Review: Power and Pragmatism

Fascinating material but dull delivery


By Malcolm Rifkind
Biteback Publishing, £20

On any objective measure, Sir Malcolm Rifkind has led a fascinating life at the highest level of politics. He served as a minister from the moment Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 until the Labour landslide of 1997. He can claim to have been a witness, on the political front-line, to some of the most extraordinary events in the history of the late 20th century, including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union.

He was responsible, as Foreign Secretary, for the most significant shift in British policy on the Middle East in recent times, when he committed the UK to support the two-state solution. And he chaired the Lancaster House conference on Bosnia in July 1995, called in the aftermath of the Srebrenica massacre.

Unfortunately, Sir Malcolm fails to bring the events of his time in government to life. This book should be used as a warning to senior politicians that it is not always a good idea to write a memoir. It is a series of not particularly entertaining anecdotes, stitched together with think-tank speeches and archive references. As many pages are taken discussing every tedious detail of the day John Major appointed him Foreign Secretary as they are justifying Britain's controversial policy in the Bosnia conflict. I looked forward to the section on the Middle East but it amounted to a few paragraphs of platitudes.

A great memoir depends on self-knowledge, and this book falls short on this count. Sir Malcolm Rifkind prides himself on being a pragmatic rather than an ideological politician (hence the title of the memoir) but he is nothing of the sort.

Sir Malcolm was always an ideological Little Englander. He quotes Lord Palmerston favourably: "the furtherance of British interests should be the only object of a British Foreign Secretary" and hung a portrait of the great Liberal Prime Minister in his room in the Foreign Office.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia dominated Sir Malcolm's time as Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary and the most important chapter in the book is the one on Bosnia. He recognises that mistakes were made but does little to counter Lady Thatcher's contention that the western powers were "accomplices to massacre" beyond saying he disagreed with her assessment.

However, to his credit, he does recognise that the UN arms embargo made it next to impossible for the Bosnian government to defend itself.

Late in his parliamentary career, Sir Malcolm was the subject of a sting by Channel 4 Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph, in which he appeared to offer to introduce representatives of a fake company to foreign ambassadors. He clearly remains deeply hurt by the allegations of wrongdoing and was later cleared by a parliamentary inquiry.

But it is a further sign of his lack of self-knowledge that he can't see how bad this episode looked to viewers. A politician who believes he is worth £5,000 for a single speech is a cynic, not a pragmatist.

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