Mr Portillo hears the sound of guitars

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The Independent Online
AT FIRST I felt quite sorry for Michael Portillo, who had made a gaffe, apologised for it to a journalist present (thereby no doubt alerting the journalist to the interest of the gaffe) and still had to go on air to be grilled by Channel 4 News.

Jon Snow is an excellent thing and Channel 4 News is one of the few great institutions of recent foundation. But on this occasion the treatment did seem to be a little implacable. Mr Portillo had made an asinine remark or two. He had already said 'sorry'. Could he not be allowed to crawl back under his log? His remarks had, after all, been off-the-cuff.

But it turns out that this 'off-the-cuff' excuse was a fib. Mr Portillo, it seems, had made much the same speech at Eton four days before his Southampton gaffe. The line about this being the only country where you cannot buy an A-level was part of his repertoire. It had caused laughter in Eton, just as it caused laughter (I know the newspapers say 'gasps', but the recording indicated laughter) in Southampton. It was a piece of his stock political patter, perhaps.

But not very bright, was it? Not a line worth staking your career on. And herein lies a mystery. For if we take it on trust that Mr Portillo, considered as a whole unit, is an intelligent human being, what is the source of this dysfunction? Why does he act like an idiot?

It is sometimes said that his having a Spanish father makes him want to compensate. But this does not explain why his particular form of compensation is so ill-chosen. After all, at a time when racism has been somewhat driven out of mainstream political debate (I am not closing my mind to recent events, the term 'somewhat' is expected to put in a full day's work here), xenophobia draws attention to itself as the next best thing. If the Tory right decide to serve up xenophobia, that becomes, as it were, their signature dish.

When Peter Lilley made his elaborate attack on 'benefit tourism', a part of the thrill for the Tory conference would have come from the sense that Mr Lilley was breaking a few modern taboos, saying out loud things that 'most people' have to lower their voices 'these days' before saying.

Xenophobia, as a platform, gives a buzz, and the buzz that it gives you, when the xenophobe is Mr Portillo, is likely to prompt you to ask: hang on, isn't this Portillo johnny not exactly a Brit himself?

An intelligent man (a functionally intelligent man, as opposed to an intelligent but dysfunctional man) in Mr Portillo's position, a man who craved total acceptance of his Britishness, would have joined the Labour Party. In that context, the whole of his history would be something to be celebrated and valued by his colleagues. Papa an exile from the Spanish Civil War - and a poet to boot] There is nothing more British than the Labour Party. Mr Portillo could have been an intelligent socialist.

So a 'desire to compensate' does not, on its own, explain the case. It seems to me that another theory could at least be entertained, and it goes like this.

Mr Portillo's is a divided soul, divided on national lines, the heir to two great European civilisations that have set their mark, for better or worse, on the great majority of the globe. But the division of this soul is not equal. The profound bits of Mr Portillo are Spanish, the shallow bits British.

The profound self reveres Unamuno and dreams of the portals of Salamanca University. It gazes at Goya. It reveres Velasquez. It strums atmospheric little tunes on a Spanish guitar. It is steeped in Calderon. It has flashes of insight to rival the Storm over Toledo. It will fight for its honour and run cold steel through the guts of anyone who so much as glances at its sister.

The British bit of Mr Portillo can hear what is going on in the Spanish bit, but cannot follow much. It is overwhelmed by the profundity and passion of the Spanish bit. It is browbeaten. It has given up trying.

The Spanish bit says to the British bit: all right, you have got to give a talk, what are you going to do about it? The British bit tries to block its ears to the strumming guitars and the passionate stamping of gypsy feet. It cannot think with all that noise going on. The best it can come up with is the thought that the British A-level is the best in the world. There at least, thank goodness, thank heavens, we are unchallenged.

The secret Spanish life drains the energy of the public British life of Mr Portillo - it uses up all the available intelligence. Indeed, the secret life is at war with the public life. You would think that a man with 'roots in Europe' might enjoy the opportunity to be more European, in a political and cultural way. But not if the secret self nurses an ambition for an ancient wrong to be set right.

Another Tory, Lord Tebbitt, invented the 'cricket test' for loyal Brits of a darker skin. Whose side do you cheer for? In the case of Mr Portillo's divided self, the crucial question is the Armada test: whose galleons would you cheer for?

If it is true that the profound, passionate, castanet- clicking Mr Portillo is nothing less than a singed Spanish beard, still smouldering after all these centuries, it is hardly surprising that the other Mr Portillo, the public, loyalist, British Mr Portillo, sometimes has to speak out in order to drown the noise of his own internal dissent.

But the secret, Spanish Mr Portillo, having cornered most of the available intellect, subverts the public British Mr Portillo by whispering absurdities into its ear. The line about our A-levels being the best in the world is a shamefully reduced caricature of what people used to say about a degree from Oxford or Cambridge. The line about our not winning contracts by lining the pockets of public officials is subversive as a definition of British public virtue since it is designed to call into mind the shaping scandal of the Pergau dam. These absurdities are not oversights. They proceed from the continuing drama of the inner undermining the outer man.

How very convenient for John Major to have this drama going on among the ranks of his possible rivals. How very handy, for a week or two at least, to have Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, under a cloud (having had to admit that the higher taxes he had introduced in his November Budget might put a brake on the fragile economic recovery) and his Treasury Chief Secretary stuck in a little spot of bother which, trivial though it seems, does at least have the benefit of 'drawing attention to his inexperience'. A useful stigma, this inexperience.

How nice, too, for Mr Major to be able to forgive Mr Portillo so publicly, as long as it is understood that the self he is forgiving is Mr Portillo's British self. The Spanish self is not to be meddled with, not without the benefit of a good few inches of Toledo steel.