Light Cast on Force of Darkness

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.

Robin Cook delivering his resignation speech (with a familiar figure looking over his shoulder).

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.

16 thoughts on “Light Cast on Force of Darkness

      1. You might consider this tangential, Marty, but I am confident followers of a site with a strong focus on the struggle for Scotland will appreciate the connections I draw. Lord Robertson’s last political intervention in our country was to denounce the Scottish independence cause in highly moralistic language and now we find out what standard of morality he applied when an independence movement in another part of the world was under brutal assault by a regime enabled to do that by a leading British arms exporter and the supposedly “ethical” government in which he held a powerful position. I much prefer the morality of the three women who took their hammers to those Hawks and the jury in Liverpool who agreed this was morally justified to prevent a crime – a crime against humanity obviously. It all ties together in my mind.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Blair only became a Catholic on relinquishing office as PM. He could not have been PM as a Catholic. His conversion to Catholicism is open to debate.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “[Blair] could not have been PM as a Catholic“
        That is a common myth. Ian Duncan Smith, one -time leader of the opposition to Blair is a Catholic.

        The current PM, Johnson IS a Catholic, at least nominally.


    2. Didn’t Blair convert to Catholicism after he stopped being prime minister, just before he went off into the desert regions to bring peace to the Middle East? It all worked out very well for him, but there was no way he was going to be able to scratch that itch of murderous guilt by converting to a guilt-soaked religion.


      1. Another sign of Blair’s way of doing things, expediency before principle. It was revealing of Blair’s thinking though, with his accommodating conscience even when it came to matters of faith. You might have thought, as a convinced convert – rumoured about while he was a serving Prime Minister – that it was not a very a honourable profession of faith to conceal that he had been a practicing Catholic until leaving office, when he calculated it might be less controversial. Always a political animal, always a slippery operator. Fake sincerity even when it came to what should have been a declaration of personal belief. Don’t Christians believe that your faith should be proclaimed and not concealed like a guilty secret?

        I doubt that Blair’s conscience is troubled much.


  1. Ah yes Lord Robertson who infamously said that Scottish independence would lead to the Balkanisation of Western Europe.

    As for Robin Cook, like John Smith, hill walking can be fatal, coincidence?


  2. Indonesia’s autocrat Suharto remained in office until 1998 when forced out by the effects of the Asian economic crisis and various factional plots and sub-plots (some with a degree of democratic intent – arguably). When he died his stolen property holdings were reckoned to be around the $38 Bn mark (US$).

    Was it his skill at thievery from their National exchequer or his undoubted talent for massacring his own people (and the East Timor people to boot) which earned him his Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Bath? Truly awarded for Merit either way as the Imperial British establishment see it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wasn’t the Baron Robertson a member of the SNP for a period (late 1960s or early 1970s)? – When reading Jaggy’s summary of his financial dealings and political change into his beloved neo-liberal worldview I couldn’t help but wonder whether Georgy-Boy is preparing to re-enter the Scottish political fray by re-joining the SNP under Ms. Sturgeon’s alt-Indy management?

    He’d fit right in with the Alyn Smiths and Stewart McDonalds that have infiltrated and infested the one-time vehicle for Scottish Indy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A well researched and well written article Jaggy.

    Just one criticism. The well-worn “bombing his own people” cliche does not work for me. Your “own people” do not fight for independence. Just as true for Indonesia and East Timor as it was/is for Iraq and the Kurds.

    If we accept that independence movements arise where two or more nations, races, religions or ethnic groups find themselves enclosed within a single international border, then none of these groups will regard any of the others as their “own people”.

    Fair enough to criticise one group for bombing another. Of course. But not justifiable to claim there is some additional opprobrium due to a false claim that both groups constitute one people.


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