Malcolm Rifkind sits on the sofa facing me. In his crisp shirt sleeves, he is the picture of casual composure, a study in carefully controlled ease nicely captured by the cameraman. And not a word out of place on the tape recording.
This is no sting. It’s October 1990 and Malcolm Rifkind is Secretary of State for Scotland. Among other responsibilities he has the task of introducing Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax north of the border and there are rumours of a rift between the two. But that’s not the purpose of the interview.
So long ago. There is a layer of dust on the box of old Insider magazines stacked on the top shelf. It takes a while to find the right one and I’m pleased when I do. I’ve been thinking of that interview over the last few days. How odd that the man who seemed to have such tight control over every well chosen word, the trained barrister and practised politician, has now fallen from grace through his own spectacular “error of judgement”.
Blowing the dust away I can see that this was not my best work. At that time, in the early years of the then independently owned business magazine, I had a lovely job interviewing bosses of Scottish businesses and organisations about their personal interests, to find out what they enjoyed doing in their spare time. My theory was that hobbies of powerful men and women might throw some light on their success at work and how they managed their employees. Whether that was true or not I got to meet some remarkable people in often unlikely settings and circumstances. I followed a fox hunting chief exec in the Borders and worked out at an aerobics class in Thurso, I caught adders (figuratively speaking) in the National Galleries of Scotland, spent an almost dangerously hilarious evening in Bearsden with a bunch of barbershop singing accountants – and, even more memorably, a night at Glasgow City Mission with the quango boss whose spare time activity involved serving tea and biscuits to prostitutes seeking warmth, food and refuge from the streets.
Rifkind featured during a phase when the column was called – with what now seems uncanny foresight – The Hot Seat. I remember feeling pretty uncomfortable myself. What the photograph doesn’t show is the long line of advisers and flunkeys who sat between me and the Secretary of State, or the tape recorder (theirs) which was switched on as soon as we began to speak. There was no time for small talk, never any hope of getting behind the impeccably polite, protective barrier.
“Hands behind his head, or arm resting on the back of the sofa – if a coiled spring can sprawl, then this is how it is done”.
Even so, there are interesting details about the Scottish Office in the days before devolution: in those days it spent £9.5 billion a year, employed 12, 500 people (the same as the Bank of Scotland). And the man in charge earned “a salary of only £35,120 a year, less than most of his own Department Heads”.
“He has talked tough on the poll tax defaulters…the sun is shining on Arthur’s Seat and in through his window in Old St Andrews House. His is the well polished desk where the buck stops.”
Scarcely a month after this interview Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister, felled by the poll tax. Who would have guessed that 25 years later Sir Malcolm Rifkind would be resigning after falling into a trap set by the Telegraph and Chanel 4 Dispatches. Now earning £67,000 plus £14,876 as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (the average CEO earns £98,000) the MP for Kensington and Chelsea was caught off guard and on the record; uncoiled and undone.