A defence of Malcolm Rifkind

The Herald, Editorial Notebook, 24 April 1993.

THERE appeared in the London Evening Standard, on Friday, April 16, a vicious attack on Malcolm Rifkind. It was written by a Matthew Norman. I have never heard of him and I entertain absolutely no desire ever to meet him.

The article is a critique of Mr Rifkind's considered response to pressure put on him by Lady Thatcher and others to support military intervention in former Yugoslavia.

The writer refers to the ”truly monstrous images of Bosnian children, held in such shocking close-up so that their awful wounds seared into the soul. Their tears in far away Bosnia become ours in the sanctity of our sitting room”.

The article, however, is also addressed to a domestic political agenda. Mr Norman is a fan of Lady Thatcher, and Mr Rifkind has had the courage to stand up to her.

A swift scan reveals the article to be little more than a string of cheap insults under which lurk some ugly prejudices. The only reason that Mr Rifkind is not politically dead, we learn, is that there has not yet been time to call the undertaker.

The incident has illustrated a ”massive flaw” in his character that will frustrate his ”thinly disguised and vaunting ambition”. We are reminded that Mr Rifkind came from a middle-class Jewish family and that his late father was a draper known as ”bob-a-week Rifkind” by his customers.

Mr Rifkind has also the temerity to be Scottish. There is quite a lot of anti-Scottish sentiment in Thatcherite circles in London. Mr John Smith is, of course, Scottish too, and there is a passing sneer at him — he is an ”equally prosaic Scottish lawyer”.

Mr Rifkind is a ”standard-bearer for that depressing new breed at the head of British politics — the clever man with a decent bureaucratic brain who, in an ideal world, would be deployed in the backroom and not on the front bench”.

In this phrase the author, I believe, reveals that his target is not so much Mr Rifkind as the Prime Minister himself. Such attacks on the British Government are part of an attempt to destabilise it and install in Mr Major’s place a leader ”true to the faith”.

Mr Rifkind is familiar with the tactics of the so-called ”praetorian guard” of Thatcherism because, as Secretary of State for Scotland between 1986 and 1990, he suffered from them. Their activities reached a height in 1989 and 1990 when Mr Michael Forsyth was for a brief and turbulent period the party chairman. Mr Rifkind, and Mr Ian Lang, went through a miserable time as the Forsythites tried to destabilise him.

Their attempts reached a climax at the Aberdeen conference of 1990 when news of a campaign to replace Mr Rifkind as Secretary of State with Mr Forsyth was leaked to the press. The extraordinary incident was fully documented in our columns by Stuart Trotter and William Clark.

I have known Malcolm Rifkind for many years. He is, I believe, a good man. He is one of a group of outstanding Scottish politicians whose talents have allowed them to take a leading role at Westminster to the point that this has raised jealousy among the English. Others in this group are Mr Smith, Robin Cook, Gordon Brown and Donald Dewar.

Malcolm is a politician who prefers the cerebral to the emotional but he has a dry and ironic wit and is an excellent debater. He is liked and respected by his opponents. He is reluctant to think ill of others, especially of people in his own party.

Mrs Thatcher (as she was then) had a high regard for his abilities but people close to events reported that she did not much like him. Some say she never forgave him for having resigned (with the late Alick Buchanan-Smith) from the Shadow Cabinet over devolution in 1976. She became very fond of Michael Forsyth and he was admitted to her inner circle.

During that winter and spring, as the New Right’s attempts to undermine Malcolm reached their height, some of his closest political associates had dinner with him and warned him of what was going on. He was unwilling to believe them but one of them said to him: ”Look, Malcolm, you’d better believe it. A major destabilising effort is going on. Every time we turn around we pick it up.”

In Aberdeen that May, the press was full of the plot against him. His friends tell me that, uncharacteristically, he was hot with anger. He was persuaded to treat the matter in public as a joke. In the conference he looked at his watch and said, ”It’s twelve o’clock and I’m still here.” That got a big laugh and there was an enormous public demonstration of affection from the delegates in the hall.

By September Mr Forsyth had been switched from the party chairmanship after a disastrous term of office. George (now Lord) Younger went to Downing Street and said enough is enough. Lord Sanderson took over and swiftly removed the right-wing clique that Mr Forsyth had installed in Chester Street, the party’s Edinburgh headquarters. It had gratuitously offended some of the party’s most experienced workers and most loyal supporters.

Mr Rifkind became Secretary of State for Transport in the subsequent reshuffle. Now, as Secretary of State for Defence, he must formulate our response to a truly hellish civil war. Lady Thatcher’s gunboat rhetoric offers the illusion of a quick military fix. No such thing is possible.

The Thatcherite praetorian guard still has privileged access to much of the London press (with honourable exceptions). It uses this connection to highlight any stumbles by Mr Major and his team. It skilfully spreads the idea of a generalised governmental incompetence.

Mr Major’s election was a set-back to this group. He was supposed to be an interim leader until the heir apparent was to take over. To their horror he has proved to be his own man and, if he survives, may even consign the Thatcherite wing to the fringes. Their attacks are bad enough for Mr Major; and we have from Mr Norman some hint of what would lie in store for Mr Smith should he reach No. 10 — ugly and crypto-racist insults.

My mother used to be fond of quoting the old proverb: Sticks and stanes will brak yer banes, but words will never hurt ye. Over the years Mr Major, Mr Rifkind and Mr Lang have learned the truth of that, and of the dictum that in politics the real enemy is not the opposition but the people in your own party.