As a politician, Malcolm Rifkind always knew what to say but never how to make it interesting. Had he had that skill he might have been a better public speaker.
When he did speak he never spoke longer than the average time a person needs to boil an egg. What none of us Westminster watchers realised was, how skilled he and his political opposite, Jack Straw, were at sleaze and dishonour. Now both are exposed, caught haggling a price for their services to passing ‘clients.’
Same as any common prostitute, it’s cash for access.
How much do I get?
Rifkind is a Tory, a Scottish one, but in the same market as Labour’s Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, two who also hire themselves to the highest bidder, and sell their country to the lowest. They all have in common a welcome propensity for political suicide.
Malcolm Rifkind, KCMG, QC, MP, was my Edinburgh MP once upon a time, Edinburgh Pentlands, lately Kensington in the colonic irrigation salons of London. He tried to buy my house which had an office built in the garden, the building a place he thought he could use to meet his south-side constituents. He wasn’t Sir Malcolm then, Tory grandee, but was certainly destined for the Lords one day. His cousins are Samuel and the late Leon Brittan. But like so many before him, he judges rank as having more money than your fellow-man.
On each occasion I needed his input for an arts projects, (the first an arts in education charity I had founded) I found him to be courteous and considerate. I saw the opposite side of him when opposed to his support of a local quarry development. There he was orotund, sarcastic and pompous.
Pride before a fall
Today his mercenary behaviour sees him humiliated, suspended from his cosy safe haven, the Conservative party, stepping down as an MP just prior to a general election for a super-safe seat, and relinquishing the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
There’s something rib-tickling comical about getting scammed by a television crew and a fake Chinese company when investigating intelligence and security measures. But then, Rifkind always walked a thin line between poise and prat. A plummy pronunciation, all finishing school plus strangled vowels, is a sure sign of a Scotsman on the make, a man not totally confident of his breeding and education, or his status in society. Bifocals and a pop-eyed astigmatism didn’t help his demeanour of fair-minded, moderate statesman. Instead, he presents the image of mad scientist, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
Avaricious has it
I discuss him using the past tense for his career is all but over, ending in opprobrium, his elevation to the House of Lords uncertain, and all because he was recorded playing the role of poverty-stricken mendicant. And he from George Watson’s School. How education is wasted on the young!
Guiding the security committee is a serious task, getting to the bottom of secret things, finding truth, and dispensing justice, a suitable job for an Edinburgh lawyer. Rifkind was given the job as trusted guardian of the nation’s security only to prostitute himself for hire to what he thought was a Chinese company which, since China is a damnable communist dictatorship that runs an authoritarian and corrupt system not unlike Westminster’s, would likely mean dealing with Chinese state departments and officials. Cross my palm with English silver and I shall open doors for you. No Yen accepted.
From supporter of the Poll Tax to respected elder statesman about to pronounce on the consequences of Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing over the scandal of mass government spying on citizens, he assumes the unlikable role of Shakespeare’s Malvolio, grovelling for promotion and back pocket-money, caught by BBC spies working on the story for the political issues programme Panorama. Oh, the irony.
“I’m self-employed,” he pleaded to television reporters he thought businessmen. Press and media have him earning £67,000 a year as an MP, plus expenses, expenses that are considerable welfare benefits freeing his salary. Journalists miss the additional £15,000 a year he was receiving as chair of the Intelligence Committee. That means he was earning £82,000 annually, a sum he claimed he struggled to live by. He wanted to “have the standard of living that my professional background would normally entitle me to have”.
There you have it. Entitle. And there’s more. The House of Commons register of Member’s Interests, his outside earnings, (can be read online) has him with another half-million pounds. Then there is the property he owns. All declared of course. Nevertheless, his constituents must have been surprised and then peeved to hear him also say he had lots of time on his hands for reading and walking.
Well, he’s going to have a lot more time for reading and walking, a whole library of time and enough time to take a hike up Ben Nevis and down the other side.
TV interviews will purge me
He didn’t help his case by doing the rounds of radio and television interviews protesting his innocence, saying he will fight the intolerable falsehoods to the bitter end. He just kept digging a bigger and bigger hole. But that’s the Rifkind I knew, the one once Secretary of State for Scotland. He knew how to play the game, how to repeat only the advice of civil servants, to say nothing controversial or interesting ever, a good example of how to maintain a blemish-free career in politics. He just could not make it plausible.
The fine detective thriller novelist and nationalist, Frederic Lindsay, also had Rifkind as an MP. Lindsay was deeply unhappy with Rifkind’s pronouncements on policy for Scotland, particularly his task of privatising everything as Thatcherite protégé. Eric, as he was known to friends, dressed up as a Tory voter and gained entry to a closed meeting. At question time he stood up and enunciated his well-planned queries but answer to each Rifkind had none, completely tongue-tied, lost for knowledge. Rifkind’s agent tried to answer for him. “I asked my MP, sir. Not you.” shot back Lindsay, “I want him to answer.” According to witnesses, Rifkind waffled and then fell silent. I wish I had been there.
A straw in the wind
Jack Straw, like Rifkind, a former Foreign Secretary for Westminster, was caught doing the same thing by the same BBC investigative journalists. Straw is seen boasting how well he is connected, how he can get his erstwhile (bogus) clients into the inner sanctum of foreign government to aid their business ventures by altering laws and regulation. A click of his fingers and all is gone. (He didn’t include his political career in that phrase.)
Rifkind might have survived mild censure for being caught snivelling and snorting had Straw not also been caught simultaneously, snout in the trough. His party is in power, albeit a shaky coalation, but power enough to have given him some gardening time until brought back to shoulder a pelt of ermine. The BBC could not be seen partisan, it had to check both political parties; what better than testing the will power of their respective foreign secretaries?
Straw is the chaff that broke Rifkind’s back. And this brings me to the point of the essay, the issue almost all press commentators and pundits overlook.
The swagger of Straw and Rifkind show us how easily the power elite work the system for the benefit of the few, themselves included. For a fat fee they will alter well discussed and debated company law and regulation, there to protect the public in general and consumer in particular. As MPs they are willing to alter or remove rules that govern business practice, ethics and profits.
But that has a price. They owe the other side a favour, and in time the other side will call back to collect it. They weaken their authority in the very act of exercising it.
Lay aside for a moment a Tory and a Labour politician tossing away their principles for a pound while boasting of their lobbying prowess. What they demonstrate is how close each party is to each other in policies. Theirs are the parties of business and corporate power. Representatives of the people, of their voters, they are not.
To many people Straw is a discredited politician solely for his part in sending troops into Iraq on the basis of faked evidence and hyperbole. They see him as a war criminal, and indeed by every tenet of the Nuremberg Rules of War he is exactly that. Like Bush and Blair, Straw was determined to teach democracy to Iraqis even if he had to shoot every damn one of them. Where Straw differs from Rifkind is in Rifkind’s antagonism to the invasion of Iraq. In the case of both men, however, they show us how idealism and fairness is so easily debauched by power and the lure of Mammon.
Whatever good work Rifkind and Straw accomplished in their long political careers, and the curious will find good work done by both, is wiped out in a single day by a serious error of judgement. The error was hubris and greed.
Unfortunately the joke is on us. Both retire to do as much reading and walking as they like, done on fat pensions. They can say with a satisfied smile, “Hey, at least I get paid for this.”