A distinguished gentleman: inside the world of Malcolm Rifkind

Rifkind’s genteel new book, Power and Pragmatism, is a beguiling memoir.

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Shortly after Margaret Thatcher’s government proposed the poll tax in 1986, the Daily Record referred to Malcolm Rifkind, who was responsible for its implementation in Scotland as its secretary of state, as “Rambo Rifkind”. More apt was the transliteration of his name by a newspaper during a visit to Hong Kong in 1996 – “Li Wenjun”, which conveyed “the sense of a cultured gentleman”. His autobiography is so genteel and quintessentially British as to be oddly reassuring in these tumultuous times. It ends with an account of an ideal afternoon – a stroll across St James’s Park, past the clubs on Pall Mall, perusing the hats at Lock & Co and buying cigars at James J Fox, before having a cold beef sandwich and a ginger beer while reading newspapers at White’s – that could be found, verbatim, in a Regency diary.

It was during the years of the Major government that Rifkind reached the pinnacle of his career, serving as defence secretary from 1992 to 1995 and then as foreign secretary until the New Labour landslide of 1997. Yet he was earmarked for front-line duties almost from the moment he entered parliament in 1974, as a talented barrister with a Master’s degree in Rhodesian landownership. He was one of only five people to serve throughout the 18 years of Conservative government from 1979: the longest uninterrupted ministerial service in Britain since Lord Palmerston. After being alerted to this, he, Kenneth Clarke and the three others who shared the record celebrated with a dinner so raucous that they could not remember where it took place.

Rifkind’s survival was particularly impressive because Margaret Thatcher had a wary eye trained on the MP for Edinburgh Pentlands almost from the moment she became party leader. For one, he was a supporter of more devolution to Scotland. For another, she had pegged him as a “wet”. The picture is more nuanced. His book pivots on the distinction between the “conviction politician” and the “pragmatist”. Thatcher and Tony Blair were in the former camp, whereas he was firmly in the latter. While professing an intuitive preference for “One Nation” Toryism, he was more “dry” than she understood. He admired her zeal and supported the poll tax (although he later admitted it was a mistake) and her assaults on the unions and “dependency culture”.

What separated them was more a matter of temperament. “He was one of the party’s most brilliant and persuasive debaters. No one could doubt his intellect or grasp of ideas,” said Thatcher (Rifkind happily includes this appraisal here). “Unfortunately, he was as sensitive and highly strung as he was eloquent. His judgement was erratic and his behaviour unpredictable.”

As Scottish secretary, he had a notable victory over his boss at the 1989 Scottish Cup final when he told her not to put on her royal blue overcoat so as not to enrage the Celtic fans. But she also believed Rifkind had a small role in her downfall in 1990. A party leader continuing without the support of MPs, he told her, was “like a ship being holed below the waterline”. Such simple times are seemingly past.

In its Scottish origins, Rifkind’s story follows a path that was once well trodden by many of our political elite. As the president of the Edinburgh University Conservatives, he had an opposite number in Labour’s Robin Cook. They were both unsuccessful candidates in the 1970 general election and entered the House of Commons for Edinburgh seats on the same day in 1974. But while Cook “was of exceptional political ability”, Labour’s periodic self-immolation denied him even the most junior government office until he was 51, when he came in under the Blairite “tsunami”. How many of the “best and brightest” Labour minds would be so patient today?

Although no “wet”, Rifkind is a self-confessed sentimentalist. Accounts of his student high jinks include hitchhiking down to London for the state funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965 and volunteering as a last-minute extra for a performance of Dalibor at the Edinburgh Festival. All this is touchingly innocent, though most readers will find more to get their teeth into in the second half of the book, as it begins to discuss more deeply foreign affairs and a series of disputes (on Europe, ­Anglo-American relations and the question of intervention) with which we are still dealing today.

More so than Downing Street, it was the Foreign Office that Rifkind coveted, establishing his credentials as parliamentary undersecretary and then minister for Europe in the early 1980s. Whereas some Conservative backbenchers regarded him as a Europhile, he prefers the description of Le Monde, which once called him a “moderate Eurosceptic”.

More vexing was the question of what type of foreign policy Britain should pursue at the end of the Cold War. Rifkind, who worked closely with the then foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, from 1992 to 1995, has come under severe criticism for what some see as “moral equivalence” in these years. This was because of the government’s desire to avoid “mission creep” and military intervention by Nato in the Bosnian War of 1992-95. Things came to a head in May 1993, when Bill Clinton sent his secretary of state, Warren Christopher, to Britain and France to urge a policy of Nato air strikes on Slobodan Milosevic’s regime and the lifting of an arms embargo that many felt gave the Serbs an unfair advantage (culminating in the Srebrenica Massacre of July 1995).

The frustrated Americans saw the UK government of the time as a spoiler of their efforts to intervene. Here, Rifkind denies the oft-repeated claim that he told Senator Bob Dole, a wounded veteran of the Second World War: “You Americans don’t know the horrors of war.” While he makes a plea for the defence, he concedes that the arms embargo, at least, was misguided.

The debate on humanitarian intervention is an interminable one, yet Rifkind does not take the opportunity to explain the development of his position on the issue. Far from being a doctrinaire non-interventionist, he was a notable advocate of intervention in Libya in 2011. It would have been interesting to read more about this, especially as there was room to add a lively postscript on British politics after Brexit. The ultimate test for Boris Johnson, he writes, is whether he is a “statesman” and not merely a “politician”. It is an important distinction.

Power and Pragmatism by Malcolm Rifkind is published by Biteback (462pp, £25)

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article appears in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue