Opinion: Cook put passion ahead of perceptions

When a formidable politician dies, the obituaries often exaggerate his or her greatness. But this week, most commentators got the achievements of Robin Cook just about right.

The former foreign secretary was one of the best parliamentarians around, and if he could have transferred just half of those skills to communicating to a wider audience he would almost certainly have been a serious contender for the Labour leadership when John Smith died.

It is ironic that both these Scottish politicians loved hillwalking, yet 'wee Cookie', as he was affectionately known in the Highlands, never used that fact to enhance his image in the way Smith did. It is true that Cook's fanatical support for horse-racing made him more 'a man of the people', but somehow he never managed to portray this image more widely.

Cook was never very happy about the growing power of spin doctors - including me. It was Alastair Campbell who notoriously gave Cook the choice of his marriage or his job in an airport lounge and - while it did force the foreign secretary to make a decision he would never regret - Campbell was never forgiven.

Cook eventually had his own spin doctors but he was someone who always liked to deal with the hacks himself, making the job of working for him very difficult. There is no doubt, though, that some of those employed to help him were not up to the job. Who, for example, ever let him talk about an 'ethical' foreign policy? I can't help feeling that the famously disloyal foreign office mandarins were more than happy to let Cook fail. But fail he didn't as he restored some much needed credibility back into that office. He loved the job, too.

I will never forget the visit to Denver for our first G7 summit, where Cook enthusiastically donned a Stetson hat, not caring a jot for the snappers that are always desperate for a picture of a politician looking silly.

It is for his principled stance on the Iraq war that he will be best remembered. It wasn't image or the fact that most people were against the war that moved him. You only have to read what he said at the time to see how right he was.

There can't be many senior politicians who would go walking in the hills and leave the mobile phone at home, but that's what Cook did last week.

Here was a man who put pleasure first and politics and communications second - sadly there aren't many like him left.

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