Sir Malcolm Rifkind: “To thine own self be true”

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Sir Malcolm Rifkind picks up the phone and starts by briefly interviewing me, asking my course and college. The former Foreign Secretary’s daughter, Caroline, studied Economics at Hatfield and it is partly through this connection that Sir Malcolm has come to be delivering next week’s Michael McCarthy Memorial Lecture at Durham Castle. 

The lecture is organised by John Slinger, a friend of McCarthy’s when they studied together at Durham. In 2012, the married father-of-one died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition. Slinger commented: “The memorial lecture and dinner will raise funds for the Michael McCarthy Travel Bursary that has already enabled several students at University College to visit the US for their studies.”

When I ask about his lecture topic, ‘Russia, a Riddle wrapped in a Mystery, inside an Enigma?’ – a Winston Churchill quote – Sir Malcolm remains tight-lipped, but says that “when I’m invited to speak, it’s much more relevant if I try to speak on a subject on which I have some more background knowledge. My public life has been largely in relation to foreign policy, that’s why I went into politics in the first place.”

This interest in the international is deeply entrenched: “I was interested in domestic British politics, but it wouldn’t have made me want to be a Member of Parliament, it was the possibility of making a contribution on the foreign policy scene.”

He studied Law at Edinburgh University before taking a postgraduate degree in political science: “My special subject was Africa at that time, and I had the opportunity to go to what was then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.”

There he took up a temporary assistant lecturer position at the local University, for which he describes himself as “totally unqualified, but they were pretty desperate at the time.” The staff there “decided to take a gamble and offered me the job, it enabled me to pay for my keep as well, while I was doing my master’s research on my thesis.”

“My public life has been largely in relation to foreign policy, that’s why I went into politics in the first place”

I ask if it was this experience which sparked an interest in foreign policy, but Sir Malcolm believes it was the other way round, the circumstances of his childhood imparting a need to pursue the “fascinating stuff” playing out across the world.

“I grew up in the 1960s and that was a time when there were some very big things happening in the outside world that affected our own country. For example, that’s really the last stage of the British Empire.”

He recounts that “almost every month some part of the Empire was becoming an independent country in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and so forth. So the Empire was ending, the Commonwealth was becoming its replacement.” With the Cold War in the background, it seems there was no shortage of captivating drama on the world stage for an impressionable student.

Sir Malcolm tells me that he was “inveigled” into debating at school. His English master volunteered him after his performance as Cardinal Wolsey in A Man for All Seasons and Rifkind says that the activity “caught my imagination.” He found himself to be a skilled debater, going on to become President of Debates at university, and noted that the topics being debated were often contemporary issues, some domestic – abortion or capital punishment – others international – nuclear weapons or apartheid in South Africa. At that age, he says, “you’re naturally curious about the world around you.”

I ask whether this element of performance is an important asset to a politician in the television age, to which Sir Malcolm deploys the quote: “Someone once said that all politicians are actors manqué.” He goes on to quip that “if you can’t make it on the stage, you can become a politician, because politics is a form of theatre.”

Debating from an early age clearly prepared Rifkind well for this unique art, though he does caveat the point, emphasising its “very serious purpose.” Nevertheless, he notes that “particularly in a democracy, where you have genuine free speech and real debates in Parliament, not just propaganda,” one can be “assisted by certain theatrical qualities, if I can put it that way.”

As his young thoughts turned to a career, he says that “I didn’t want to become a diplomat or an ambassador, because that meant living abroad most of the time. I enjoy living in Britain. I don’t mind travelling, I love going to these countries, but I didn’t want to live abroad so I didn’t want to join the diplomatic service.”

His skill at diplomacy, however, is revealed when he recounts meeting politicians through university debating: “Some of them were brilliant, and some of them were less than brilliant,” he says, admirably restrained. These impressions led him to believe that life in politics was attainable; he would go on to be elected MP for Edinburgh Pentlands in 1974.

Before his political career, however, he was a Scottish advocate, the barrister equivalent, attracted to the profession by the same dramatic pull that had brought him into debating. Sir Malcolm describes ending up in the job as “pure chance.”

“When I thought what I might want to do, if somebody said law, I would have thought of solicitors and that would have been very unfair. I would have thought of solicitors as being rather dreary people sitting in dreary offices, reading dreary documents, all rather grey and boring, necessary but not fun.”

“I would have thought of solicitors as being rather dreary people sitting in dreary offices, reading dreary documents”

This perception of the law changed when, at around 16 years old, Rifkind read Henry Cecil’s 1950s comedy trilogy about a High Court judge, a series which began with Brothers in Law. At this point, Sir Malcolm says that he had “never heard of barristers before,” suddenly discovering “these people who wore wigs and gowns and address juries, and if they could make marvellous speeches to a jury might get an innocent man found innocent instead of hanging for murder.”

This “dramatic, romantic stuff” captivated the young student. He was of the mindset henceforth that “I don’t want to be a lawyer, but I don’t mind being a barrister.”

Sir Malcolm is clearly a man not unfamiliar with fierce debate and controversial topics, so I ask about his thoughts on coming to Durham, branded the “frontline of the culture wars” by The Guardian this year. It turns out that Rifkind has prior experience of this at the University, after being invited to speak at a 2017 Union Society debate on China’s human rights record. The Chinese Embassy in the UK is alleged to have warned the Society about hosting one of the speakers, Anastasia Lin, a Chinese Canadian actress and freedom of expression advocate.

Rifkind says that, at the time, “the University was great, both the Union and the University itself said ‘we’re not going to be told by you who’s invited to speak at Durham.’”

On the broader topic of sensitive topics being explored on university campuses, Sir Malcolm observes that “sometimes, university vice-chancellors and academics get very nervous and very silly. They’re so anxious to preserve their academic access that they make concessions of principle, which they shouldn’t be doing. It’s a matter of personal decision, I’m not saying they’re breaking the law, but they’re pretty wimpish and unwise because the people who are trying to bully them; if you find that bullying works, you keep doing it.” He will surely hope for less international intervention at his upcoming lecture.

I ask about a speech he made this week at Edinburgh University, and Sir Malcolm is quick to assure me that “I don’t do this every week!” It was the Edward Heath Memorial Lecture, with addresses given by Michael Heseltine and Chris Patten in recent years.

The defining phrase of Rifkind’s talk on Tuesday was “a union for all seasons,” reflecting on the future of the United Kingdom, though he assures me that no record of his words exists: “I normally speak from well-prepared spontaneity, as you’ll see next week.”

It was reported, however, that the topic of House of Lords reform was briefly mentioned in the speech, and I ask whether Rifkind himself was ever asked to join the chamber. He recalls losing his seat in the Labour landslide of 1997, after which outgoing Prime Minister John Major did approach Rifkind to ask if he would like a peerage in his Resignation Honours. Sir Malcolm’s reply: a simple “no, thank you.”

When I ask why, he gives a Jeremy Thorpe line. I am assured that Thorpe is not a regular of Rifkind’s repertoire, however on this occasion he does agree with the former Liberal leader that “the existence of the House of Lords is conclusive proof that there is life after death.” Further, he says, it does seem to be “the best retirement home in London, in the United Kingdom, I should imagine.”

“I think the way I put it very diplomatically is: the jury is out”

Sir Malcolm admits his flippancy and praises the “good, serious work” that the chamber does in revising legislation but says frankly: “I’ve got lots of other things I do with my time, so I didn’t really wish to be committed to doing that.” Has he changed his mind since 1997? The answer is, as it was then, a firm no.

As a part of Major’s government, Rifkind was present at the Cabinet table for economic storms not dissimilar to those faced by the Conservative government today. I am interested to know how government reacts to such crisis, and Sir Malcolm remembers that “there is quite a lot of frenzy because suddenly, major economic changes are happening.”

He recalls the “mini drama” of Britain’s exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism but says that for Liz Truss today, “it’s early days, the PM has really just taken over.”

Perhaps knowingly, Rifkind echoes the words of the Prime Minister herself: “I think the way I put it very diplomatically is: the jury is out, the jury has not reached a verdict at this stage.

“I think there are pretty important question marks, not about the economic strategy itself, but how it was handled. I would be interested in knowing to what extent the Chancellor and the Prime Minister expected the markets to be so volatile, in response to the announcement: was it something they expected and factored into the decision, or has it taken them by surprise? If it’s taking them by surprise, what was the advice they were receiving as to what would happen from the Treasury and from the senior advisors that governments have?”

When examining the chaos of the present day, Sir Malcolm warns against jumping to conclusions. He remembers: “There was a period at the beginning of Mrs Thatcher’s government, when Geoffrey Howe was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and for the first couple of years of her prime ministership, unemployment was very high, inflation was high. The economy was doing very, very badly.

“Geoffrey Howe as Chancellor had a budget statement [in 1981], in which he was accused of making things far worse by a whole series of announcements at that time. And what people remember is that 364 of the most senior economists in Britain published an open letter that they had sent to the government saying, unless you reverse your policy, there will be economic disaster.

“Mrs Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe refused to accept this and 12 months later the economists realised they had got it completely wrong. The policy was working and delivering.”

Sir Malcolm quickly adds that he is “not predicting that’s going to happen on this occasion, I have no idea, genuinely no idea.”

His opinions are limited, he says, because “economics is not my scene.” Ever incisive with the words of others, Rifkind recalls the “marvellous” words of the short-serving Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home: “there have been two problems in my public life; the political ones are insoluble and the economic ones incomprehensible.” That, roughly, is where Sir Malcolm also stands.

On that observation, we find some common ground and leave the economic sphere. After mentioning Thatcher’s government, I ask how similar Truss truly is to the woman she has sought to emulate, and Rifkind immediately notes their difference in style. Nevertheless, he remembers that the first female Prime Minister’s start in office was not a resounding success: “She was competent, but nothing exciting, nothing special,” so critics were “very, very doubtful, and then gradually, she managed to demonstrate that, not only did she have the skills, but she was going to be exceptionally impressive.”

“I’m not saying Truss is going to be a Thatcher”

Once again quick to clarify, Sir Malcolm does not necessarily tar the incumbent with the same brush: “I’m not saying Truss is going to be a Thatcher.” Despite not knowing the Prime Minister, he notes that “she must be a very bright lady,” having secured an Oxford place, “which, for a woman at that time was not that easy.” He also sees a leader who is “very focused and tough,” though “that doesn’t mean she’s right.”

With Labour surging ahead in the polls, there is talk of a ‘1997 moment’ befalling a long-standing Conservative government once again. Sir Malcolm remembers his wife saying that year: “If we win this election, I’m going to demand a recount.” It speaks volumes about the toll of governing that Rifkind adds: “She was partly serious!”

I ask whether the concept of ‘government fatigue’ exists, whether parties need time in the wilderness to rebuild and rediscover their purpose after power, and Sir Malcolm says that “there is something in that, though it depends who the individuals are.”

Rifkind lost his seat to New Labour, he says, “not because people ceased being Conservatives, but because they said, ‘we think Blair is unlike his predecessors, he’s a pretty safe pair of hands. He’s a middle of the road sort of guy and he’s very impressive in terms of the way he speaks, presents himself.’ They thought he was a new Labour they were comfortable with. 

“The big question today is whether Starmer will be able to create a similar impression. He’s not doing badly. I mean, he’s not Blair, he’ll never be a charismatic leader, but he could end up more like Clement Attlee, who actually beat Churchill in 1945.”

Unable to resist: “Churchill once famously said that ‘Mr Attlee is a very modest man, but of course, he has much to be modest about.’ That wasn’t very complimentary. But Attlee had the last word, he beat him. And then Churchill came back five years later, but that’s another matter.”

For someone so deeply embedded and clearly fascinated by politics, I ask whether Sir Malcolm is tempted to intervene publicly to instruct the government of the day. He quickly responds: “I don’t wish to be, sort of, Rent-A-Quote. I get probably half a dozen requests a week to be on some programme commenting on something, and not only do I decline 90% of them, but if I didn’t, the viewing and listening public would get incredibly bored, so I tend to only make comments publicly if the subject matter is relevant to my own background. I would not do an interview about the state of the economy, because I have no added value.”

Where he does add value, of course, is in foreign policy. When I ask about the issues of today, from Taiwan to Ukraine and beyond, he speaks with an assured tone: “These things come in waves of public opinion and of priorities.

“Until about a year ago, there was a lot of feeling that the democracies were under huge pressure, that populist leaders and authoritarian states were becoming the dominant ones and that this was a trend that was likely to continue. So it was at its apogee, at its peak, when you had Trump as President of the United States. Not remotely like any of his predecessors, Democratic or Republican, very populist, very narcissistic, very authoritarian, and all the other ghastly things that one can correctly say about him.

“Now that may very well have changed, because what a lot of people were mistakenly believing was that populist leaders can somehow deliver better results. The single most important example of that, obviously, is the Ukraine war. Here, you have an authoritarian leader who has no real democratic accountability to the Russian people and so when he does something incredibly stupid, not only does the world as a whole suffer very seriously, but there’s no institutional way within Russia of saying ‘you are making a damn silly mistake, look at all the terrible things that are happening, it’s time for you to go.’ If he’d been a democratic leader, he could have survived a few weeks having made a mistake like that.”

“Don’t feel you need to know all the answers at the moment”

Similarly, he cites President Xi’s ‘Zero Covid’ policy in China, which Rifkind says is “destroying the Chinese economy, it’s hugely unpopular. Again, acting in a way that does not have to be accountable to the Chinese people.”

For democracies, he believes that “gradually, people are realising not that democratic leaders always get it right, but when they do get it wrong, their political position is seriously weakened and they’re very often removed from office, just by the pressure of public opinion, and their own political colleagues.”

Another apt Churchill quote is deployed: “Democracy is the worst system of government apart from all the other kinds.” Sir Malcolm adds that “it’s not perfect, there’s a lot that goes wrong with it. Sometimes it makes a fool of itself, but the system is such that when it does go seriously wrong, there is a peaceful and institutional way of changing leaders. Dictatorships and authoritarian governments don’t permit that.”

As we come to an end, I take the opportunity to ask Sir Malcolm what advice he would give to his university-aged self. He takes a moment to think: “Right, don’t feel you need to know all the answers at the moment.” As he left Britain for then-Southern Rhodesia as a student, “I had no idea what I was going to do thereafter.”

He describes his experience in modern-day Zimbabwe, having left his mark with a thesis on the distribution of land between races in the colonial system, but senses my desire for something pithy to take away: “Just take it as it comes.”

Finally: “To thine own self be true, then you won’t be false to any man.” A characteristic way to finish, “not very original, but it’s very valid.”

“The old ones are the best,” I suggest.

“That’s why they survive,” Sir Malcolm Rifkind tells me.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind will deliver the Michael McCarthy Memorial Lecture at University College on Thursday 6th October, 5:30-6:30pm. Tickets for the lecture are free, while the fundraising dinner afterwards is £35.

Image: Chatham House via Wikimedia Commons

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