Profile: Scottish striker for the defence: Malcolm Rifkind, ambitious, able, but ill-defined

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MALCOLM RIFKIND, the Secretary of State for Defence, has this week been conducting a typically skilful campaign to save his department from the Treasury axe. Nobody has ever questioned the energy, ability or sheer tenacity of the 47-year-old Edinburgh advocate. But even so, it has been a disappointing Rifkind week.

Throughout his career he has devoted himself to making politically correct noises while fighting his departmental corner with ferocity - but critics say that he has done so because he lacks the vision and conviction needed to define his own policies. 'Quite simply, it is hard to tell what Malcolm stands for,' according to a Scottish Labour MP who has known him since university days.

This week has been a lost opportunity of a characteristic Rifkind type. His negative tactic so far has been to use the threat of a defence review to ward off the Treasury axemen. A more imaginative political animal would surely have seized the time to ditch Options for Change, the more muted exercise initiated by his predecesor, Tom King, and to produce his own alternative. After all, Mr King's document is, critics argue, a limited, outdated and over-optimistic product of the Gorbachev, 'peace dividend' era, designed to spread the pain of defence cuts evenly. Given this golden opportunity to define his own defence agenda, Mr Rifkind has, apparently, ducked it.

Of course, the Rifkind style has its political advantages. The last thing the Prime Minister wants at the moment is a fundamental examination of defence matters. Given the size of the Conservative majority in the Commons and the restive mood on the backbenches, such an exercise would constitute an invitation to the internationalists in his party, not merely the right, to cut up rough.

So defence may well be let off lightly - and Mr Rifkind will be able to claim the credit. But, what does he really think about this country's future defence posture?

Mr Rifkind has an uncanny ability to frustrate friends and enemies alike with his ambiguity and equivocation. One version of the case against him is developed by Baroness Thatcher in The Downing Street Years. She concentrates on his period as Secretary of State at the Scottish Office, where she claims he employed the public rhetoric of Thatcherism while seeking to undermine government policy, and lobbying for every possible subsidy and concession for Scotland.

For example, he struggled against Downing Street to protect the uneconomic Ravenscraig steel works and to ensure that the Forestry Commission remained in public ownership. As Lady Thatcher puts it: 'Nor (as Secretary of State for Scotland) did he implement the radical Thatcherite approach he publicly espoused; for espouse it he certainly did.' She simply could not understand how Mr Rifkind could speak her language and then slip off and do his own departmental thing.

Malcolm Leslie Rifkind was born in Edinburgh in 1946. His grandfather arrived in Scotland from Lithuania a century ago to escape the pogroms. Malcolm's father was one of five brothers and five sisters. That generation was financially pressed. The nine elder siblings had to club together to fund one of their number, the youngest, through university. A generation later, Malcolm and all his 18 cousins were in a position to go on to higher education.

A SCHOOLFRIEND recalls the strong Rifkind family ties. 'The Rifkind clan were a closely knit bunch. At weekends and on holidays I recall seeing them all - uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces - eating out together at the local Chinese restaurant.' This closeness continues to the present day: 'There always was a great emphasis among the Rifkinds on family - on learning and on self-advancement,' according to a relative.

In Scottish style, Rifkind's parents rented, rather than bought, a solid apartment in Morningside. They paid to send Malcolm to George Watson's School, a grant-aided establishment of high intellectual reputation in a city in which education has always been taken seriously. There Rifkind was not quite the disinterested intellectual giant he likes to appear. According to friends, his skill lay in his judgement. 'He was very calculating. He knew just how much effort to invest to get through his exams at a respectable level - so that he could then devote himself to things like debating and politics, which he enjoyed,' says a schoolfriend.

Rifkind went up to Edinburgh University, aged 17, a Liberal supporter. He joined the Conservatives nine months later because the Liberals he had met were 'nice people, but dull as ditchwater'. The Conservatism he embraced was of the then fashionable Harold Macmillan middle way variety.

The university was a political hothouse. In addition to George Foulkes, today one of Labour's defence spokesmen, contemporaries included his friend Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, who served with him in the Scottish Office, and future Labour MP Robin Cook, later to become Rifkind's Parliamentary 'pair'. They had all known each other from inter-school debating contests, and were to meet again on Edinburgh town council a few years later before moving to Westminster.

The university's generation of politicians agrees on Rifkind's forensic brilliance as a debater, though additional comments can be barbed. According to Foulkes: 'In those days he was a very, very radical (Conservative), pro-devolution, pro-Europe, anti-apartheid, anti-hanging; the sort of Tory who was all for rocking the Edinburgh Tory establishment boat.' Another university colleague said: 'In debates he was intelligent, confident, cold. He put a professional case with skill and power. Behind the scenes he was amiable and very friendly. He liked to have a laugh with you. But he never let you get closer than he wished.'

After graduation, Rifkind spent two years lecturing in politics at the University of Rhodesia - an oasis of liberalism in Ian Smith's rebel UDI state. Returning to Edinburgh, he qualified as an advocate in 1970, contested the Edinburgh Central Parliamentary seat unsuccessfully and stood (successfully) for Edinburgh town council. He married Edith Steinberg, a zoologist, whose Polish-born father had flown with that country's air force. They have two children, Caroline, 19, and Hugo, 15. 'He is a loving family man, very physical with the children,' says a friend. 'They adore him. He has a great capacity to switch off, even when political problems are pressing in, and to concentrate on the children and take them seriously.'

They have lived for the past 15 years in a spacious ground floor flat in a rambling grey stone house built in the 1820s. It is in the attractive commuter village of Duddingston, on the edge of Queen's Park, just inside the precincts of Edinburgh.

RIFKIND was elected MP for Edinburgh Pentlands in 1974, and his reputation for opportunism goes all the way back to his convoluted attitude to devolution in those early days. He had been an ardent supporter of a measure of Scottish autonomy in the late Sixties. In the Commons in the Seventies he advocated national assemblies for Scotland and Wales, to be elected by proportional representation. And when Margaret Thatcher came out against devolution in 1976 he resigned as assistant Opposition spokesman on Scotland. Yet, three years later, he accepted the new prime minister's invitation to become Under-secretary at the Scottish Office, where he duly denounced separatist tendencies.

There followed a highly successful period at the Foreign Office, where his task was to encourage the erosion of the Communist monolith in East Europe - an objective dear to the prime minister's heart. In January 1986, Rifkind returned to the Scottish Office as Secretary of State in the reshuffle that followed Michael Heseltine's resignation. His acceptance of the Thatcherite agenda appeared complete. At the Scottish Tory party conference in 1988 he seemed to take a delight in the humiliation of the devolutionist rump.

Asked to explain the shift, a friend - a leading Scottish Conservative - attempted detailed arguments before he finally snapped: 'Look. He changed his mind. A lot of politicians have changed their minds over a lot of things in the course of 25 years.'

Rifkind undoubtedly went through the motions of changing his mind in the Eighties, as - it should be said - did a number of ambitious young Conservative politicians, including Chris Patten and Kenneth Clarke. That was what you did if you were to advance your career and the cause of your department.

But, after the 1987 election, in which the Tories did badly in Scotland, Rifkind raised the stakes. He attempted to turn the Scottish party towards a radical-right populism, designed, so he claimed, to empower the under-privileged working class. He embraced the vocabulary and agenda of Thatcherism with a will, attacking Scotland's 'dependency syndrome' and its 'quasi-socialist culture' even as he was making special pleas for ailing industries.

As Mrs Thatcher's star waned, so did Mr Rifkind's verbal enthusiasm for her policies. Some months before her fall, he threatened to resign, along with his Ministers, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and Ian Lang, unless she removed the radical right cheerleader, Michael Forsyth, as chairman of the Scottish party. And he was one of the group of ministers who met at Tristan Garel- Jones's house in November 1990, decided Mrs Thatcher was doomed and, individually, advised her not to stand in the second round of the leadership election.

Mr Rifkind is an ambitious, able but ill-defined politician who started early and rose fast. He has been a minister for 14 years and a member of the Cabinet since 1986. On his own admission, he actually considered standing for the party leadership after the fall of Mrs Thatcher. If he really wishes to go much further, he will have to reveal rather more of himself. He could do himself a power of good by turning the current quarrel over defence expenditure into an exposition of his view of Britain's future role in the world.