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BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: ROBIN COOK, MP Leader, House of Commons JANUARY 6TH, 2002
Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used
DAVID FROST: I'm sitting here chatting away now with Tony Blair's first foreign secretary and the current leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook. Robin, starting with the euro, what do you think of the design of those things?
ROBIN COOK: Well I'm not an expert on design, David, and frankly, to me, what's useful with money is what you can do with the money not how it looks. And that's the key basis on which we should make our decision on the euro, is it going to be good for jobs, good for investment in Britain. If the answer to that is yes, and if the British people agree with us on that, if our economic conditions are met on that, then we should join.
DAVID FROST: Do you agree with Peter Hain saying I doubt in the end that it is possible to run a sort of parallel currency economy? Is that, is that true? Is that very difficult?
ROBIN COOK: Well the longer the parallel currency continues obviously the more the problems will be. But look, I've got to be very careful here David because I know outside there, over the last week what we've seen is whenever anybody pauses for breath in the middle of the same sentence they've been saying for the last three years -
DAVID FROST: Yes.
ROBIN COOK: - it's immediately taken as an indication of a change in the government's position. The government's position has not changed, the position is that we believe in principle Britain could be better off inside the euro and give stability to our exports - and remember the euro countries are our biggest single market. But the economic conditions have got to be right and, as Tony Blair said, that's not window dressing, that is fundamental. I think the only thing that has changed in the last few days is not the government's position but the fact that the euro has been introduced, has been introduced successfully, has actually gone up in the international market. I think that's a blow for those who argue we should never join under any circumstances, because I think they were hoping it would be a disaster.
DAVID FROST: But do you think it's sort of inevitable, as Peter Hain says, or sort of not inevitable, as Jack Straw says?
ROBIN COOK: Nothing in politics is inevitable, David, and you've been around long enough to know that better than anybody. It's about the decision of the British people. At the end of the day, they'll decide, and it's only inevitable if they themselves decide that they do want to join. I'm encouraged by the opinion poll of the Sunday Times today, which showed a majority of those polled did say that they believed we should join, if the economic conditions were right. That's exactly the government's position and that's the position we'll be staying with.
DAVID FROST: But it is political - we were talking about it earlier - it is political as well as economic.
ROBIN COOK: Oh of course. It is both political and economic and both those considerations have to be right. On the political side, it is clear that we are gaining a lot as Britain from the leading role we have in Europe, that's partly down to the immense standing and leadership of Tony Blair, and if we want to continue with that very strong, powerful, leading role within the European Union, then it's going to be more challenging to do that if we're outside the inner club. But the economic side has also got to be met. We're only going to get the benefits of being in the euro if the economic conditions for joining are right.
DAVID FROST: And you are currently working on - what's your vision for reform of the House of Commons? I mean, you want to strengthen the House of Commons?
ROBIN COOK: Yes. Yes.
DAVID FROST: Everyone says debates and things have become less important over the last ten or 15 years, and you want to change that?
ROBIN COOK: Well there is a perception of that growing irrelevance of debate in the House of Commons - I think it's totally wrong indeed. If you look over the last few months, we've had six full days debate on the international terrorism agenda which shows the House of Commons actively engaged in the big issues of the moment. But I do want to see change. I love Parliament - I've been a parliamentarian for three decades - but it's because I love Parliament I want to see it move with the times. I want us to have more opportunity for the state committees to carry out scrutiny, more resources, more independence of government. I want the House of Commons to have more opportunity to debate bills when they're still in draft, when they can change the shape of those bills. I want to get the big events of Parliament, like the statements, the question time, up in the middle of the day - perhaps in the morning, not just in the middle of the afternoon where they can be buried. I want to do that because it's so important that we restore respect and esteem for the House of Commons back among the people. I worry about the declining turnout - many reasons for that but one of it is a slipping esteem of Parliament and it's in the interests of all of us in Parliament to turn that round.
DAVID FROST: And Charles Clarke said today I wish that the speaker Michael Martin was more committed to reform. Do you share his worries?
ROBIN COOK: I've seen Michael Martin every week and Michael has been very supportive of reform and he actually has a very open mind and has been particularly open to ideas in which we do our business at different hours - not so we stop early which is where the debate tends to be - but so that we start early in the day, and I think that that's right and he's been a good partner in the exercise I've launched. Can I just add one point here - I do wish people would try and avoid making this a debate between government and parliament. We both need each other and the principle on which I'm working is that good scrutiny makes for good government. We need each other.
DAVID FROST: People say you haven't worked for that in the case of Elizabeth Filkin don't they?
ROBIN COOK: Elizabeth Filkin was invited to come forward again and was guaranteed a place in the short list for the Commission of Standards and I regret she's not done that. We decided that we would fill the job by open competition and appoint the best candidate, there was always every possibility she would have been the best candidate if she had come forward again.
DAVID FROST: Because last time, last time there wasn't a session like this, Sir Gordon was given every opportunity to just carry on. But people say this is because she's been too much of a whistle-blower.
ROBIN COOK: No. No. It's nothing to do with Miss Filkin, her attributes or otherwise, it's entirely that we took a decision and we wanted to test the market. I would say, David, we've had some very good applications and there's some very good people among the 40 who submitted themselves and I'm confident we'll get a good short list and a lot of candidates will be credible and good at the job.
DAVID FROST: Because Charles, Charles Clarke also said today that the Filkin row has damaged the reputation of parliament, very much damaged parliament, he said. Do you think that's true?
ROBIN COOK: Well I don't think anybody would deny that the way in which it's been reported has been, hasn't helped, well of course it's not been helpful, but I still think we were absolutely right to say look we want to see who is the best candidate out there. We want to test the present incumbent against those in the market outside. And by the way, David, that's the way in which the great majority of people in the private sector would behave and some of them must be wondering why the public sector should behave in a much more cosy way.
DAVID FROST: You're obviously charged up by your new job as leader of the House of Commons and so on, were you gobsmacked when Tony Blair asked you to leave the Foreign Office and take on this job - I mean it took you a few hours to decide?
ROBIN COOK: Well I'd done four years at the Foreign Office, David, and look I'm not prepared to deny that I enjoyed them thoroughly, it was a great part of my life and I found it very warming doing what we had done and there were projects that I prefer to carry on but it's a new challenge and I welcome that new challenge. If there was any other job I would have asked to move to, it would be this one because it takes me back into the thick of parliamentary life. My one great regret when I was foreign secretary is that I spent four years on a plane and you get out of touch with parliament and I'm delighted to be back in touch with parliament and at the thick of things.
DAVID FROST: Do you see the India-Pakistan confrontation as as serious as some people compare it with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, with, with some Indian, one Indian guy quoted as saying that we may need a limited nuclear war - can you have a limited nuclear war?
ROBIN COOK: Well you can never be sure it's going to stay limited if you start it. But, you know, limited nuclear war would be disastrous for the continent involved and that's why it is so important that the Prime Minister should be adding his voice to caution. And, frankly, I've no patience with those who criticise him for going, I think it is still in Britain's interest that we should make sure we preserve the peace of the world, particularly in two countries which we have such strong, historic community ties. I think Tony Blair deserves congratulations and good wishes for trying.
DAVID FROST: Well in fact, when he talked about a force for good in world affairs, he's in a way fleshing out your phrase, which at the time you took some stick for, but your phrase about an ethical foreign policy is almost, is almost the same phrase.
ROBIN COOK: Well I worked very closely with Tony Blair during the period I was at the Foreign Office, and what Tony Blair was saying yesterday is something which I think and even have always argued, and that is that there's no longer a neat, simple, straightforward line on what's a domestic issue and what's an international issue. In this globalised era, we've got to be involved in the international arena if we're going to deliver at home. Take one simple, straightforward issue - the issue of drugs. Nothing's more important to us than to stop the drugs culture in the streets of some of our big cities, but if we're going to do that, then we've got to tackle its source. That's why we've been so heavily involved in central Asia where 90 per cent of the heroin comes from.
DAVID FROST: And what do you feel about - there's currently a vigorous and very public debate among the administration, the Bush administration in Washington, over whether the war on terrorism should be extended to Iraq or to Sudan, Somalia, Yemin, so on, is there a similar debate going on in Whitehall, and if so how's it doing?
ROBIN COOK: No, we've always been quite clear, all of us from Tony Blair down, that what we were doing in response to September 11th is carrying out a military campaign to hold to justice those who plotted it and those who planned it, and to stop them from doing it again. We've also been clear that there needs to be a wider international action to stop international terrorism - not military but tackling their funds, tackling their mobility, making sure that we eradicate fundamentalism at its roots by providing an understanding, a dialogue, a relationship with them as well. Now all that we will be doing, but the military campaign was aimed solely at those for whom there is evidence of involvement in September 11th, and there has been no compelling evidence that any other country was involved.
DAVID FROST: So at the moment we are not committed to following America into a military campaign in Iraq or any of these other countries?
ROBIN COOK: David, let's put this in perspective, neither is America committed to launching such a campaign and President Bush has always been quite clear on the present focus on a military campaign. But I do think here there is an advantage for Britain in the world, in that Tony Blair has achieved the standing that he has in the international community and on the international stage, and therefore can be a voice for caution and can be a counsel which can make sure that we take this forward in a way that preserves the remarkable unity and sense that we've built up around the world and what we're doing.
DAVID FROST: And in terms of the fact that the GMB are going cut by two million what they're going to give you over the last four years, is that a blow, or have you got lots of businessmen lining up to replace them?
ROBIN COOK: We have a lot of support throughout the trade union movement and we continue to get support from the GMB as well David. It's for the GMB to decide how much of their political funds they decide to put in to support the Labour Party but all I'm saying to their membership is if they look at what a Labour government has delivered for them in investment in the health service and better schools, in making sure that they have decent rights at work, protection in old age then I think their interests lie in making sure that the Labour Party continues to get the support.
DAVID FROST: Thank you very much Robin.
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