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by Mandy Rhodes
25 February 2014
Licence to thrill: An interview with Malcolm Rifkind

Licence to thrill: An interview with Malcolm Rifkind

Malcolm Rifkind hasn’t yet seen the new Bond movie, Skyfall, but he is already familiar with the plot. “I’m in it,” he says, laughing loudly.

“Really?” I ask incredulously, since Rifkind has never struck me as a devil-may-care, risk taker with a penchant for the laydeez, a pair of budgie-smugglers and a dry martini.

“Well, it’s the truth and nothing but the truth but it’s not quite the whole truth,” the Edinburgh-born QC teases, again exploding with great gusto.

The truth is that the character of Gareth Mallory, played by the actor Ralph Fiennes, is chairman of the intelligence and securities committee in the blockbuster and, therefore, playing the part that Rifkind now does for real.

The fact that Fiennes did not seek the politician’s counsel on how to play the role, perhaps a small grievance, but given that Mallory gets shot in the shoulder and ultimately turns out to be one of the good guys and the next ‘M’, is clearly a source of great amusement for the Scottish MP for Kensington.

'If you think of the UK like a club and if you want to leave then you can just resign but if you want to stay part of that club and change the rules then you cannot do that unilaterally, you have to do that with the rest of the members'

“We do take evidence from the intelligence services and I did recently have to assure the current head of MI6 that I wasn’t after his job,” he jokes, tapping on a great tome on his desk that explores the work of the secret services and was gifted to him by the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers.

Rifkind laughs a lot, and loudly, which is unexpected given he’s a politician that is more often than not seen as the more serious, bespectacled veteran of the House, offering sage advice to the younger members of the Commons.

But for those of us that have been around for a while and have known Rifkind as something of a permanent political fixture, he is a funny, engaging speaker who never requires notes, he has a comprehensive knowledge of political history — both modern and more ancient — and quotes profusely from great literature.

He never gives away too much of himself but still manages to be chummy and, essentially, he is a player in living history who is just one of those rare and interesting big beasts of British politics.

“When I hear people say things like, ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’, I question whether it is a compliment or otherwise,” he says. “After all, they may not make ‘em like that anymore because there is no demand,” he chuckles.

“Each generation produces what become known as ‘the big beasts’, Mandy, but you know you are past your sell-by date when they call you a grandee [I have just asked him what it feels like to be called just that]. It just sounds ridiculously absurd… look, how often do you hear people in their 60s saying they feel like they are in their 30s?

"You don’t feel like a grandee, you are just who you are, but the great advantage of having been there and done that does mean that when things happen again, you have the benefit of hindsight, you keep things in perspective, you don’t get too excited or too alarmed and you treat triumph and disaster, those two imposters, just the same, as the Kipling phrase goes.

"The risk, however, is that for these very same reasons, you become complacent and you don’t act with the same urgency as perhaps circumstances deserve.” And for Rifkind, the pressing issues of today — Europe, the recession, welfare reform, Scottish independence and even the Falklands — must seem a little like Groundhog Day.

Rifkind was brought up in Edinburgh.

His grandfather arrived in Scotland from Lithuania, more than a century ago, to escape the pogroms and his son, Rifkind’s father, was one of five brothers and five sisters.

The nine elder siblings funded the youngest through university and a generation later, Malcolm and all his 18 cousins were in a position to go on to higher education.

Rifkind went to Edinburgh University, aged 17, although in typically self-deprecating fashion, he confides that actually, far from being some child genius, he achieved a fairly average two Bs and a C at George Watson’s in his Highers but says he managed to secure a place to study law because there were more available places than applicants.

He was briefly a Liberal supporter although joined the Conservatives months later because the Liberals he had met were “nice people, but dull as ditchwater”.

'You don’t feel like a grandee, you are just who you are'

His peers included Lord James Douglas Hamilton, Lord George Foulkes, and Robin Cook, who later became Rifkind’s parliamentary ‘pair’.

He did a postgraduate degree in African politics and spent a few years teaching in Southern Rhodesia where he met his wife, Edith, before returning to Edinburgh and being called to the bar.

He fought his first general election at 23, served as a town councillor in Edinburgh in the 1970s, entered the House of Commons at 27 as the MP for Pentlands and was there for more than 20 years, serving as a government minister for 18 of them — 11 in the Cabinet.

He was a key figure in Thatcher’s Government and was variously Secretary of State for Scotland, Secretary of State for Defence, Transport Secretary and Foreign Secretary before being rudely ejected from political life by the tsunami that was the 1997 general election and disappearing off into the more lucrative world of business for eight years.

Rifkind was just one of the Conservative casualties of the election that ushered in New Labour and saw the Tory old guard decimated.

The party was completely wiped out in Scotland, losing all its MPs.

An Observer poll published four days before the election gave some hint of things to come when it revealed that Labour candidate Stephen Twigg could actually defeat the then Defence Secretary Michael Portillo in the Enfield Southgate seat.

For many, the bewildered look on Portillo’s face when he knew he had truly lost the seat became the defining moment of the Labour landslide victory.

“It was worse for Michael than me,” says Rifkind. “Pentlands had always been a marginal seat and for the whole of my 23 years as an MP I had never had a majority of more than four or five thousand and when I heard that Michael Portillo, with a majority of 12,000, had gone then I was already pretty clear what was happening.

“You must prepare yourself for that moment because much of your time is actually helping others, your family, get over it.

“Cameron is my kind of Conservative — a pragmatic Conservative"

"Most people in politics have thin skins about some things but they are not dumb and they understand the way the political world works. They know you can have a period of good fortune when what you are saying and how you appear gels with the public mood and they either think you are great or at least better than the alternative but you must never get carried away because the opposite can also apply.”

It’s a pragmatic view of life that Rifkind says defines him and his politics, which is why he can now say he likes David Cameron, the man he initially hoped to beat to the leadership of the party when he eventually returned to the House of Commons as MP for Kensington & Chelsea in 2005 and in 2010 for the new constituency of Kensington, having failed to get re-elected for Pentlands in 2001.

In fact Rifkind calls the leadership bid experience his “folie de grandeur” that was hopelessly timed given he had just returned to Westminster and knew so few of the party intake. He pulled out of the leadership election when he said he realised that “people loved me but they were unwilling to vote for me” and the rest is history.

“I do like Cameron and I’m not just saying that to save giving you a big news story, Mandy,” he chides playfully. “Cameron is my kind of Conservative — a pragmatic Conservative.

“You have to ask yourself why is it that this extraordinary Conservative Party is the oldest longest-serving political party in the world?

"It’s been around for 200 years, long before the Labour Party existed, and it has survived because it does not have ideology… [my turn to laugh] no, seriously, it has values, priorities, principles but if you have an ideology like communism, fascism, or some elements of socialism, they all have had their day.

"They arrive to deal with particular social problems and are seen as all providing solutions and sometimes have some success and sometimes are just ghastly and then they disappear into the annals of history. The Conservative Party is not a reactionary party. It is a pragmatic party.

"There’s a marvellous line in the novel, The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa which is about Sicily in the 19th century and he says that if you want things to stay the same then things will have to change.

"There is no such thing as a Conservative Party ideology'

"And the difference between a Conservative and a reactionary is that a reactionary says they are against change, everything that changes is bad, and a Conservative says there are lots of things to be learnt from the past and if people want to change things then it is up to them to persuade us why change is necessary.

"That is why the Tory party produced the first woman Prime Minister, because the world had changed and Labour hasn’t even come close to that and it is why Disraeli in the 19th century hugely increased the franchise and it is what Cameron is trying to do with the same-sex marriage issue — you recognise society is changing and you adapt — but your values remain the same.

"The Conservative Party of today bears very little resemblance to that of 100 years ago but it is still a party that believes in personal freedom, personal responsibility, lower taxation and so on, and that’s not ideology that is priorities, values, principles.

"There is no such thing as a Conservative Party ideology and we don’t go to some document, some pounding creed and automatically extract the solution to any problem.”

This pragmatism is interesting because commentators have noted that Rifkind, despite his long tenure in political life, is something of an enigma. It’s difficult to pin his Conservative leanings down exactly. And that can either be viewed as ill-defined or more kindly, flexible enough to be politically astute, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

This was evident in his often convoluted view of devolution. He was once a vehement supporter of a Scottish Assembly, even resigning as assistant opposition spokesperson on Scotland when Margaret Thatcher came out against devolution in 1976.

'Logically, the SNP position should be they want to be like Norway or Switzerland and have our own currency, bring back the Scottish groat or the Scottish pound and be outside the EU'

Indeed, in the 1979 referendum, Rifkind voted yes because he said he did not, unlike most in his party, have a “gut reaction” against devolution. However, he changed his mind very quickly.

“I realised within 24 hours that was wrong because what that referendum showed was that it was almost a dead heat. I realised you could not insist on this going ahead because we were part of the UK and opinion in England and Wales was overwhelmingly against and in Scotland, it was something like 51 per cent to 49 per cent but even worse than that narrow majority was the central belt was so different compared with large majorities against, in the Highland and Islands and in Orkney and Shetland, in the north east, in Dumfries and Galloway and in the Western Isles.

"So Scotland was overall divided but geographically, very, very divided and I said very shortly after that referendum that it would have been a very foolish decision to push something through on that result.”

And when he then accepted the new Prime Minister’s invitation to become Under- Secretary at the Scottish Office, he duly denounced separatist tendencies. Indeed, at the Scottish Tory party conference in 1988, he seemed to take a delight in the humiliation of the devolutionist rump.

He had also been seen as a more moderate Tory until after the 1987 election, in which the Tories did badly in Scotland, and he then attempted to turn the Scottish party towards a more radical-right.

He embraced the vocabulary of Thatcherism, attacking Scotland’s ‘dependency syndrome’ and its ‘quasi-socialist culture’ even as he was making special pleas for ailing industries including the retention of Ravenscraig.

As Thatcher’s star waned, so did Rifkind’s public enthusiasm for her policies. Some months before she stepped down, he threatened to resign, along with his ministers, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and Ian Lang, unless she removed her far-right acolyte Michael Forsyth, as chairman of the Scottish party.

As an aside, Rifkind now tells me that he and Forsyth have much more in common, eased, no doubt, with the passage of time.

Rifkind ultimately was one of the group of ministers who, individually, advised Thatcher not to stand in the second round of the leadership election.

I ask Rifkind where his passion for politics sprang from and he tells me he was drawn into it because of his love of debating and those that have been around him since university days, like Lord Foulkes, who sparred with him in the university debating hall and joined him as a councillor in Edinburgh during the 70s before following him to Westminster, say Rifkind is simply a very astute politician.

Returning to the current Scottish referendum, I ask him that if he accepts that devolution is a process and not an event, how far should that process go?

“Well, that’s a very good question and what you need to do is come to a judgement that if the referendum goes the way I believe it will go and that Scots, by a substantial majority, want a Scottish Parliament but want to stay part of the United Kingdom then that gives us a very helpful guide for the future.

“If you think of the UK like a club and if you want to leave then you can just resign but if you want to stay part of that club and change the rules then you cannot do that unilaterally, you have to do that with the rest of the members, if those changes will affect other members and you may need to compromise.

There is no point in having so much devolution given to one part that you hollow out their involvement in the UK so much that it becomes nominal. That is why I distrusted Salmond when he was talking about ‘devo max’ because he wants to get to a separate state and will do that by gradual step, if needs be.”

But why would anyone believe the unionists when they say they will give more powers to Scotland in the event of a ‘No’ vote given what happened in ‘79?

“We are in a totally different world now. Not only is there a Scottish Parliament but also it was this Conservative-led government [that] has put through an Act of Parliament giving increased powers to the Scottish Parliament and there was no other reason to do that other than to recognise that devolution is a process not an event.

"The fact that happened without the referendum shows there is no gut hostility to that change, if there is a good argument for it.” I wonder how he would feel personally if Scotland was to vote ‘Yes’ to independence.

"I not only lost my job as Foreign Secretary but also my seat at the same time.' 

“It would be tragic. It’s about identity and we have all got used to the fact that in the last 30 years or so people can have multiple identities and no one has to choose between being Scottish or British, you can be both.

“What would it say to the rest of the world if the Scots and the English, who have lived together so peacefully and for the most part tremendously successfully for 300 years, split because the Scots conclude that we have so little in common any more that we can no longer share political institutions?

“I just don’t understand the mind-set of Salmond and his colleagues because they are willing to share sovereignty at European level which means that a lot of decisions for Scotland are taken at a European level, so if that is acceptable, what is the argument for independence from the UK that then doesn’t apply to independence in Europe?

“Logically, the SNP position should be they want to be like Norway or Switzerland and have our own currency, bring back the Scottish groat or the Scottish pound and be outside the EU. Why is it acceptable to share sovereignty with continental European citizens but not with those that you are joined to in these islands in the same way?

“I think Salmond is coming close to his sell-by date because I have noticed that when anyone asks him a question on a serious issue like Europe, whether that’s from other politicians or from journalists about what will happen about x, y or z, he just attacks the person and doesn’t answer the question.

"He doesn’t actually give a thoughtful coherent reply that one could respect. His whole political style is just, in a very dismissive way, to say they are English or Tories or they are journalists or have always been against us or always had no faith in Scotland and so on.

"You can get away with this rhetorical stuff once or twice but thanks to him, this referendum debate will last for two years and while you could have got away with it if it had been for two weeks, you won’t for two years.” I wonder why he thinks Salmond has changed given that he tells me that he previously considered the FM a considerable politician.

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he says jocularly.

“I am not seriously saying he is corrupt but he has been very successful by his terms to become First Minister for Scotland and then to make a decision to possibly break up the UK that most of us thought would never get this far and so he is entitled to be, some would say smug, others would say pleased, but like all people that have been in power, and I have been very close to some of them, you get past your sell-by date and it’s happened to people in my party and has happened to people in the Labour Party and it happens in the SNP.”

I wonder if Rifkind himself has been left unaffected by some of the same consequences of hubris.

“Probably not but I got my comeuppance.

"I not only lost my job as Foreign Secretary but also my seat at the same time. That’s the nature of politics and you don’t go into public life in a democracy without expecting it at some point. What was astonishing for me was that it took 18 years in government before it happened but you know, your political fortunes always have the potential to change so my advice would be, don’t go into it if you can’t cope."

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