Cook, Robert Finlayson [Robin]
, was born in the County Hospital, Bellshill, Lanarkshire, on 28 February 1946, the only child of Peter Cook (d
. 1994), schoolteacher, and his wife, Christina, née
. 2003). His paternal grandfather was a collier, blacklisted after the 1926 general strike. Peter Cook, who grew up in Fraserburgh, was a scientist of great ability, who passed the Second World War years as a researcher for Imperial Chemical Industries but regretted involvement in its military work; Cook's mother also worked in the same factory in this period. After the war his father became a teacher in Aberdeen, head of science at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and latterly rector of Kirkcudbright Academy.
School, university, and Edinburgh corporation
Cook was educated at Aberdeen grammar school and the Royal High School, Edinburgh, where he was a pupil for three years. At Edinburgh he was one of the talented leftish generation that included the political scientist Iain McLean, the economist John Kay, Brian Lang, later principal of the University of St Andrews, the actor Ian Charleson, and the poet John Whitworth. Cook was an academic high achiever and passionately bookish, but also developed an early interest in left-wing politics. As a prefect he daringly sported Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and anti-apartheid badges, getting away with it because no master fancied a rhetorical fencing match. Both at school and at the University of Edinburgh (19648) he excelled in debating.
At university Cook read English literature, with an original intention to enter the ministry of the Church of Scotland; later he was one of the very few MPs who described himself as an atheist. He was very politically active, campaigning for the Labour Party in the 1964 general election, and went on to become chair of the university Labour club and co-chairman (with George Robertson, a future Labour cabinet minister) of the Scottish Association of Labour Student Organizations. Earnestness was relieved by a complex social life, run from his own flat (quite unusual at the time for a Scottish student) in Goldenacre, shared with, among others, John Whitworth. For a time Cook simultaneously had two girlfriends, Maureen Clarke, and Margaret Katherine Whitmore (b
. 1944), daughter of Lewis Arthur Whitmore, a former RAF officer and aeronautical engineer from Somerset. Margaret studied medicine at Edinburgh and was active in the university's nationalist club. He ultimately became engaged to her in 1967, and the couple married at St Alban's Church, Westbury Park, Bristol, on 15 September 1969. Later they lived rather separate lives as Margaret pursued her medical career in Scotland (rising to become a hospital consultant) and Robin his political career. Their bonds included their two sons, Christopher (b
. 1973) and Peter (b
. 1974), and a love of horse-riding.
Cook graduated in 1968 with a disappointing upper second in English literature. He started, but did not complete, a doctorate on Charles Dickens and Victorian serial novels, supervised by John Sutherland, who admitted to being overawed by his charge. Having abandoned his thesis, Cook taught for a time in West Lothian secondary schools. In 1970 he took over from his friend Ian Jordan (focal point of an agreeable leftish Edinburgh bohemia) as tutororganizer of the Workers' Educational Association for Lothian, under Jack Kane, leader of the Labour group on Edinburgh corporation. This was usually seen as a post more political than educational, and involved such duties as running conferences on poverty and housing and weekend schools for trade unionists.
In 1971 Cook, now secretary of the Edinburgh city Labour Party, was elected to Edinburgh corporation (the local authority) as a councillor. The corporation, run by the nominally independent Progressive Party (in reality a ConservativeLiberal coalition), was at the time unduly influenced by the building interest. This influence extended to Labour members of the corporation whose relations with the city party were remote. Cook was one of a group of young left-wingers who reimposed party control and was instrumental in defeating a cross-party lobby that favoured a highly destructive inner-city ring road. Out of this came a well-organized, reforming Labour Party that captured key committee chairs from the Progressives and held full power from 1980 until 2007. Cook, as convener of the housing committee (19734), played a major part in this. By changing the emphasis of the slum clearance programme from demolition to renovation he succeeded in saving 3000 properties in central Edinburgh, an achievement of which he remained very proud. Cook's time at Edinburgh corporation was brief but important in revealing his approach to politics, notably a concern for the effective operation of democratic institutions, and in laying the foundations for Labour's long dominance in what had been Scotland's most conservative city.
By this time Cook had parliamentary ambitions. He had already stood unsuccessfully in the Conservative-held seat of Edinburgh North in the 1970 general election. When the MP for Edinburgh Central subsequently announced his retirement, Cook sought selection for the seat. He was seen as the candidate from the party's left and his main opponent, George Foulkes (himself later to become a Labour minister), as the candidate from the party's right. Cook won the selection, and went on to win the seat in the general election of February 1974on his twenty-eighth birthdayextending his small majority in the second election of October that year. He held it until redistribution in 1983, whereupon he switched to the safer seat of Livingston (beating Tony Benn to the selection), which he represented until his death.
Early parliamentary career
As a new backbencher Cook quickly joined Labour's centre-left Tribune group, to which he emotionally belonged throughout his life. He built a strong political relationship in particular with Neil Kinnock, another ginger-haired Tribunite with a background in the Workers' Educational Association, who had entered parliament in 1970. Cook rapidly gained a reputation as a formidable and meticulous debater, who (unlike many other MPs) spent far more time in the House of Commons library than in the bars. His interests continued to include housing and nuclear disarmament, and he also pursued issues such as the transparency and accountability of arms sales and the security services. During his early years in parliament Cook championed several liberalizing social measures, to mixed effect. He repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) introduced a private member's bill on divorce reform in Scotland, but succeeded in July 1980and after three years' tryingwith an amendment to bring the Scottish law on homosexuality into line with that in England.
Cook's entry to the Commons had coincided with Harold Wilson's second, crisis-ridden Labour administration, and with the growing prominence and effectiveness of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the two elections of 1974. The SNP's challenge caused the Labour leadership to impose a policy commitment to devolution on its Scottish party in time for the October contest. Cook had previously been hostile to devolution, but expressed support in his October 1974 election address. In the following year, in an essay on housing for the Red Paper on Scotland
edited by Gordon Brown (then rector of Edinburgh University), Cook declared himself reconciled to a Scottish parliament, though he argued that the existence of this alone would not improve the poor living conditions of many Scots. However, in 1978 Cook reverted to his original position when Labour sought to proceed with Scottish devolution and took a militantly hostile line against the policy, much to the chagrin of his friend and constituency party chairman, the American political scientist Henry Drucker. Along with some in the Scottish Labour Party he was involved with the No to devo! campaigns, while others such as Gordon Brown supported the proposals for a new Scottish assembly. Cook, unlike some Labour opponents of devolution, notably Tam Dalyell, was accused of working with the opposition to undermine the proposals. This episode earned him lasting distrust among some of his fellow Scots.
After Labour lost power in May 1979 Cook encouraged Michael Foot's bid to become party leader and joined his campaign committee. Foot's success over Denis Healey was seen as a victory for the left. But when Tony Benn challenged Healey for the party's deputy leadership in September 1981 (a move which split the left) Cook accepted realpolitik
, declaring of Healey I will down four double-whiskies and give him my vote (private information). Foot's leadership brought Cook his first position on the Labour front bench in 1980, as a junior member of the shadow Treasury team under Peter Shore. In this role he further developed his growing reputation as a highly effective parliamentarian and a sharp and well-informed debater.
Following Labour's defeat at the polls in June 1983 Cook worked again with Gordon Brown (the newly elected member for Dunfermline) to edit Scotland: the Real Divide
(1983). This was a collection of essays on Scottish social conditions, intended to reassert the primacy of social policy against the obsession with Scottish identity. But Cook and Brown fell out over the book, which Brown believed Cook had hijacked. The dispute proved lasting, and their subsequently acrimonious relationship had important implications for Cook's career.
In the wake of Labour's 1983 electoral defeat Cook managed the successful campaign of his ally Neil Kinnock to replace Foot as party leader. He was also elected for the first time to the shadow cabinet in June 1983, and given the position of spokesperson on European affairs by the new party leader. On Europe, as on devolution, Cook showed a facility for U-turns, deftly executed. In 19735 he had shared the hostility of the Labour left to the EEC, but he was now brought in by Kinnock to manage the party's transition to more united pro-European views. Later both men warmed to the European Commission presidency of Jacques Delors (198594), whose combination of market integration with the idea of a social Europe appealed to the moderate left and the trade unions. However, Cook remained in the post for only a year, and was then appointed by Kinnock as party campaign co-ordinator. His subsequent low parliamentary profile contributed to his being voted off the shadow cabinet in 1986, only to return a year later when he was appointed to the far more satisfying post of shadow secretary of state for health and social security. This allowed him to lead with flair in parliament on Labour's most salient policy issue and to score a number of victories over Conservative ministers. One of the most notable encounters took place in April 1988 when Cook contrasted the government's generosity to high earners in the recent budget with the impact of imminent reforms to social security payments on the least well-off. The principal victim of Cook's attack was John Moore, secretary of state at the Department of Health and Social Security, who, as one of Margaret Thatcher's good-looking dauphins, was then regarded as a potential successor. Moore's political career suffered greatly from encounters like these and he left the cabinet a year later.
Cook's successes won him a seat on the party's national executive committee in 1988, which he held continuously for ten years, often topping the poll. He also regularly came first in the poll of MPs for the shadow cabinet. But he remained a man more respectedfor his retentive memory, forensic analysis, and fluent oratorythan widely liked. His reputation was as a cat who walks by himself: not always trustworthy, never clubbable, and with little patience for the kind of work required to build up a Cook faction or to woo political journalists. Those of his rivals who had got where they were through schmoozing as much as by intellectual rigour distrusted a man who regarded raw argument as the only legitimate route to success (Kampfner, 66). The Conservatives saw him as a threat, but so did some on his own front bench. His erudition could be combined with a wit and charm many political opponentsand many womenfound winning, though to others he could appear pompous and smug. In his spare time, having been introduced to horses by his wife, he was, unusually for a Labour MP, often to be found at the races. Between 1991 and 1998 he wrote a weekly tipster's column for the Glasgow Herald
newspaper and from 1989 was, to the surprise of many, a close friend of the television racing punditand arch-ConservativeJohn McCririck.
Defeat for Labour in the 1992 general election brought about another change of leader, with Cook again acting as kingmakerthis time as campaign manager for John Smith. Smith appointed Cook as shadow secretary of state for trade and industry, a position which he had long coveted but been denied, partly because Gordon Brown had insisted he be kept out of economic affairs. The collegial John Smith appointed Brown as his shadow chancellor, and induced the two to co-operate. When Smith died unexpectedly in May 1994 Cook gave serious consideration to running for the leadership himself, but prevaricated. It was not clear whether he had a sufficient following to win a contest, and he also famously commented that he did not have the looks for leadership in the television age (his gnomish appearance was often highlighted by political cartoonists). Ultimately he was overtaken by the negotiations that brought Tony Blair to the Labour leadership through the Granita compact with Gordon Brown. Thereafter the two men contrived to keep Cook out of domestic politics, and he was made shadow foreign secretary: a prestigious but not wholly welcome appointment. One exception to this sidelining was the position he was given brokering a deal with the Liberal Democrats over Labour's plans for constitutional reform. The 1997 CookMaclennan report (with the Liberal Democrat Robert Maclennan) set out a blueprint for devolution, a human rights act, freedom of information legislation, House of Lords reform, and modernization of the House of Commons. Much of this was implemented when Labour came to power.
Cook's reputation as a formidable parliamentary performer received one further boost in opposition when, on 15 February 1996, he led the Commons debate on the report from Sir Richard Scott's inquiry into the arms to Iraq affair. This followed the collapse of a trial of the three directors of Matrix Churchill, a British manufacturing company, charged with misleading ministers on the end use of machine tools exported to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Scott's inquiry established that ministers were aware of the company's actions and of the tools' potential military application, and the report criticized both the Thatcher and Major governments for not announcing to parliament that rules on exports to Iraq had been relaxed. John Major, his administration in free fall since black Wednesday in September 1992, tried to scupper the opposition's challenge by making Scott's 1800-page report available to Cook alone only three hours before the debate began; government ministers, by contrast, had received multiple copies eight days earlier. But Major reckoned without Cook's intelligence and assiduity in good forward planning and preparation, based in part on his attendance at several of the original inquiry hearings. This resulted in the composition and delivery of a devastating analysis of government dissimulation. In a subsequent adjournment debate, on 26 February, Major carried a vote of confidence by a majority of one. Just over a year later Labour was returned to office with the largest parliamentary majority since 1935.
Foreign secretary, 19972001
The balance of power in the 1997 Labour cabinet remained much as it was in opposition. The effective division was between the prime minister (Blair) and the chancellor of the exchequer (Brown). The economy (generously defined) was Gordon's thing, while Cook was made foreign secretary. In this role he shared control of foreign policy with Blair and Clare Short, in charge of the Department for International Development. Making any sort of concert against the BlairBrown dyarchy would have required solidarity between Cook and Short: but, despite both coming from the party's soft left, this was ruled out by a mutual hostility that deepened in office following disputes over departmental responsibilities. Meanwhile Blair's advisers were distrustful of both ministers, and Downing Street retained a tight control of all government departments.
Cook sought to make his mark early, launching a new mission statement for the Foreign Office within two weeks of the election. This called for an ethical dimension to British foreign policy, which must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves (The Times
, 13 May 1997). Cook wanted to see closer scrutiny of arms sales and more focus on environmental protection and human rights, alongside greater British co-operation in Europe. He built good relations with Madeleine Albright, American secretary of state in the administration of President Bill Clinton, and with key players in Europe including Joschka Fischer, German foreign minister in Gerhard Schröder's coalition. Cook also sought to change the internal culture of the Foreign Office, for example by encouraging young non-white and female candidates to consider careers in the foreign and diplomatic service. The distinctly informal style that he adopted pleased some, but by no means all, of his civil servants, and was to cause some difficulties with foreign leaders.
Cook's tenure at the Foreign Office saw a number of important policy initiatives. In May 1997 he announced a ban on the use and stockpiling of landmines and later that year oversaw the handover of Hong Kong to China; he negotiated the trial, under Scots law, of the Libyan suspects accused of bombing Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie; and helped press Iraq's Saddam Hussein into readmitting UN weapons inspectors. He also supported NATO intervention on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians in May 1999, and punitive strikes against the Serbs, hitherto regarded by Foreign Office orthodoxy as a dependable force majeure
in the region.
But Cook's ministerial career also faced an early threat when on 3 August 1997 the News of the World
broke the story of his long-standing relationship with his Commons secretary, Gaynor Regan (b
. 1957). Pressed by the prime minister's official spokesman Alastair Campbell, Cook announced immediately that he would be separating from his wife. Despite this quick decision, and Blair's full public support, Cook faced a barrage of media comment. Margaret, from whom he was divorced in March 1998, began writing news columns that were often critical. In 1999 she went further, publishing a book (A Slight and Delicate Creature
) recording the marriage, which criticized him as a man and a politician, alleging insensitivity, drunkenness, adultery, and depression. This significantly weakened Cook's position, and enhanced the prime minister's power of manoeuvre with respect to policy. None the less Cook's personal life quickly became more settled, and he married Gaynor Regan, daughter of Alan and Joan Wellings, at Tunbridge Wells register office on 9 April 1998.
The realities of office imposed themselves elsewhere. The economic importance of the UK's defence industry and the prominence of politically well-connected companies like British Aerospace meant that Downing Street was distinctly less keen than Cook on new controls on arms exports. Cook's ethical approach was severely challenged when the government failed to reverse a 1996 agreement to deliver Hawk jets to Suharto's Indonesia, which was actively supporting repression in East Timor. Similarly Cook was seriously embarrassed in summer 1998 by the disclosures that followed an intervention by a British security firm, Sandline International, to restore the democratically elected ruler of Sierra Leone who had been ousted in a coup in the previous year. Claims that Sandlineunder investigation for contravening a UN embargo to supply arms to Sierra Leonehad been advised by Foreign Office officials, coupled with disputes over the extent to which ministers were aware of the investigation, pointed to a department in turmoil. Cook also got into difficulties over the delicate issue of Kashmir when accompanying the queen on a state visit to Pakistan and India in October 1997, which led to the British delegation being snubbed by the Indian prime minister.
From 2000 onwards transatlantic relations became far more difficult for Cook. He had worked well with the Clinton administration, but found himself less comfortable than Blair in switching allegiance to the new right-wing Republican president, George W. Bush. He was also, thanks to the Matrix Churchill affair, all too well-versed in Anglo-American collaboration with Saddam Hussein. But despite Cook's concern over the new Republican administration many on the left of the Labour Party remained critical of what they saw as his neglect of former principles. According to the journalist Jackie Ashley, the Foreign Office years saw the eclipse of Radical Robin: New Cook lived in big houses, was photographed in foreign parts wearing funny hats and was peppery rather than dry. He was not a popular success (The Guardian
, 7 Jan 2002).
In late 1998 one alternative had presented itself to Cook that might have had significant constitutional consequences. In the wake of the referendum in August 1997 paving the way for the establishment of a Scottish parliament, Donald Dewar, secretary of state for Scotland, had taken a bruising getting the Government of Scotland Act
through Westminster. Dewar was undecided about whether he wanted to stand as first minister of Scotland, and Cook considered putting himself forward. Despite his early reservations he had become a convert to devolution as long ago as 1983, and was now a firm proponent. Had he taken the job he would have been a formidable (and to Whitehall not always a friendly) performer. But, as with the Labour leadership in 1994, he prevaricatedbogged down by a Foreign Office workload and the fallout from his personal difficulties. Ultimately he held back, probably much to the relief of Blair and Brown.
Leader of the house, 20012003
In June 2001 Blair demoted Cook to leader of the House of Commons in his second government. The BushCook incompatibility may have played a part, along with Europe, as Brown was widely believed to have demanded the Europhile Cook's removal from foreign affairs. He was replaced by the more Eurosceptic Jack Straw. Cook felt the humiliation, but managed to retain the foreign secretary's flat in Carlton Gardens, briskly rallied, and set about work on another of his passions: constitutional reform. Unlike his predecessors since 1997 he was seen as a reforming leader of the house, more in the mould of Richard Crossman or Norman St John Stevas. As (ex officio
) chair of the modernization committee he oversaw changes to strengthen the select committees, responsible for scrutinizing government departments, and to reform the legislative process, including publication of more bills in draft form. Here he paid close attention to the new Scottish parliament, which was getting into its stride in Edinburgh, with family-friendly hours and a powerful committee structure. His ambitions were, however, constantly reined in by number 10 and the Labour whips, who orchestrated a humiliating defeat of one of his key proposals, to reform select committee appointments, in May 2002.
During this period Cook also took a lively interest in questions of political disengagement (much discussed following the slump in voter turnout in 2001), exploring ways to reconnect parliament with the public and possibilities such as online voting. His own preference would have been a move to proportional representation, but this was off the political agenda. Instead he intervened in the debate on House of Lords reform. Working with sympathetic Labour MPs (and some from the opposition parties), he essentially derailed proposals from the lord chancellor, Derry Irvine, for a largely appointed house with a minority elected element, though Cook's own preference for a mainly elected upper chamber was also defeated in a free vote in February 2003. Cook's enthusiasm for a largely elected second chamber was certainly not calculated to make him more popular with the prime minister, who publicly expressed concern that a democratically legitimate upper house would challenge the primacy of the Commons.
The tensions with Blair finally came to a head over a different matter. In the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, Cook became steadily more distrustful of the prime minister's pursuit of an American alliance in the Middle East at the expense of the United Nations. The cabinet's circumspect discussions of policy towards Iraq seemed increasingly to be paralleled by pro-American initiatives hatched by Blair in his private office. To Cook the consequence of this would be the emasculation of the international rule of law in favour of submission to the will of the United States as a hyper-power, alongside greater instability in the Middle East. Having advocated Britain's need to be at the heart of the European Union while foreign secretary, Cook also warned that Blair's approach was detrimental both to relations with France and Germany and to the chances of winning a proposed referendum on Britain's entry into the euro. He repeatedly spoke out in cabinet and expressed his concerns behind the scenes. The Matrix Churchill affair had given him a deep knowledge of the ambiguous coils of previous British policy towards Iraq. This, combined with his continued links with foreign affairs specialists at home and overseas (not least as the elected president of the Party of European Socialists, 20014), made Cook severely doubtful over claims about weapons of mass destruction, which Blair cited as the casus belli
. Cook's efforts to encourage the prime minister to seek a second UN resolution prior to military action in March 2003 against Iraq, and for Britain to refuse to participate without one, proved unsuccessful. However, as leader of the house Cook did work closely with Jack Straw to persuade Blair that a prior vote in parliament was necessary in order to legitimate military action. He finally resigned from the government on 17 March 2003, denouncing the prime minister's actions in a measured speech that asserted Britain's interests as best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules. The speech resulted in that rare (and officially unparliamentary) thing, a standing ovation in the House of Commons. As a back-bencher for the first time in twenty years, he was one of 139 Labour MPs to vote against the invasion of Iraq on the following day. None the less the vote was won with Conservative support. Two days later the invasion of Iraq by American, British, and coalition forces had begun.
Since 2001 Cook had kept a diary and in October 2003 he published an edited version as The Point of Departure
, his account of the Iraq crisis and other events of the period. The book stood out from other ministerial memoirs, usually evasive and self-serving, of the ThatcherBlair era. Its style was fluent and sophisticated, and the account of cabinet government under New Labour was analytical and frank, but never vitriolic. Cook also took up a weekly newspaper column, initially in The Guardian
and later in The Independent
, where he reflected upon national and international issues, including Iraq, the Middle East, and the state of British democracy. Again he was often critical of the BlairBush line, but his wordsfrequently laced with witwere chosen carefully to be constructive rather than hostile.
Despite his criticisms of the government Cook remained an unrepentant Labour loyalist. With Blair's popularity waning, he campaigned vigorously in the run-up to the 2005 general election to persuade Labour doubters to remain with the party. This almost certainly helped save some seats, though many others were lost and the government was returned with a reduced Commons majority of sixty-six. Cook himself won Livingston withagainst the trendan increased majority. The future remained unclear, but there was much speculation that he would return to the cabinet once Gordon Brown (as expected) took over as prime ministerparticularly given that, since Cook's resignation, the two had finally been reconciled. But no such opportunity was to present itself. On 6 August 2005 he and Gaynor were walking near the top of Ben Stack in the far north-west of Scotland when he suffered a heart attack and a fall from the path. A nearby climber summoned a helicopter from RAF Kinloss, but Cook was pronounced dead on arrival at Raigmore Hospital, Inverness. On 12 August he was accorded something akin to a state funeral at St Giles's Cathedral in Edinburgh, where his old rival Gordon Brown delivered a secular eulogy from the pulpit of John Knox. Cook's popularity had grown, particularly since his resignation, and the genuine warmth with which he was now regarded was demonstrated by the crowds that lined the streets. Large numbers of MPs broke off from their holidays to attend the service and the only notable absence among cabinet members, pointedly criticized from the pulpit by John McCririck, was Tony Blair. A later memorial service at St Margaret's Church, Westminster, included a reading by Blair and warm tributes by Brown and Madeleine Albright. Cook's friend and election agent since 1983, Jim Devine, won the resulting by-election with a reduced majority.
Robin Cook was often accused of immodesty. He once recorded his proudest achievements at the Foreign Office as Breaking the deadlock in the Lockerbie case; defending Kosovo; saving lives and relieving suffering in Sierra Leone; contributing to the fall of Milosevic; transforming Britain's relations with Europe; rebuilding respect for Britain in the world (The Guardian
, 10 April 2001). In 2007, when his gravestone was erected in Edinburgh's Grange cemetery, the inscription, chosen from The Point of Departure
by his wife, Gaynor, and his two sons, was simpler: I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war.
Cook will certainly be remembered first and foremost as a parliamentarian, and probably the most accomplished orator of his generation. He was also one of only two cabinet members under Blair to resign on a point of principle (his resignation was followed by that of Clare Short). In many ways his strengths were also his weaknesses. More than many of his contemporaries he struggled with reconciling his strongly held left-wing values with the compromises his party made in order to gain and hold on to power. Skill in debate meant the ability to construct a powerful case, but his language also put down vivid markers of conviction that were often difficult to depart from. He suffered many obstacles, both in opposition and in government. Like a rider over the sticks, he excelled by staying on. But many of the hurdles were self-made; someone less cocky might have employed more diplomacy to dismantle or evade them. Had his government posts been reversedhad he been leader of the house first and subsequently foreign secretarythe movement he built up behind him might have sustained him against the government by cabinet faction that marked the Blair years. Had he built this movement earlier, his achievements could have been even greater.
Another personal aside perhaps comes closest to the man: The two most exciting sights and noises I know are these: first, a large field coming into a steeplechase fence; the other is the clang of the tin-ballot boxes as they hit the floor on election night (The Independent
, 26 Sept 1998).