“I should have known better but to ask,” Sir Malcolm Rifkind remembered.
Once holding a meeting in a village hall which was chock-a-block while it was chucking it down outside he was so impressed by the many people he threw the rhetorical question into the audience what they would have done if the sun were shining. A voice from the back shouted: “We all would have been playing golf!” Turning to us he added “and whatever sport you would be playing in Austria.” Well, I mused, maybe going to the Heurigen? But I did not have the courage to tell him that.
I have known Sir Malcolm (not in the literal sense) throughout his whole political career on account of being both a resident of Scotland and for a many years also a member of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party vulgo the Tories until I changed allegiance. I remember thinking, when this mild-mannered, well spoken Scottish advocate with a great oratory gift and eyes glinting behind his glasses became Secretary of State for Defence that he was not able, and no doubt he tried, to adjust his clipped speech to the grittiness of his new position. In an interview with the Guardian he once said: “You say I’m well spoken, but I am basically Edinburgh middle-class. You know what they say about the difference between Edinburgh and Glasgow? In Edinburgh breeding is good form, in Glasgow breeding is good fun.”
As we know he served Margaret Thatcher throughout her whole Prime Ministership, which could not have been easy. “Three-quarters of the time I could have followed her to the ends of the earth,” he said in an interview “and the other quarter it was less complimentary. She was a formidable, remarkable person.” I know what he meant. I felt uneasy when watching this woman publicly berating him. When Margaret Roberts, as Thatcher was then known, went for a job interview at ICI in the 1940s the interviewer said afterwards that she was “headstrong, obstinate and dangerously opinionated.” In an anecdote Sir Malcolm said that people sometimes accused Thatcher of lacking a sense of humour. He recalled her saying she did believe in consensus-a consensus behind her convictions. At the time he thought this was a joke. But as time went on, he concluded that she was deadly serious. He also told us the story how Thatcher openly disagreed with Ronald Reagan over the Reykjavik summit and she was strongly opposed to the invasion of Grenada. She went on the BBC World Service to say so, and a few days later she rang Reagan to berate him. In his diaries Reagan recalled putting his hand over the receiver and telling his aides: “Gee, isn’t she marvellous.”
A self-proclaimed moderate Eurosceptic who nonetheless supported a Remain vote, Rifkind believes that the result of the referendum is a “disaster”. Having observed Thatcher’s belligerent negotiating style close up Rifkind did not commend it to Theresa May as she prepared to discuss Britain’s divorce from the European Union.
If Sir Malcolm shudders at the fact of Donald Trump in the White House (“I think he is potentially a threat to almost everything. I’m not sure I want to qualify it.”) he is at the same time deafening silent about Boris Johnson although in his memoirs “Power and Pragmatism” Sir Malcolm Rifkind writes Boris Johnson is “not a Donald Trump”. Given his view on the man who is currently president, that assessment is hardly reassuring.
The content of his lecture “The Decline of the West?” could be summed up like this: The West has not declined but the rest of the World has caught up with us brought about by the collapse of Communism. In any case, Sir Malcolm reminds us, Communism can only work in Heaven, where they don’t need it and in Hell, where they already have it. When China rejects Western Values as being purely suitable for the West, Rifkind counters that there are no such things as purely Western Values! These values are universal and culminate in the question: can you change your government peacefully? He states, there is a fine distinction between the Rule of Law as opposed the Rule by Law. Finally, any threat to the West is hardly external but rather internal by extremist right wing populist parties emerging.
I always admired Sir Malcolm Rifkind but in the end he remained true to his true blue credentials of the Scottish Conservative und Unionist Party. His patriotic stance that only his Britain can handle a rupture like the current Brexit debate that divides the population without the aggravations of Yellow Vests, burning cars and civil unrest ignores the vile murder of Jo Cox , the British Labour politician, a Remain Supporter and MP who was assassinated on 16 June 2016 by Thomas Mair shouting “This is for Britain. Britain will always come first.” A tiny little tinge of British arrogance was there when he explained why a Post-Brexit Britain could never follow the example of Switzerland or Norway, who have negotiated treaties with the EU, forcing them to implement into their national laws any rules and regulations the EU will spring onto them in the future, which a country of the size (and importance) of the UK cannot possibly accept. And Scotland? Taking the slightly patronising high ground he stated that the Scots will never go for a second Independence Referendum because, apart from North Sea Oil running out, if an independent Scotland does re- join the European Union it would be economic suicide since 75% of all Scottish exports go to a Post-Brexit England, needing, so to speak, a Scottish Back-Stop!
After a lively Question and Answer Session Sir Malcolm was whisked away at around 18:15h by Colin Munro, our Board Member, who moderated so ably this event.
Our President, Prof Dr Kurt Tiroch, who welcomed Sir Malcolm at the beginning gave us one important update: At the “Baby Blue Party” on 16 May 2019, at the Café Ministerium, the members were asked to forecast what would happen on 31 October 2019, the latest extension to Brexit. 33% guessed that there would a further extension to the Deadline! With a further extension to the 31 January 2020 they were correct.
What followed was the most enjoyable social gathering with plenty of food, once again courtesy Café Ministerium, and plenty of wine. It was not far off 20:00h when the last of the revellers left the Clubrooms.