Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
Fifteen years ago today, Robin Cook resigned from the Labour government over the decision to go to war in Iraq.
In doing so, he spoke for millions of people in our country who said the war was ‘not in our name’, and his speech that day lives on in the minds of all who heard it as the finest political oration of our time.
But when we revisit it today, it is not just the forensic argument against the war that stands out, but its tragic prescience.
Robin warned that civilian casualties in Iraq would number “at least in the thousands.” Sadly, he could have said ‘hundreds of thousands’ and would still have been right.
He stressed his hope that every British serviceman and woman would come back alive. But tragically, 179 never did, and thousands more came back with life-changing injuries and trauma.
On the impatience to go to war in Iraq because of their failure to comply with UN resolutions, when other countries were allowed to ignore UN resolutions with impunity, Robin made a statement as true today as it was back then.
That we would create a “strong sense of injustice throughout the Muslim world at what it sees as one rule for the allies of the US and another rule for the rest.”
And he made the simple and timeless statement that: “Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement, and a world order governed by rules.”
At present, that almost seems a pipe dream, not least when a country like Russia continues to act as if no rules in the world apply to them.
In that 2003 speech, Robin said in a few hundred words what the Chilcot Inquiry said 13 years later in two million. And it was tragic he did not live to receive that vindication.
But in truth, his vindication will not come from reports into the acts of British governments, but when those governments themselves start to act differently.
And if that too sounds like a pipe dream, I’d urge you to look back at the footage of his speech, and see the seeds of a different approach from Labour today.
After all, just behind Robin as he speaks, is Jeremy Corbyn, urging him on with every word, in a speech he could have written himself.
Near Jeremy is John McDonnell, who leads the unprecedented standing ovation as Robin finishes his speech and urges others in the Commons to their feet.
Sat to Robin’s right, clasping his arm as he sits, is Frank Dobson, Keir Starmer’s predecessor as MP for Holborn & St Pancras.
And sat to Robin’s left, patting him on the shoulder, is Chris Smith, my own predecessor in Islington South and Finsbury, on whose amendment that the case for war was unproven Robin had chosen to speak.
Robin’s speech is indelibly imprinted in the minds of Jeremy, John, Keir and myself.
And we are all committed to create a Labour government that will put human rights and the prevention of conflict at the heart of our foreign policy.
A government that will show, through our actions and our example, that a world based on rules is not a pipe dream.
A government that will always – without hesitation – defend our country, our allies, and our citizens abroad, but will never again launch a unilateral, aggressive war of intervention where there is no threat to Britain, and no agreement from the United Nations.
In the crucial decisions we will face over peace and war, we will always approach them as Robin Cook did.
That is the best way to do his legacy proud, and ensure that Britain is once again what he always promised – a constant force for good in the world.