Robin and the Referendum

Today’s guest blog comes from John Williams, author of ‘Robin Cook: Principles and Power’ and ‘Williams on Public Diplomacy’, and press secretary during Robin Cook’s three dramatic and turbulent years as Foreign Secretary.

Robin Cook’s early death robbed British politics of one of its most distinctive and principled stars and, ten years on, his struggle to reconcile those principles with the realities of power remains as relevant as ever. John reflects on what today’s politicians – and voters – can learn from Robin Cook: a man who believed that, despite everything, politics can still be a force for good.

The referendum would have gone the other way had the champions of Britain in Europe spoken with hope and confidence for their case, rather than with fear and no confidence in the public’s intelligence. Nobody has dared be positive about Europe for a very long time.

Imagine if the case for Europe had been put like this:

‘It is a delusion to imagine that Britain is stronger if it is isolated. The best way to project British values and British interests is by doing so in partnership with those who share our values: democracy, human rights, justice and freedom….’

Or:

‘We are at the same time patriotic and pro-European…..:The fact is that the national identities, cultures and traditions of the democratic nations of Europe are too strong to be subsumed. The EU is unique in world history. No other nations have done so much to pool their strength in the common interest while retaining the sovereignty and identity that make them distinct and diverse.’

Robin Cook used a narrative of British confidence in Europe to win an earlier argument about our place in the EU, when he was Foreign Secretary negotiating the entry of Eastern Europe into the Union in 2000. Then, as now, the debate was framed by the Eurosceptic mythology about a superstate. The difference was that then the anti-EU case was all about fear, the pro-EU case based on hope: a stronger Britain in a wider Europe. Now, in the 2016 referendum, the Remain campaign dared not put its faith in its own case. Remainers destroyed their credibility by scaremongering.

I doubt that any of them troubled to look up Robin’s speeches and articles to see how the argument can be won. George Osborne is an unlikely disciple. We can be sure that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t consult the Cook legacy.

The current Labour Party (is it post New Labour or pre-modern Labour?) is struggling to find a way of talking about immigration. How about this?

‘Legitimate immigration is the necessary and unavoidable result of economic success, which generates a demand for labour faster than can be met by the birth-rate of a modern developed country. Every country needs firm but fair immigration laws. There is no more evil business than trafficking in human beings and nothing corrodes social cohesion worse than a furtive underground of illegal migrants beyond legal protection against exploitation. But we must also create an open and inclusive society that welcomes incomers for their contribution to our growth and prosperity.’

That comes from a speech famous – at the time – for Robin describing chicken tikka masala as ‘a true British national dish’.

Open-minded, positive, internationalist, hopeful for Britain’s future, confident in our country… Not a bad strategy for our time, should Labour be looking for one.’

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