Never speak on the same platform as Sir Malcolm Rifkind. I tried it once, at a Spectator debate held during the Scottish independence referendum campaign in 2014, and I will not be repeating the experience. The former Foreign Secretary spoke as usual without notes, and with such ringing clarity and confidence that all the other panelists were easily eclipsed. That included Kelvin McKenzie, the former editor of the Sun, speaking in favour of Scottish independence.
Sir Malcolm might just as well have recited the Edinburgh phonebook from memory, in his Jean Brodie tones, and the audience would still have cheered him to the echo. It was a magnificent performance from one of the best speakers of his generation. And yet, for all the brilliance, I can’t recall a single word he said.
That is the puzzle with Rifkind and it always has been, say his critics in the Tory party. For all his talents, it is difficult to divine what, if anything, he believes in. His skill as a debater helped him rise rapidly. He served more than a decade in the cabinet. But what did he want to achieve, other than to hold high office?
This memoir is an interesting, if sometimes unexciting, attempt to respond to the criticism and to explain a long career during which he was a minister continuously from Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 until the Tory defeat by New Labour in 1997. At one point in Power and Pragmatism, he says that he is quite clear what he believes. Any reader who then expects a detailed explanation, taking in philosophy, or an excursion on economics or world affairs, will be disappointed.
He is, he says, first and foremost, in favour of two unions: the Union between Scotland and England (ongoing) and UK membership of the European Union (defunct).