A dignified resignation

March 21, 2003 ,

AT the start of the big debate this week, members of parliament stood up in unison and chanted the name of the leader, pledging to shed their blood in his support.

That was how parliamentary proceedings began in Baghdad. In Westminster we started with the dignified resignation speech of Robin Cook, followed by rarely heard applause in the Chamber, and an unprecedented standing ovation.

Parliamentary rules frown on clapping and standing, and with good reason. If it became commonplace we would soon be overwhelmed by boorish displays and orchestrated applause; less the spontaneous support for a principled stand, and something more akin to the blood curdling chants for Saddam in his puppet parliament.

I agreed with Robin Cook and, as I have said I would for nearly a year in this column, I voted against going to war without clear United Nations approval.

A lot has been written about the pressure that MPs came under from Ministers and Whips to support the Leadership line. In truth, it would be very strange if members of the government did not try and persuade their MPs to support them.

But on an issue like war, these pressures count as nothing compared with the gravity of the decision you have to take. It does not take courage to vote against your own Prime Minister.
Courage is a word we should reserve for brave members of the armed forces now going to fight in our name, or for the civilians of Iraq who have had to endure the brutal tyranny of Saddam Hussein, and who now face the reality of war.

As a politician what matters on an issue like this is that you exercise the privilege of the vote you have been granted by the people, not on the basis of ambition or preferment, not out of blind loyalty, not even on the basis of majority opinion, but on what you feel is right in your own heart.

I am convinced that the Prime Minister is acting out of a genuine conviction that what he is proposing is right; even though I believe that the proper route is to hold firm to the United Nations.

Often politicians want to be liked, and they like to be agreed with. But in truth, these things are not so important.
In politics you can't always be liked, and not everyone will agree with you, but if on the great issues of the day you act out of genuine conviction, most people will probably respect you.

The trappings of office, the Ministerial car, the official lodgings, the flattery of civil servants, the generous salary and even the sheer love of the job, were not enough to prevent Robin Cook and others from giving it all up to be free to do the right thing.

No doubt many others in government had their doubts, but decided honourably to back the Prime Minister after the powerful case he made for acting against Saddam Hussein in the House of Commons.

But to call the Prime Minister ‘reckless' and then remain in government, when others argue their case in private and then resign with dignity, invites neither agreement nor popularity, and stretches the respect of colleagues beyond its limit.