christopher Harvie makes a very important point about the need to develop the role of the British-Irish Council in supporting cross-border collaboration between the nations of these islands. This needs to happen whatever the changes in the constitutional relationships between them post-Brexit.

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