Hidden dealings of a moralising opponent of independence now revealed
Remember former NATO secretary-general Lord Robertson of Port Ellen re-entering the political fray during the 2014 referendum to warn that the “forces of darkness” in the world would relish Scotland separating from the UK? He never spelt out to his compatriots what he meant by this, but most fellow Scots probably consider it a dark practice to export military aircraft to a brutal regime engaged in bombing some of its own citizens.
Robin Cook, foreign secretary in the first Blair administration, certainly thought along those lines. The MP for Livingston was widely considered a force of light in the world when he earnestly committed himself to bringing “an ethical dimension” to British foreign policy. But he had not sussed that Tony Blair’s expressed international idealism masked a cynical surrender to this country’s mighty military-industrial complex. Not least because of George Robertson, the then UK defence secretary – as has just been revealed in previously classified documents.
One immediate test that confronted Mr Cook as soon as he took charge at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was Britain’s well-established policy of hawking Hawk jets to the notorious Suharto regime in Jakarta despite its appalling human rights record. More than 40 of these aircraft (affectionately flown by the Red Arrows) had already been sold to Indonesia throughout the 1980s and 1990s. But in that highly populated Southeast Asian archipelago they weren’t being used to impress awestruck civilian crowds with breathtaking displays of precision flying. They were being deployed to violently suppress the insurgency movement struggling for the independence of East Timor (then part of an island province of Indonesia).
Such was the outrage over this that, in 1996, three hammer-wielding women broke into the British Aerospace plant at Wharton, near Preston, in a bid to sabotage the assembly of a pair of jets due for dispatch to the Indonesian airforce. Despite causing £1.5m of damage during their raid, the female trio walked free from Liverpool Crown Court when a jury concluded that they had used “reasonable force to prevent a crime”.
Mr Cook’s acute dilemma was that the sale of another 16 Hawks had already been approved by the previous Conservative administration led by John Major. His natural instinct might have been to halt this £160m contract – or at least delay its fulfilment until the Suharto regime was, hopefully, ousted – but he faced stern opposition to this from a cabinet colleague who had the Prime Minister’s ear far more than he did. Newly published files from the National Archives reveal that George Robertson joined BAE’s then chief executive Richard Evans in piling pressure on the foreign secretary. The MP for Hamilton fired off a letter to Mr Cook, which read as follows:
Although we maintain a common front in public on this, I understand that the great majority of delays are in FCO consideration of applications…At best these delays lead to a loss of goodwill, at worst to a loss of orders.
In doing this, the defence secretary was forcefully siding – behind the scenes – with one of Britain’s biggest arms exporters against a Cabinet colleague. BAE’s boss was becoming extremely jumpy because clearances of such exports were dragging on for up to 60 days and the Indonesians had been forced to ground some of the contentious aircraft because of lack of parts. Deeply concerned that this longtime, lucrative customer might start to “question the situation”, Mr Evans banged out a letter to Mr Cook, declaring: “We need the Hawk licence clearances quickly.” It was copied to Mr Robertson, who possibly got added satisfaction from Great British aeronautical engineering helping to put down an independence struggle. Another of his infamous pronouncements was that Scottish devolution would “kill…nationalism stone dead.”
It is clear from the newly disclosed documents that Tony Blair also actively backed BAE’s commercial interests every which way he could. Given how unethical a foreign policy he went on to pursue, he doubtless had no moral scruples about doing the same as his defence secretary. But the Blair government was forced to call a halt to this obscenity in 1999 amid a serious escalation of violence in East Timor. Delivery of the final six of the 16 jets was cancelled. But three of them were already bound for Indonesia and could not be legally recalled. A severe cause of regret for the ethical foreign secretary but doubtless a source delight to the defence secretary.
In 2001, Robin Cook was demoted to Leader of the House of Commons, a position from which he resigned in 2003 in protest against the invasion of Iraq. He did so, he said in a moving and impassioned address to the chamber, “with a heavy heart”. In early 2005, Mr Cook died of a heart attack whilst on a climbing holiday in Sutherland with his second wife, Gaynor. He was 59.
George Robertson is still going strong at the ripe old age of 75. In 1999, after battling on BAE’s behalf, he was nominated by Mr Blair to become the tenth secretary-general of NATO (which gave him endless repeated exposure, on America’s C-Span cable channel, though nowhere else). He was also given a life peerage before he departed to pose as the transatlantic military alliance’s top gun. By December 2003, when he was preparing to bow out from being the frontman for this Washington-controlled organisation, he was on such good terms with Vladimir Putin that he made a farewell visit to Moscow. During his jaunt he was invited to address Russia’s parliament, the Duma. He also got to visit a military unit – the first time anyone in his position had met with rank and file Russian troops.
No such invitations come his way these days. One of the baubles the baron received on returning from Brussels was the US presidential medal of freedom. George W. Bush said he was proud of giving America’s highest civil award to “individuals of exceptional merit and integrity”. Doubtless it also goes down well in Washington DC that George Robertson has become more and more hawkish towards the Kremlin. A year ago, he co-authored a cross-party report published by the Policy Institute at Kings College London (where he is a visiting professor). It called for increased NATO vigilance and capabilities to counter Russian aggression in the form of cyber attacks, biological weapons and disinformation campaigns.
This obviously has nothing to do with Lord Robertson becoming chairman of BP Russian Investments Ltd and a senior adviser to the British oil giant. Something he surely could never have dreamed of becoming in the decade he spent as Scottish organiser of the General, Municipal and Boilermakers’ Union. But, like his political patron Mr Blair, the policeman’s son from Port Ellen, on the isle of Islay, has profited enormously from stridently asserting that the West has a natural right to police the world.
Meanwhile, in a referendum held on 30 August 1999, almost 80% of the East Timorese voted in favour of independence, rejecting the compromise option of becoming a ‘special autonomous region’ within Indonesia. The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste became formally independent in May 2002 and a member of the UN that same year. Thereby demonstrating that occasionally the forces of light can defeat the forces of darkness in this world.