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Robin Cook, 59; Former British Foreign Secretary

Special to The Times

Robin Cook, Britain’s former foreign secretary and a key member of Tony Blair’s Labor government who resigned in 2003 in protest against the Iraq war, has died of a heart attack. He was 59.

Cook collapsed while walking in the Scottish Highlands with his wife Saturday morning. He was airlifted to a hospital in the northern Scottish city of Inverness but was pronounced dead an hour later.

Reelected just two months ago as a Labor member of Parliament, the slight, ginger-bearded Scot remained one of Labor’s most recognizable and influential figures more than two years after he resigned from his last cabinet job as leader of the House of Commons.

One of the highest-profile figures in the Labor Party after it swept to victory in 1997, Cook surprised many in 2003 by publicly voicing the private unease felt in much of the party about Britain’s support for the United States in Iraq.

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He resigned March 17, 2003, days before troops moved into Iraq, after giving a withering speech denouncing the country’s decision to go to war “without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner -- not NATO, not the European Union, and, now, not the Security Council.”

He was cheered by colleagues, against parliamentary convention. He blinked back tears and said he resigned “with a heavy heart.”

Cook had been expected to rejoin the government if a new Labor leadership were to be created under Gordon Brown, currently chancellor of the exchequer.

The tributes that poured in bore witness to respect across the British political scene for the man Blair called an “outstanding, extraordinary talent.” The leader of the Conservative opposition, Michael Howard, said Cook was “a politician of principle who fought hard for the things he believed in.”

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: “He was the greatest parliamentarian of his generation and a very fine foreign secretary.”

Cook entered Parliament in 1974 at the age of 28. He began holding leadership posts in 1986 and stood for the Labor Party leadership in 1994 but was beaten by Blair.

Initially a left-winger, he moved to the center and became part of Blair’s attempts to modernize and moderate the party to make it electable after nearly two decades in the political wilderness.

His razor-sharp debating style helped demolish the credibility of the Conservative government of John Major during an inquiry into banned arms sales to Iraq -- a moment that the Liberal Democrat foreign spokesman Menzies Campbell said Saturday “was undoubtedly [Cook’s] finest hour.”

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When Blair’s government ended 18 years of Conservative rule in 1997, Cook became foreign secretary, one of the top four cabinet posts.

He announced that Britain would pursue an “ethical” foreign policy, but that optimistic promise left him open to mockery from political opponents, particularly after he sanctioned the sale of 16 Hawk jet fighters to Indonesia.

He was further accused of turning a blind eye to arms being sent to Sierra Leone against international embargoes.

During his time as foreign secretary, tabloid newspapers broke news of his affair with his secretary, Gaynor Regan. Under pressure from Blair to choose between Regan and his wife, Margaret, he left his wife and married Regan.

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The highly publicized row left him politically vulnerable. After Labor won a second electoral victory in 2001, Cook was demoted from the Foreign Office to being leader of the House of Commons.

Having accepted the job only reluctantly, he nevertheless became an enthusiastic modernizer and champion of parliamentary freedoms.

Cook never dropped his opposition to the British government’s foreign policy and especially the war in Iraq.

Cook, who disagreed with President Bush, said when the president visited Britain in November 2003 that there was no reason to give him the trappings of a full state visit -- an honor never accorded to Bill Clinton.

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And, less than a month ago, after the July 7 bombings on the London transit system, Cook dismissed a sympathetic speech by Bush pledging American support to the British and vowing to fight harder against terrorism on every front, including in Iraq.

“Everybody would fully sign up to the most vigorous police reaction to make sure that we do pursue those responsible for atrocities such as happened in London,” Cook said. “I think the problem with George Bush’s approach is that he does keep talking about it as a war on terror, as if there is a military solution -- and there isn’t.”

Cook is survived by his wife and two sons from his first marriage.


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