Sir Malcolm Rifkind at the Union: ‘We are fortunate that the United States has led the world.’
The former Foreign Secretary speaks out on Trump, Scotland and the Prime Minister
‘Foreign Secretaries are either dull or dangerous.’
It’s a line which former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind likes to use – most notably against Boris Johnson, in light of the latter’s comments on Saudi Arabia. But, speaking with Sir Malcolm, it’s hard to agree with him. He certainly isn’t dangerous – and nor was he during his brief but mostly peaceable tenure as Foreign Secretary.
But neither is the 70-year old Conservative politician dull. It wasn’t just Boris Johnson who has been a victim of Sir Malcolm’s ire since he left Parliament in 2015. Last year, unaware that his microphone was live, he was caught telling Kenneth Clarke that ‘I don’t mind who wins [the abortive Conservative leadership election] as long as Gove comes third.’ He may no longer be an MP, but that doesn’t mean that Rifkind is shying away from controversy. Quite the opposite, in fact.
His performance at the Union debate he’s been invited to speak at, on the topic of American hegemony, evidences this. He declares himself to be ‘nervous and worried’ about the presidency of Donald Trump. The West, led by America, was ‘triumphalist’ in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. And, most critically, he is unafraid to declare his mistrust of Russia and China. ‘Even a President like Trump,’ he says, ‘is less worrying than a hegemonic power such as Russia.’
But Sir Malcolm is no dogmatic doctrinaire. In fact, speaking to him one gets the very strong feeling that he is a man guided by pragmatism rather than grand ideologies – in fact his recent memoirs were entitled ‘Power and Pragmatism’, a title which also doubles as a concise description of his political career. He tells me feelingly that ‘the most dangerous periods of the history of the twentieth century…was when they came to power with a worked-out ideology that they thought could solve all the world’s problems.’
Listening to him, it’s hard not to imagine that he has a particular orange-tinted TV star-turned-President in mind. But oddly Rifkind doesn’t think that Trump views the world through the lens of dogma – in terms of foreign policy, at least. When I ask him if he can detect a coherent ‘Trump Doctrine’ yet, he replies that ‘the one thing he doesn’t have, as far as we can tell, is an ideology. And in some ways I’m reassured by that.’
To Sir Malcolm, Trump’s relative lack of experience in foreign affairs will most likely mean that he will be led by men such as General James Mattis (Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defence) or Rex Tillerson (the future Secretary of State) – ‘highly qualified people’, in his words. His feelings are rather less warm, though, about other figures in Trump’s administration, whom he describes as ‘some very dodgy people.’
Though Rifkind’s background has been in foreign affairs, he still maintains a keen interest in domestic politics. After all, it was to him that Kenneth Clarke (in the course of the same conversation mentioned above) said that Theresa May was ‘a bloody difficult woman.’ So does he think that the right candidate eventually became Conservative leader? ‘Theresa May was by far the best person to take on that job,’ he argues – unsurprisingly, considering his caustic takedowns of Gove and Johnson. He goes as far as to suggest that ‘any of the other candidates would have been our Trump moment.’ He doesn’t name names, but his relief that May eventually triumphed is clear – ‘thank God a grown-up took charge.’
He’s supportive of the Prime Minister’s record in office so far – he notes that he has been saying ‘much the same’ as her on Europe, and acknowledges the difficult position she’s been in since the referendum vote. But he observes that ‘a big mistake was made in not saying that the triggering of Article 50…should have first been discussed in Parliament.’ Overall, though, he seems positive about May’s premiership to date, describing her as ‘pretty impressive.’
But does he think that this will lead to a change in the Conservatives’ fortunes north of Hadrian’s Wall? Sir Malcolm is, after all, that rare breed – a Scottish Conservative. On this, as on many things, he sounds cautiously optimistic. ‘The Scottish Conservatives are now the main opposition [in Scotland]…there are at least 30-40% of people in Scotland who want a moderate centre-right party.’ With UKIP mostly irrelevant in Scotland, the Lib Dems still recovering after their implosion in 2015, and Corbyn’s Labour riven with schisms – Rifkind dismisses them as ‘unelectable’ – the Tories’ prospects in Scotland look bright. Sir Malcolm reserves particular praise for Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader north of the border; she is ‘a very charismatic, impressive and attractive candidate.’
With four decades of parliamentary experience, the thrust and parry of the Union’s debate is old hat to Sir Malcolm. Despite being strikingly forthright in his opposition to the motion, he is affably genial – at one point even the notoriously dour Peter Hitchens smiles. Rifkind is representative of a now mostly-vanished breed of politicians – pragmatic moderates – who believed in building consensus over stoking division.
When one looks at the Trumps and Le Pens replacing them, it’s hard not to feel a bit nostalgic.