The Lord of the isles

LORD Robertson is expecting workmen on the day of our interview.

So there's George in his dark grey Jaguar in the Tesco car park, meeting the train. How thoughtful is that? Not far from here is the pub where he meets his mates every Saturday night for an hour at 6pm. His mobile went once and he went out into the narrow lane beside the pub, where all the dustbins are, to take the call. Back inside, his friends said, who was on the phone, George? Oh, just Colin Powell, the American secretary of state.

Interesting, double-sided figure. (We'll ask later how an anti-House of Lords politician ends up a lord.) On one hand, there's Lord Robertson, with every vestige of status and privilege: several houses, posh car, high achievement and a string of titles. Knight of the Thistle. Member of Her Majesty's Privy Council. Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Chairman of Cable & Wireless. Deputy chairman of TNK-BP, the eighth-biggest oil company in the world and a joint venture between Russia and BP (the only one Russia has with the West). Chairman of the John Smith Memorial Trust. Chairman of Lanarkshire's Maggie's Centre. Chairman of the Commission on Global Road Safety. Robertson doesn't want to be a 'former' anything, wheeled out as a media commentator on the strength of past glories. He wants to be a doer, now. But on the other hand, there is ordinary George, who likes to step back from all that activity and merely observe the world from behind a camera lens.

Robertson has just published Islay and Jura, a photographic representation of the two beautiful Inner Hebridean islands. With all the travelling he did at Nato (800,000 miles in four years - to the moon and back, and halfway up again), you might imagine his photograph collection being a mirror of war and destruction, conflict and pain. But to his regret, he learned early on not to take photographs in his public life. As MP for Hamilton, he once took a photograph in the street and heard someone say, "You would think he has more important things to do than take pictures." Years later, photographing Pristina, in Kosovo, he turned round to find Sky TV taking a picture of him taking a picture. His first published collection therefore reflects his private rather than public life: he was born on Islay and had grandparents from Jura. And as we sit talking in his garden, it emerges that what really appeals to the public figure is the anonymity a camera offers. "The main thing I find in photography is that you are hidden behind the lens. With a wee camera I find it more difficult to take pictures, but with a big camera you are behind it, watching life through that. It forces you to look at things in more detail than you normally do. You're an observer."

islay has had a lifelong pull for Robertson. The son of the local policeman, he moved to Dunoon at the age of six, when his father was posted to the mainland, but the family returned each year. Robertson kept the link for his own children - two sons and a daughter - and owns a house there. "We were imbued with the spirit of the place," he says.

Sometimes, when he visited islands such as Iceland, Barbados and Bahrain in an official capacity, he would feel a natural empathy with the islanders. "I know what it's like to be from an island. There's something about it. You know you can't just drive to London. You have to think carefully before your next step. It gives you a degree of contentment about your life, and maybe that's why people from islands often go on to great things. They are more controlled, have a better sense of themselves. There's this idea that if you come from an island you would never set out to the bigger society. The opposite is actually true: people who go make a big impression."

Perhaps the most formative aspect of his early life was the freedom. Not for island children the constant adult supervision of their mainland contemporaries, the ferrying about in cars, the organised activities. Robertson and his brother and sister tested their own limits. "There was very limited traffic when we were young, virtually no crime and very few of the dangers people associate with childhood. You had remarkable freedom, which you exploited and took to the extreme." They used to split barrels in two and use them as makeshift gondolas. He and his brother once had to be rescued off Port Ellen Bay after the wind blew them out to sea. But they learned what they were capable of.

Physical freedom, but the confines of rural living closed in when it came to intellectual freedom. As a youngster, Robertson became interested in politics, particularly when the US naval base was established at the Holy Loch. He had a brief flirtation with the SNP and with CND, but his political activities became embarrassing to his father and began damaging his career in the police. Robertson withdrew, waiting until he went to university before picking up active politics again.

His father was a conservative man. "He was quite a tough character. He voted Liberal... was fairly right-wing. We had tough arguments. He was very much in favour of order, and this rebellious youth didn't exactly go with the flow. I remember an argument one night where he got apoplectic with me for saying, 'You have a vested interest in crime. If there wasn't crime you would be out of a job.'" He groans in recollection. "I try to be careful about arguments with my own kids now."

He was a quiet, nervous child. "I had an eye problem, a squint that was corrected and then overcorrected, so I was self-conscious - if you can accept that," he adds with a grin. "I went to the school debating society, and that's what gave me confidence. It's really a great way of giving people the kind of confidence that probably matters most in life. You can have plenty of brains, but if you don't have the confidence to put forward your ideas you won't get anywhere."

His mother taught French and German. "I was a miserable failure in her eyes," he says ruefully. "I remember her saying, 'You children, you'll regret this one day.' None of us was very good at languages, I'm afraid." And he did regret it, at the age of 55, when he became secretary general of Nato, an organisation whose official second language is French. He made speeches in the language, but although he took lessons, it was difficult to concentrate on French grammar while wrestling with the problems of troops in East Timor. "I used to say I could make a declaration of war in French, but ordering fish in a restaurant was a bit more difficult."

There is an irony about the boy who protested against nuclear weapons growing up to be the British defence secretary and then head of Nato. "There is," he accepts, "but really it was part of the same thing. I lost the naive concept that getting rid of nuclear weapons would automatically make the world safer. You can't dis-invent something that is there. But I still thought we should have a safer world and that we should make these weapons unimaginable. When I became defence secretary we reduced the number of missiles carried by the Trident submarines. We changed the alert state. So, actually, I have been responsible for the biggest act of unilateral disarmament in British history."

His school in Dunoon taught the future Labour leader John Smith, the Tory minister John MacKay and the Labour cabinet minister Brian Wilson. Robertson deliberately moved to the other side of Scotland, away from his father's small community, to study economics at Dundee University, where he met Sandra, who would become his wife. He then worked as a union official for the GMB before entering parliament in 1978 as MP for Hamilton. He cites his time as shadow secretary of state for Scotland as the most difficult period of his political life. Then, in 1997, he became, "to my surprise", defence secretary in Tony Blair's newly elected government.

So has he simply found himself in positions, or is he ambitious? "I have always sort of pushed myself to do things. I'd rather say yes than no."

But he has been more interested in achieving goals than achieving power. He may have lost his CND beliefs, but he tried to retain his youthful zeal for creating a better world. So why did he want the Nato job? "I didn't," he says candidly. "It was there and there was a big push to get me to do it." It wasn't a job he was burning for? "No, no, I wasn't," he says. "I was quite happy doing what I was doing."

Four years at Nato was long enough. "It was exhausting. You are the face of the organisation and are living a high-pressure, high-octane existence. It needs a fresh mind and fresh legs to do it. I have no nostalgia for it."

Russia's President Putin once called him a diplomat, but Robertson corrected him: he was a politician, although he came from the same family tradition as Putin - Robertson's grandfather, father, brother, nephew and son all went into the police. "I was the aberration," he told Putin. "No, Mr Secretary General," Putin told him, "you are not the aberration, you are the superpoliceman." Which, says Robertson, "is interesting coming from a former KGB general".

Superpolicemen have tough decisions. March 24, 1999. "The date is engraved on me," says Robertson. That was the day Nato began its air campaign on Kosovo. Now it is seen as a model operation: all objectives were reached, there were no allied casualties, Milosovic eventually fell, the refugees got home... But that first day, no one knew what the outcome would be. The media age means ordinary people now watch bombs dropping in far-off places. Most feel sick. What do the politicians responsible for those bombs dropping feel at the moment of impact? "You are very aware of what is happening, and if you are timid about it you don't do it. And if you are timid about it the evil continues. At times you've just got to steel yourself. There is a simple principle: you have to threaten the maximum you can threaten, [in order] not to have to use it at all. If you are half-hearted, or your will is questionable, the enemy will exploit your weakness. And that applies to terrorists, suicide bombers or people with great armies."

He says that he feels free to comment on politics now that he is out of government. "I am not responsible for anything other than my own views."

So did he support the invasion of Iraq? He did. After the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein was a threat waiting to be dealt with. But the day we meet is the day of the terror alert, with airports being put on maximum security. Isn't the escalation of the terrorism threat, and the fact that the latest alleged potential bombers were British-born, a sign that we have got something very wrong in this so-called war against terrorism? Couldn't we have done better? "We could, and we should, have done better in the post-conflict situation," agrees Robertson. "There were lessons learned after Bosnia and Kosovo that should have told people that if you don't get in very quickly afterwards with civilian structures, as opposed to military, there is a danger of things getting out of control. There was a lack of imagination, a lack of ambition, in what needed to be done very quickly afterwards, and history will make some judgment of that."

But he gets frustrated when people talk of Western aggression towards Muslims. Nato had never fired a shot in more than 45 years of its existence. And what prompted it to break that peace? To defend Muslims in Bosnia in 1995, to save the Albanian Muslims from the ethnic cleansing of Milosovic, to defend Muslim rights in Macedonia. The fight is against extremism, not Muslims. And, he argues, we can't be defeatist about it. People once said that slavery could never be abolished, that doing so would lead to economic collapse. They once said piracy, which threatened the civilised world then just as terrorism does now, couldn't be defeated either. But both were.

He accepts that to eradicate terrorism we have to understand its causes. Does that not include recognition that American and British foreign policy could be viewed as inflammatory by Muslim states? Robertson is reputedly pro-American. Is his support unequivocal? "I believe we have to be close to America because America has the most influence in the world today. If America went home, or chose not to be involved in the world, it would be more dangerous than it is now."

America, he argues, is a more complicated, less gung-ho, country than people think. And Bush is a more complicated individual than even he sometimes makes out. "He would not be serving a second term if he were not a lot shrewder and cleverer than his critics make out."

And what of Britain - would foreign policy change under Gordon Brown? He shakes his head. "No. Actually, [when I was a minister] I thought Gordon had more close connections with America than Tony did. I don't see that changing."

THE photographs in Robertson's book are like a series of postcards beckoning you to the islands. Beautiful, misty sunsets, pink-stained dawns and brooding, stormy seas. One of his favourites is of osytercatchers in flight over an emerald sea. He used to give that picture to Arab heads of state. Perhaps it hangs on a few foreign walls, a fusion of the international Robertson and the George from Islay.

There's a lovely picture of Rachel, the daughter of a friend, kicking a ball at Saligo bay, Islay. The abandonment of the kick is captured, Rachel poised on one leg, the movement of her foot mirrored in the kick of white spray from the waves beside her. You're going to be a star, Robertson told her when the publisher chose the picture. No, Rachel retorted, I'm just going to be a picture in your book.

That Scottish background keeps you grounded. "You can't allow yourself to think, 'Look at me, talking to the president of the United States,'" says Robertson. You have to keep it real. Not that he needs reminding, but a car crash 20 years ago left him with a constant awareness of human vulnerability. He takes a picture from his wallet: his mangled Ford Cortina at the Drumochter pass, near Dalwhinnie. "It was a blustery January day and this Royal Navy Land Rover, carrying 100lbs of gelignite and a box of detonators under the driver's seat, hit me head on. I remember lying in the road. My brain was telling me I was talking garbled rubbish."

He was taken to Raigmore hospital and had a lengthy recovery. He lost a kneecap but gained an appreciation of life and a campaigning zeal for road safety. "You get very close to death. It didn't make me religious, but it did make me assess the value of life and think about things I should maybe be doing with my life. It did have a big impact."

Robertson became a lord when he left the Commons to take up his post at Nato. But being close to death also gives you an insight into the fact that we leave the world even more naked than we arrived, stripped of privilege or title. How did he square accepting a knighthood with the ideals he started out with? "As an opponent of the House of Lords... yeah," he admits. "Well, it's there and so long as it exists, there must be people there to make sure the government legislation goes through. Another attempt to make changes is going to be made this year, so we'll see what happens."

But if he had the power, would he abolish his own title? "Oh, yeah. I would be in favour of a wholly elected House of Lords. I used to say to people aspiring to Nato membership, 'Do not copy the British House of Lords. If you do, you won't get into Nato because we won't consider it a democratic parliament.' I am a very strong believer in reform. I won't shed any tears if I cease to be a legislator in that context."

And, of course, he won't miss being called 'Lord'. "I prefer," he says, "just to be called George."

• Islay and Jura (Birlinn, 9.99) is out now