Download Interview Transcript: Part One (8 January 2013); Part Two (12 March 2013).
Biography: Rifkind, Rt. Hon. Sir Malcolm. 1946- . KCMG 1997. PC 1986. Lectured at University of Rhodesia, 1967–68. Visiting Professor, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, 1998. Called to Scottish Bar, 1970. Contested (C) Edinburgh Central, 1970. MP (C) Edinburgh Pentlands, 1974–1997. Contested (C) same seat, 1997, 2001. Opposition Front Bench Spokesman on Scottish Affairs, 1975–76. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Scottish Office, 1979–82. FCO, 1982–83. Minister of State, FCO, 1983–86. Secretary of State: for Scotland, 1986–90; for Transport, 1990–92; for Defence, 1992–95; for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, 1995–97. Opposition Front Bench Spokesman on Work and Pensions, 2005. Joint Secretary, Cons., Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Committee, 1978. Member, Select Committee on European Community Secondary Legislation, 1975–76. Select Committee on Overseas Development, 1978–79. Chairman, Intelligence and Security Committee, 2010–15. Non-executive Director, Unilever plc, 2010- .
SO: Sue Onslow (Interviewer)
MR: Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Respondent)
Transcript Part One:
[Click here to jump to Transcript Part Two]
SO: This is Dr Sue Onslow interviewing Sir Malcolm Rifkind at Portcullis House, Westminster, on Tuesday 8th January 2013. Sir, thank you very much indeed for agreeing to talk to me. I wonder if you could begin by saying, please, when you became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office in April 1982, what was your perception of the role of the Commonwealth in the Falklands War? This was of course the crisis for Britain at that particular time. I realise that wasn’t necessarily your responsibility at the Foreign Office, but what was your perception and discussion with your colleagues?
MR: Yes, indeed you are correct, it wasn’t my responsibility so I had no, as it were, day to day involvement in Falkland or indeed for that matter in Commonwealth issues. My responsibilities were Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and other departments of the Office, but I took part in the daily meetings under Francis Pym with all the junior ministers where we got a feel as to the way the discussions and negotiations were going, how it was going with the United Nations and so forth and I saw a lot of the background material which was circulated to all ministers. So I had a reasonably good idea on these issues.
On the particular Commonwealth dimension, most of the countries of the Commonwealth were very strongly supportive; indeed it’s difficult to think of any that were not. In some cases there was a very obvious reason; they were small, much of the Commonwealth, about a third of the Commonwealth are very small micro states, they are small islands or very small countries sometimes with very large neighbours and therefore they could empathise with the Falklands. Subject to the caveat that of course for one or two of the newer Commonwealth states the Falklands represented a colony and colonisation and therefore there was a slight conflict of loyalties, but for the most part they were on side and of course countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and so forth were almost instinctively very strongly supportive.
SO: Were you in any way drawing upon Canadian intelligence, or was this principally American intelligence in supporting Britain’s taskforce sent down to the Falklands? I just wondered if there was a Commonwealth dimension to supporting the Task Force?
MR: Well, I think intelligence cooperation at that moment in my career was beyond my pay grade so I wouldn’t have been involved in that, particularly as I was not the minister with direct responsibility for the Falkland Islands. On all matters of intelligence it’s only the ministers who are directly involved including junior ministers who would see intelligence, so I can’t give you a useful answer on that particular one.
SO: Were you aware that at the United Nations there had been a group of Caribbean states who had opposed the idea of Britain’s use of military force to regain the islands?
MR: Yes, there was a lot of negotiation going on and the Argentinians and the Latin American countries obviously broadly were sympathetic or at least wanted to give the impression to Argentina they were sympathetic [laughs] to its cause. Some really were. Some were not, like Chile for example. Chile was very hostile to Argentina and very helpful to the United Kingdom. Brazil was, on the face of it, not that cooperative, but in practice did not prove to be a difficulty as far as I’m aware. When it comes to the Caribbean states then it tended to depend on the personality of the individual Prime Minister or local feeling in that particular island.
SO: I know from talking to Sir Ron Sanders that there had been a group of Caribbean states behind the scenes at the United Nations who were not keen to support Britain, because they felt that this was an outdated imperial adventure to reclaim a colonial possession.
MR: Well, it was similar to part of the debate that took place in the United States, people like Jeanne Kirkpatrick and so forth trying to persuade Reagan not to automatically support the United Kingdom, really for two reasons. First of all, the point you just made about the Falklands being a sort of colonial outpost and shades of the Monroe Doctrine and so forth, but also this being still during the Cold War period, the feeling that the United States should not jeopardise its relationship with the Latin American countries on the wider global issues by instinctive support for the UK. Now, there were American voices arguing that point of view. Cap Weinberger was one of the leading people to take a different view and as we all know Reagan eventually came down on the side of the UK. I think Sir Anthony Parsons, our ambassador at the UN, was a classic example of where a really good and active ambassador can make a really substantial difference, and he was on television and radio in the United States day after day and helped move American opinion in the right direction. So, your question of course was particularly about Commonwealth and Caribbean countries but what was happening in the United States was very important from that perspective as well.
SO: Yes. I was at the British Embassy in Washington at the time and Sir Nicholas Henderson I know was equally important in playing a key diplomatic role with the Americans.
SO: You became Minister of State at the Foreign Office in 1983 and I understand that Sub-Saharan Africa was part of your responsibilities at that particular point.
SO: Mrs Thatcher, of course, welcomed President P.W. Botha to Chequers in June of 1984; do you recall the lead up to that particular meeting?
MR: Yes. Essentially we were trying to pursue a policy in the United Kingdom of making clear our abhorrence of apartheid, our desire for a political change for evolution towards a multi-party non-racial democracy, but we had very major problems, particularly with Commonwealth countries most of whom wanted us to go beyond condemnation and move towards full economic sanctions, a sort of total embargo. And I can give you one example of events that took place that I was personally involved in, very relevant to this issue. I also had responsibility at that time as being the Europe minister, but normally when there was a meeting of Foreign Ministers Geoffrey Howe would personally attend.
On one particular occasion he could not attend because he had be in some other part of the world so I was recruited to represent him and the big issue was whether the European Union could, or the European Community as it then was, could reach agreement on a package of measures of sanctions against South Africa. And the remit of my brief was that we could go along with that as long as it didn’t include economic sanctions because we already ourselves had an arms embargo, we refused to sell arms to South Africa, we had the Gleneagles Agreement on sporting contacts and various other measures, but the one thing I was not permitted to do was support anything that involved economic sanctions.
So, we were quite close to reaching an agreement in the Council of Ministers and then unexpectedly a proposal came forward that one of the things that we should do, that we should add to the package was to withdraw all our defence attachés from Pretoria and that had not been anticipated, so we hadn’t cleared our lines on what our policy should be on that. I immediately got a message through to Geoffrey Howe and he contacted the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Defence were very relaxed about it. They said, “Actually in South Africa the defence attachés have virtually no access to South Africa including the British defence attachés”, or not of any real value should I say, we’d had social access but nothing of any real value; and so they weren’t really concerned, and Geoffrey Howe said, “Well, in that case I don’t mind, I can see no reason why we shouldn’t go along with that but you’d better clear it with Number 10”, quite rightly. So, I got in touch with Number 10 and got a ballistic response saying, “The Prime Minister under no circumstances is prepared to accept this absolutely outrageous, ridiculous suggestion”, the usual sort of Margaret Thatcher response.
So, we were still having the discussions around the table in Brussels and it was quite clear a consensus was emerging subject to the UK, an agreement on the whole package, the only thing outstanding was the defence attachés, no other country had any problem about it. So I went back to Number 10 and said, “Look, this is going to be very embarrassing and we’ve only got a couple of hours to get this sorted out”. Eventually, we didn’t get agreement, but we were told that, “Why don’t you ask for a deferring on the defence attaché? Agree on the rest of the package and say we need more time on the defence attaché point and the Prime Minister will be willing to hear the arguments before she comes to an absolutely final view but she’s very unimpressed by this”. So that’s what happened. Problem averted in the immediacy.
Well, for the next couple of weeks Mrs Thatcher was persuaded against all her instincts, very grudgingly to agree to it and it happened. Now, the reason I tell this story is there’s the most wonderful sequel. It’s more about Margaret Thatcher than the Commonwealth but I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Two months later Samora Machel, the President of Mozambique was in London and he was seeing Margaret as Prime Minister and I was asked to sit in on the meeting as the Foreign Office person there. Samora Machel started berating the British government for not doing enough on South Africa, and Margaret bridled and she said, “Mr President, I cannot accept that, the suggestion that we do not do enough to force change on South Africa. We’ve refused to sell them arms. We have the Gleneagles Agreement stopping all sporting contacts. We have various diplomatic measures” and it was this, “We, we, we” and then she stopped, pointed to me and said, “They have decided to withdraw our defence attachés, don’t know what good that will do!” she said, “But they seem to think it will”. Well, Machel was looking as if to say, “What is this?” [Laughs]
SO: He didn’t understand about the Downing Street/King Charles Street divide! [Laughs]
MR: And it was to the credit of this wonderful woman that she had been so irritated by this whole thing, “We’re doing this, we’re doing that, we’re doing that. They”! [Laughs] As if it was nothing to do with her. [Laughs] But that was all background to the recognition that we had to see if there were new avenues for putting pressure on the South Africans and that led to the P.W. Botha meeting at Chequers.
SO: Had you met South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha before that meeting?
MR: Yes. I can’t remember precise timings but I’m pretty certain I’d been to South Africa. I lived two years in Zimbabwe, what is now Zimbabwe.
SO: Your thesis was on the politics of land in Southern Rhodesia.
MR: Yes, exactly right, politics and land in Rhodesia.
SO: That’s one of my questions for the 1990s.
MR: Oh, we’ll come to that, we’ll come to that.
MR: So, I knew Southern Africa pretty well, in fact my wife grew up in South Africa and then Southern Rhodesia. She was sent to school in England, so yes, the answer is yes.
SO: Were you at the meeting at Chequers in June 1984?
MR: Oh, with P.W. Botha?
MR: Oh yes. The reason, for two reasons I remember. Geoffrey and I had been asked by Margaret to come slightly earlier in the morning so that we could have a last minute final briefing session with her and we both arrived separately by car at Chequers at about eight o’clock or eight thirty in the morning and it was still closed. And we rang, we’d got out of our cars simultaneously, the cars had disappeared, we rang the doorbell and nothing happened. We looked at each other saying, “We can’t both have got the timing or the day wrong” so we rang it again and we heard a sort of flurrying noise on the other side. And you know how they had these young WREN women?
MR: Well, eventually we heard this rustling noise and the door opened and this young WREN officer was buttoning her tunic as she opened the door virtually, and Geoffrey was fantastic [laughs] as only Geoffrey could be. With a complete straight face in his very mild voice, he said, “Good morning, we’re calling on behalf of the Conservative Party”!
Total collapse of this young woman! [Laughs]
SO: At least it wasn’t the Jehovah’s Witnesses! [Laughs]
MR: Well that’s right! But no, that was the P.W. Botha visit.
SO: Do you have a clear recollection of that discussion with P.W. Botha?
MR: Well, quite a lot of it was a direct bilateral between Margaret and P.W.
SO: I was just wondering that actual meeting at Chequers.
MR: Yes. It wasn’t really productive [laughs]. The chemistry was okay. It was quite important. It was the first time there’d been direct contact with the South African government for a good number of years. He was a rather stiff, formal character, nowhere like De Klerk subsequently who was totally different in style and content and substance, and PW was not proposing to give very much. But, from his perspective the contact itself was very important. They assumed, I think they slightly exaggerated this, but they assumed that Margaret was more personally on their side than the British government’s public policy might have indicated. I think Dennis was. I’m not sure that Margaret was; I think she may have realised that that just couldn’t be sustained.
SO: I understand that there were some notes going in about the British Lions/Springbok rugby match on that particular day.
MR: It’s possible. I can’t recall it.
SO: The Springboks were playing and the notes were going into the discussion of the score, which apparently were passed around the table.
MR: Entirely possible. My own personal involvement on the day was not substantial. I was present at the lunchtime and I think we had some informal discussions during the day with the more junior members of the delegation.
SO: So you would have met Vic Zazeraj who, the –
MR: Zazeraj? I don’t recognise the name.
SO: He was, as I understand it Pik Botha’s private secretary who accompanied him.
MR: Oh well, in that case I probably did but I don’t remember his name, yes I’m sorry.
SO: Okay. Pik Botha described that P.W. Botha was on his best behaviour at that particular meeting but also he made the comment that his English wasn’t totally fluent, so that would have acted as a –
MR: I think that’s probably right. I’m trying to, as we speak, I’m trying to remember now. I think what happened is Margaret went off with P.W. Botha, Geoffrey had a session with Pik and I was really just dealing with the more junior members of the delegation.
SO: Yes. Do you remember what Geoffrey Howe and Margaret Thatcher reflected afterwards on the value of the meeting?
MR: That the meeting was important for having happened.
MR: That it could be the beginning, it could be the beginning of a process but there wasn’t much. It wasn’t like the Gorbachev meeting, you know, ‘this is a man with whom we can do business’; there wasn’t that sort of stuff.
SO: There was no sense of that?
MR: No, not at all. Nor should there have been because that wasn’t Botha’s position.
SO: No, indeed.
MR: If that had been De Klerk it would have been, ‘This is a man with whom we can do business’ because he was exactly Gorbachev. He was the Gorbachev of South Africa. The parallels are uncanny.
SO: Although the great surprise within South Africa was that he did prove such a liberalising force after August 1989, because they’d expected –
MR: Yes it’s very interesting. I’d met him once before he became President, when I went as Minister of State to South Africa he was Education Minister. I’d been able to have meetings with half a dozen South African ministers, not just Pik but other members of the cabinet. Well, I say half a dozen, it may have been three or four and he was the only one that stood out. The rest of them were perfectly pleasant people but they were very conservative, had nothing terribly interesting to say, pretty second division and I remember coming away from the meeting with De Klerk, it wasn’t so much what he said, it was how he said it. He sounded like a Western politician.
MR: He was interesting and interested, and he clearly had the ability to grasp the broader picture. Most of the South African National Party were insular: partly because of the effect of sanctions, they never travelled, they hadn’t met anyone.
SO: Yes, very insular.
MR: They’re very insular. They’d neither met the ANC nor had they met other countries because very few governments would meet them and De Klerk was the exception to that.
SO: Did you have any meetings with the ANC? I realise that you were a government minister, but you were further down the totem pole, as it were.
MR: Yeah, that’s right. Not so much that, the problem at that stage and it changed fortunately, was the ANC was still branded a terrorist organisation and it took a while for Mrs Thatcher and indeed the ANC had to itself change of course, but it took a while to get the government to accept changes like that.
SO: I know that Oliver Tambo came to London in August of 1985.
SO: He didn’t meet Mrs Thatcher obviously –
SO: – but I just wondered if there were any other lower level meetings.
MR: I’m pretty certain he did, he may have met at an official level but I don’t recall any ministerial meetings.
SO: Did you ever meet him in Lusaka?
MR: Yes I think, no, no, in Lusaka, I can’t remember. I mean I think I would remember if I had have done.
SO: So you met him later.
MR: I think I must have met him later, yes.
SO: What was your opinion of him?
MR: I can’t offer one. If I did meet him, it was too incidental. I remember meeting, shortly after South Africa had its first non-racial government I visited South Africa and one of the persons I met was the new South African Defence Minister and in fact by this time I think I was Defence Secretary, that’s right, this must have been about 1992 and he was a chap called Ronnie Kasrils, who was a white member of the South African Communist Party. Ex-Umkhonto we Sizwe and of course he’d been on the genuine terrorist end of the ANC. A lot of the ANC were not terrorists in that sense but he had been. I remember [laughs] having this wonderful conversation. He was a very engaging guy and I was sitting next to him and we were able to have this one-to-one conversation over dinner and I said to him, you know he’d been educated at LSE in London. I said, “Tell me”, I said, “It was also alleged during the apartheid period that you guys, Umkhonto we Sizwe who were involved in the armed struggle that you’d had training in the Soviet Union, this is what the South African government always alleged that you’d been trained in the Soviet Union and this obviously implied that you were a pretty horrible lot”. I said, “Was that true?” and he looked at me with a smile and said, “Yeah, it was actually true. We had training in Ukraine and all this sort of thing”. Then the conversation moved on [laughs] and I was keen to find out why he had decided to go the armed struggle route, and he said, “Well”, he said, “frankly most of us, we were quite left wing and we came to the view that white South Africans would never give up apartheid voluntarily. They might pretend they were going to but it would never actually happen. It would only be by military struggle and by armed struggle and by methods we used that we would be able to change South Africa for the better”. And I said, “I suppose that’s what they taught you in the Soviet Union”. He said, “Oh no, no, no, that’s what they taught me at the LSE”! [Laughter]
SO: Hmm. I’d better apologise for my alma mater here!
MR: Oh you were at LSE as well!
MR: Oh dear! [Laughs] But I swear he said that and he roared with laughter. He said, “No, no, that wasn’t the Soviet Union. That’s what they taught us at the London School of Economics”! [Laughs]
SO: Well, it did have the reputation of being a hotbed of radicalism!
MR: I thought you’d enjoy that but I didn’t realise why you’d enjoy it! [Laughter]
SO: So, when you were Secretary of State for Defence, having such contacts with South Africa, was Britain making offers of assistance as they went through negotiations for transition for amalgamation and change of their armed forces?
MR: Well yes, we were very much involved in trying to help on that particular front, and remember the experience we’d had in Zimbabwe.
SO: I was going to come to, yes.
MR: With merging the Rhodesian army and the African nationalist forces ZAPU and ZANU. The initial British cooperation was actually of a much more unusual kind. It was Robin Renwick when he was ambassador. South Africa hadn’t yet re-joined the Commonwealth and the initial problem – stop me if you know all this – was the one we were touching on earlier that once De Klerk had started the reform on policy, part of the problem was neither he nor most of his ministerial colleagues had ever met any of the ANC. Although the ANC were now in South Africa openly, it was still too early to have formal meetings; it hadn’t moved that far at this stage. Robin Renwick developed what has since been acknowledged by South Africans as hugely important for them. He had a series of dinner parties; they were ordinary dinner parties but at each one there was one South African minister and one black guy from the ANC and a dozen other people. The dinner itself was nothing very special and nothing very memorable, but afterwards when everyone went back to the drawing room for coffee, it had been prearranged, and both the minister and the ANC guy knew this was going to happen, that they would be in a particular corner of the drawing room, just sitting together having coffee together. Nobody else would bother them for about an hour or so, an hour and a half, and it wasn’t to negotiate, it was just to get to know each other.
MR: There was a series of such events of that kind and both white South Africans and the black guys have since said that made a very profound difference because it was crucial at that stage that the personal chemistry should be available.
MR: It didn’t solve the ultimate difficulties that had to be negotiated, but it meant at least the individuals knew each other and in some cases liked each other, and actually because they were all South Africans found they had much more in common than either had realised. Once the political decision had been taken that apartheid was going to go, there were two heroes: Mandela’s own particular determination on reconciliation and De Klerk. Mandela was fantastic, but De Klerk in some ways was even more impressive because Mandela was receiving power, whereas De Klerk was having to persuade his community to give it up.
SO: To give it up, yes.
MR: And that took even greater statesmanship: the decision, for example, to have the referendum of white South Africans was a hell of a gamble. But people forget that. He persuaded 66% of white South Africans because they were the only people allowed to vote, to vote to dismantle apartheid. That enabled him, not to ignore, but to essentially push into the cul-de-sac the ultra-hostile South Africans who wanted to keep apartheid going.
SO: Just going back to the 1980s, you mentioned Zimbabwe and Britain’s experience of contributing to the bringing together of three hostile armed forces, which has been described as a success, and that you drew on it in South Africa in the offer of assistance. Were you aware as a minister, of the Gukurahundi campaign, the violence in Matabeleland?
MR: Yes. The short answer is we did become aware but not all the detail of it. I remember at one stage roundabout that period I was in Zimbabwe as Minister of State at the Foreign Office, and had a meeting with Mugabe and part of my brief was to indeed raise that very issue.
SO: Because the violence in Matabeleland was after all an enormous complication for the success of the Lancaster House Agreement and Soames’s governorship: the story had been that there should be a peaceful transition to a multiracial Zimbabwe.
MR: Well, you’re absolutely right. In a sense what we were desperately hoping was that this was an aberration in the new Zimbabwe that was not going to become part of the nature of the Mugabe regime. Everybody was conscious that there was a power struggle within Zimbabwe between ZAPU and ZANU, between Nkomo and Mugabe which Mugabe was bound to win. What happened in Matabeleland showed his ruthlessness in taking that policy forward; he was not going to be deflected from that.
What was interesting at that period is, the Matabeleland events aside, in every other respect Mugabe was much more pragmatic and responsible than people had anticipated. For example, he made a crucial decision to put out the hand of friendship to the white community when he took power. That broadcast he made on the night that he won the election made a very big difference to the fact that even Ian Smith was allowed to remain in parliament, speaking and normally criticising the government which was significant. And I remember hearing that what had been important to Mugabe at that time was the advice he got from Samora Machel who said, “Don’t make the mistake that we made. We thought we could do without the Portuguese, we were quite happy to see them all flee and leave, and then our economy collapsed”. Mugabe at that time was wise enough to not make that mistake. He was, I think, also very much influenced by Christopher Soames.
SO: Very much so. In fact Soames had advised him just before that television broadcast to extend the hand of friendship.
MR: That’s right. I think that that was a very powerful factor and so although we were conscious that some pretty nasty things were happening in Matabeleland, the overall picture of Mugabe’s approach in Zimbabwe was not too bad and remained reasonably pragmatic – as long you were prepared to live with the ‘Comrade this and Comrade that’, and meetings of the Politburo and all that sort, but that was terminology. Most of the economic policy and the political policy and the human rights attitudes apart from Matabeleland were pretty reasonable in those first few years.
SO: Do you remember Commonwealth discussions about that?
MR: I wasn’t involved in them but I’m sure there would have been but I wasn’t involved. I didn’t attend a Commonwealth conference myself.
SO: So, just going back to South Africa you didn’t attend the CHOGM at Nassau in October of 1985?
SO: You were still Minister of State at that particular point.
MR: Yes, but that was just the Heads of Government, the Head of Government and the Foreign Secretary went.
SO: Right. Would you have been involved in the preparation of briefing material for Mrs Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe going to Nassau?
MR: I probably saw it but it’s very interesting how the position’s changed a lot more in recent years where the junior minister now tends to get involved. For example, when Margaret Thatcher went to European summits, although I was the Europe minister I didn’t go; I wasn’t invited to go [laughs]. I was in Brussels nine times, you know, every bloody week at other meetings. But the Heads of Government were Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers, and they were of course surrounded by the senior diplomats. In a sense there was a logic to it, but there wasn’t much role for the junior minister because if it was political that’s what the PM and the Foreign Secretary were doing. If it was official advice then they were getting much more professional advice from the senior diplomats than from the junior minister.
SO: But obviously you were reading the telegrams coming back.
MR: Oh yes, absolutely.
SO: And do you remember what your feelings were about Nassau. Mrs Thatcher was under tremendous pressure from the other Commonwealth Heads of Government to expand sanctions on South Africa.
MR: Yes, but I’m trying to distinguish it because that happened in every Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting! [Laughs] Which year was Nassau?
SO: Nassau was October 1985, where the first EPG was agreed, as a compromise.
MR: Yes, that’s right.
SO: And if the EPG could get into South Africa, then there would be a delay on a Commonwealth decision on whether further sanctions should be extended. At the press conference afterwards, Thatcher described her compromise as ‘a teeny tiny bit.’ I wondered if you listened to a rather fraught Geoffrey Howe coming back to the UK?
MR: But that was Margaret. We were used to this; this may have happened in the Commonwealth context but it was happening in the Europe context, it was happening in every other damn area. That was her style and that was her strength, and that was her weakness.
MR: I’ve always taken the view that Thatcher, as with all the really great leaders whether it’s De Gaulle or Churchill, and Thatcher comes into this category – what makes them magnificent also made them insufferable; and you wouldn’t get one without the other.
SO: Yes, flawed great men.
MR: Yes, and women! [Laughter]
SO: We’ll go with ‘mankind’! There you are, generic! [Laughter]
MR: ‘Mankind’. But I think, although like all my colleagues from time to time I could have torn my hair out because of something Margaret was doing, you recognised also that she had qualities which were hugely beneficial. Because we had the benefit of seeing it in the round and because at least for the first six or seven years of her Prime Ministership, there was far more which was successful and impressive than made one despair. Now, that sadly changed a bit as she came to the end of her Prime Ministership.
SO: From your viewpoint in the Foreign Office then, as a mid-ranking minister, had she “taken over British policy towards South Africa”?
MR: [Laughs] No. She had a much more hands on approach in the sense that she wanted to be consulted and to clear every aspect of policy, but it was rather like her policy towards the Soviet Union. It evolved, and in the case of the Soviet Union she was wise enough and thoughtful enough to grasp the huge significance that Gorbachev could represent. In the case of South Africa, her instincts would have started off being quite sympathetic to white South Africa and certainly hostile to economic sanctions; but she recognised that that couldn’t be a permanent political situation and that Britain’s role had to be to try to help the South Africans move in a peaceful way towards fundamental transition. And the South Africans had so few friends and allies around the world that although Britain wasn’t an ally, they rightly assumed that Britain at least understood their point of view even if it didn’t agree with it and was looking for solutions of a peaceful kind. So, once South African politics moved itself in that direction, then the United Kingdom was crucial. Because Margaret was a right wing Conservative, then the South African government felt slightly less uncomfortable than they would have been if it had been being lectured by Harold Wilson or someone of that ilk.
SO: Pik Botha, in my interview with him, was quite emphatic how valuable she was.
SO: And that he was also using her as a crowbar against P.W. Botha, saying, “We can’t do this to Margaret Thatcher. We can’t humiliate her. We have to take advantage of this one friend that we have”.
MR: Yes. Because we didn’t budge at any stage on no support for economic sanctions and because she was prepared to be isolated at the Commonwealth, the South Africans saw, “This woman is going further than anybody else is going to try and help our position”. But they also knew or some more than others, Pik Botha certainly knew that they couldn’t assume the United Kingdom at the end of the day was going to be on their side, that we were not prepared to become identified as supporters of apartheid because we weren’t. We found it as repugnant as anybody else found it, but the debate was about how you got rid of it and not whether you got rid of it.
SO: He was very clear about that, very clear indeed.
SO: Do you recall anything around the creation of the first EPG, or was that just at the time when you were making the transition to Secretary of State for Scotland?
MR: I think that must be right. I can’t exclude the possibility that I might have been involved at the margins but I was transferred when Heseltine resigned.
SO: So January of 1986.
MR: January ’86.
SO: Coming onto your time as Secretary of State at the Foreign Office between ’95 and ’97, of course South Africa had been resolved as the principal issue challenging the Commonwealth at that particular point.
And the Commonwealth itself was evolving into more of a human rights, and values based organisation: do you recall what were the biggest Commonwealth issues to confront you during your time as Foreign Secretary, in that two year period?
MR: I think most of that period was just, from the British perspective, a huge sense of relief that this problem of South Africa, in terms of the damage it was doing to the Commonwealth and Britain’s relationship with its Commonwealth partners, was substantively behind us. There was a sense of liberation. I don’t recollect any major issue that was filling the gap but I might be forgetting something.
SO: Well, in comparison French nuclear testing in the Pacific which confronted people at the Auckland CHOGM.
MR: Yes, in New Zealand, yes indeed, yes.
SO: There was also the issue of climate change which was causing tension with Paul Keating in Australia.
MR: I didn’t go to the Auckland CHOGM. I could have gone because I was Foreign Secretary; John Major was obviously there. The reason I didn’t was because it was just at the time, that weekend, I’d been with the Prime Minister in Israel for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. Remember he’d been assassinated.
MR: It was a very, very tense moment in the Middle East and I discussed it with John Major and it was my view which he accepted that I could be more use that weekend elsewhere, which I did do. I had meetings with Arafat and I went on to Damascus, the only time I met Assad pere and King Hussein, whereas if I’d gone to the Commonwealth Summit and the Commonwealth Summit was Heads of Government, and particularly at that time, less so now, Foreign Ministers didn’t have very much to do. We were just sitting, drinking cups of coffee, having informal –
SO: Chatting at the Retreat! [Laughs]
MR: Yes, in a sense because you weren’t even involved at the Retreat as a Foreign Secretary.
SO: Oh I see.
MR: It was Heads of Government. So I thought, do I really want to go all the way to New Zealand in order to be sitting in the anteroom, hearing what’s going on, when I could be doing substantive stuff in the Middle East? That’s why I didn’t do it.
SO: The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group of course was created at Auckland.
SO: Do you have any recollections of your views on CMAG and its efficacy?
MR: Yes well absolutely. Well, not so much about its efficacy. The principle behind it was first class. If I remember rightly, it was partly a reaction to Ken Saro Wiwa’s execution in Nigeria.
MR: The feeling that there were some serious human rights outrages that were happening in various Commonwealth countries and the Commonwealth had to be more forward in trying to deal with them. So the concept of CMAG was an excellent innovation. Of course when I was on the EPG a year or so ago, we were concentrating on what CMAG had failed to do and how it could be improved.
SO: Also of course in the 1990s for Britain there was the issue of land in Zimbabwe. Not much is written about British policy towards Zimbabwe in the 1990s before the Blair Government.
MR: Yes. No, I remember raising it with Mugabe a couple of times when I saw him in the early 1980s when I was a junior minister and subsequently. But this goes back to various allegations or memories of what was said during the Lancaster House negotiations; and I was not involved in Lancaster House, I wasn’t in the Foreign Office at the time. It appears that in an informal way when the subject of that was raised that either Carrington or whoever might have been [unclear – 36:27] official, I’m not quite sure, sounded sympathetic to the need to help the new Zimbabwe government with land reform.
SO: That was implicit behind the discussions but it had to be ‘willing buyer, willing seller.’
MR: You’re absolutely right. That’s always been the crucial issue that the United Kingdom would have been willing to allow economic aid or assistance but it was on the principle of ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ and Mugabe wasn’t thinking in those terms. What would have happened if he had been willing, I’m not sure what scale of aid might have been possible, whether it would have been significant or not, because there would have been a reluctance in the UK to distort our aid budget.
SO: But the meeting in Zimbabwe in 1981, the ZIMCORD meeting, there was a specific discussion about the development of land.
MR: You could be right. You’re ahead of me on that. I don’t know about that.
SO: This international donor conference was quite emphatic and Soames was, in his continued private discussions with Mugabe after the Zimbabwe election of Feb/March 1980, was trying to support him. It strikes me that throughout the 1980s there were so many other problems confronting the Zimbabwean government and sufficient under-utilised land that it wasn’t a serious issue.
MR: Well quite, I think what you’re saying is indeed true. I don’t know what happened with Christopher Soames, that was before my time, but what I can say quite explicitly is in the meetings that I had with Mugabe and with other ministers in Harare when I was Minister of State, the issue was raised but it never dominated our discussions. It was almost as if on each side you have four or five items you want to raise in your brief and you work your way through. But some are more important than others. Land was mentioned by Mugabe to me: he gave his view, I gave the Foreign Office response and we moved onto the next subject. It never dominated the exchanges at that time.
SO: But you made the point that Mrs Thatcher’s policy towards South Africa evolved. Did British policy on the Zimbabwean land issue evolve from the ‘80s to the 1990s?
MR: I don’t think it evolved in the sense that your question seems to imply. Essentially it became pretty obvious that there wasn’t ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ circumstances and that against that background it was inconceivable that we would wish to allow our own overseas aid budget to be used for compulsory purchase.
SO: Was Britain though, under the Major government, prepared to support a land audit to ensure that ownership of land was correctly registered, so that whatever form of accelerated transition of land was orderly and managed?
MR: I do not recollect that question ever being raised. I’m not saying it wasn’t raised, I just can’t recall personally that issue. I remember, because of my own background, having done my own postgraduate research work in my own thesis into politics of land, I have always been conscious of the fact that the position, some aspects of it were pretty difficult to justify. I don’t mean in terms of historical origins, that’s a different issue, but in terms of under-utilisation of much of the land they had. Much of the land owned by white Rhodesians, white Zimbabweans, was properly developed either for tobacco or for other products and was very successful and very impressive, but there were large swathes of land under-utilised; and so you had large numbers of landless Africans, blacks, and significant areas of land which wasn’t necessarily the best but was still perfectly able to be developed but which was not available.
SO: Just as a final potential point of tension within the Commonwealth in the 1990s, do you recall Pakistan’s covert nuclear programme featuring, particularly with a view to the tension between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, as a problem within the Commonwealth?
MR: No, not at all, I don’t see it as a Commonwealth issue. It’s always been a major issue in two respects. First of all, in terms of nuclear proliferation and secondly India/Pakistan relations – two major Commonwealth countries who occasionally went to war with each other [laughs] but, as we all had to acknowledge, for Britain to say anything or involve itself in any way, direct or indirect, on Kashmir is the short route to total obloquy from all sides. So Britain was pretty reluctant to take any diplomatic action – I mean, for example with a dispute like Cyprus we were very much involved. We were very much the lead international player in trying to resolve the Cyprus issue. Kashmir was exactly the opposite. We stayed out of that as much as we possibly could, not because we didn’t have a view but because India and Pakistan were such major countries in their own right, they had to try and address these matters themselves.
SO: But would there have been quiet diplomacy, though, encouraging that they improve their bilateral relationship?
MR: Yes. We meant what we said and what we meant was, first of all you guys have to sort this out yourselves, secondly that has to be done by diplomatic means and it’s appalling that two such major countries don’t have contacts; for example there’s not even a trading relationship between India and Pakistan. Pakistan refused to have normal trading relations with India and it was cutting off its nose to spite its face. So these two massive economies, India particularly, but Pakistan is pretty large, and there has been virtually no trade with each other for 50 years.
SO: So, there was no possibility of a British ambassador encouraging two antagonists in a room to go and have a quiet chat after dinner?
MR: No. You had a situation where both sides found it convenient to say that it was all Britain’s fault, the problems that had arisen at the end of the Raj in ’48 which we should somehow have prevented happening. But in any event, we didn’t have either the political power, it wasn’t a military issue, and we didn’t have the diplomatic power, to order India or Pakistan as to what they should do in Kashmir.
SO: Sir, as a final point because I’m very conscious of time, do you think though this would be a possibility of the Commonwealth as a diplomatic actor, through the good offices of the Secretary General, creating space that is outside, shall we say, formal bilateral relationships?
MR: I think in the unlikely event, the highly improbable event of India and Pakistan both saying, “We would like to move forward in a diplomatic way, can the Commonwealth help?” then the Commonwealth would be a perfect instrument for doing that.
SO: Yes. But it’s a very unlikely scenario.
MR: Yes quite, that ought to be what the Commonwealth should be doing and it has done relatively similar things in other parts of the world with much smaller disputes and much smaller issues, but Pakistan would probably quite like it. India will never agree. India is the country that controls most of Kashmir and the Indians will not brook any international responsibility or interference in what they see as a bilateral problem with Pakistan. So it’s not going to happen.
SO: Sir, on that point I’m going to end. I’m very conscious of the end of our appointment.
But if I may, please could I come back to you and make another appointment?
MR: Yes, why not. Let’s see, how much more would you like to?
SO: Probably another hour to discuss aspects of India in the Commonwealth, other points about the Commonwealth contributing to resolution of international problems in the ‘90s, CMAG and the second EPG.
SO: If that was acceptable to you?
MR: Yeah, I’m sure it will be.
SO: Thank you very much indeed, Sir.
[END OF AUDIOFILE PART ONE]
Transcript Part Two:
SO: This is Dr Sue Onslow talking to Sir Malcolm Rifkind at Portcullis House on Tuesday, 12th March, 2013. Sir Malcolm, thank you very much again for agreeing to talk to me. I wonder if I could ask you, please, about your involvement in the second Eminent Persons Group of 2010/2011. How did you come to be part of this delegation?
MR: It’s a very good question. I was approached by the Commonwealth Secretary General. The decision to have an EPG had been decided at the previous Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference, so then it became a question of the composition of it. And I think probably the first contact I had was a phone call from William Hague just trying to sound me out whether I might be interested in being the UK representative. And I responded positively and then I was asked to see the Commonwealth Secretary General, Sharma. And we had a long chat and he told me he’d been given a responsibility by the Commonwealth to try and put together such a group; and so the appointments which were essentially made, were recommendations by him to the Commonwealth. They weren’t appointments made by national governments. That was the form of it because there are 53 governments and there are only going to be eight or nine members of the EPG. But he concluded that one of the countries that ought to be represented should be the United Kingdom and I presumed he had informally sounded out the Foreign Office and they discussed possible names. So the end result was I was approached and asked, and I responded.
SO: Had you followed the Commonwealth closely up to that point with the debates about the extent to which it should be reformed, and what was the appropriate mechanism to do this?
MR: It had not been a subject which was, as it were, the top if my agenda. I’ve had an involvement with the Commonwealth going back to my days at university. When I was at university I took part in a Commonwealth expedition, known as Comex. I and 200 other British undergraduates travelled overland from the United Kingdom to India; we drove in five single decker buses in convoy. We drove our own buses, these were our own buses. We had radio contact between the buses. I was a radio operator. We travelled through Western Europe to Austria, to Hungary. From Hungary, it was 1965 or ’66. We travelled through Hungary, down Yugoslavia, Greece, Istanbul, Turkey. Turkey down to Jordan. We spent a day in Jordan: it was before the Six Day War so we went into East Jerusalem. Then across the desert to Baghdad, putting our buses and wagons in circles in the desert. And it was very moral: the girls slept on the buses, the men in the middle, in the gap.
SO: You didn’t keep guard all night?
MR: Well, that’s one way of putting it. And then from Baghdad to Tehran. We didn’t go through Afghanistan because that was too tricky. But we went down to Nok Kundi in Pakistan. Crossed into India and ended up in Delhi.
SO: Who funded this trip?
MR: Well, it was a retired Ghurkha officer called Lionel Gregory who retired to Edinburgh as it happened and I saw him several times. And he had known Nehru: because he was a Ghurkha officer he knew India well. He’d retired from the army and he had a passion for the Commonwealth. He thought what he wanted to do was bring young people from the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries together; and to start this process he arranged this first expedition. He travelled on the expedition. And we got funding from various sources – the usual sort of worthy sources, industries, charities, trusts. We kept our costs to an absolute minimum. There were several such expeditions; we were the first. But the problem in our case was when we got to India a week later, India and Pakistan went to war with each other which meant we couldn’t go back the way we came. So instead of being able to go back overland, we stayed in India several weeks longer; the buses were sold and with the proceeds we flew back via Russia on a chartered plane.
SO: Do these Commonwealth expeditions run regularly?
MR: There were several of them. The idea was it would become a regular feature. There were in fact three or four. One had a tragedy; there was an accident in Yugoslavia. Several people were killed unfortunately. So they went for three or four years. During the period we were there we fanned out from Delhi; we went to Rajasthan for a week or ten days. Another contingent went to South India and then we all met and went up to Simla.
We were with young Indians throughout this time. It was enormously interesting. Anyway, that was the beginning of my Commonwealth involvement.
SO: The beginning of your Commonwealth career, as it were?
MR: Then of course at the end of my Edinburgh University days I spent two years in Zimbabwe, Southern Rhodesia as it then was, I was doing my post grad Master’s degree. I wrote my thesis on the politics of land in Southern Rhodesia. And this was during the UDI period when the Commonwealth was very heavily involved. While I was there I had a reasonable amount of free time because of my university job there. I travelled round Zambia and Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland.
SO: Did your fellow members on the EPG in 2010, have a similar long standing, interested engagement with the Commonwealth?
MR: Well, they all had involvement in quite different ways. For example, Ronald Sanders who basically drafted the report –
SO: He was the Rapporteur.
MR: Yes, he’s a West Indian; he has been High Commissioner, with a long and passionate interest in the Commonwealth. Hugh Segal who is a Senator from Canada and since the report has been appointed by the Canadian Government as a special envoy on Commonwealth issues. Michael Kirby, the Australian judge, also from a judicial point of view, has strong interest. Asma Jahangir is a Pakistani human rights lawyer. She was Pakistan’s representative, obviously. Badawi was the Prime Minister of Malaysia. So when you ask ‘Did you have a strong Commonwealth interest?’ we all had strong reasons to be aware of the Commonwealth dimension. Some of them would have had a personal history, some might have just as a by-product of the job they were doing.
SO: You said to the Foreign Affairs Committee when you gave evidence that there had been a main concern that existed that led to the group in the first place. Where had been the locus of concern for the creation of the EPG?
MR: I was not involved at that stage obviously, but essentially it was a feeling that the Commonwealth was drifting. The Commonwealth’s high moment in terms of public awareness of the Commonwealth as a political institution, as an institution that could help change the world in various ways, was during apartheid South Africa when the Commonwealth basically led world opinion, in coordinating, initiating and activating. Not always to the United Kingdom’s comfort. It was a strategy to force change. Since then the Commonwealth has largely been known because of the Commonwealth Games, because of its various departmental roles. And its political identity had diminished. Now the Commonwealth was never meant to be a single organisation with a single strategy, but it is basically a values-based organisation. It’s not just a collection of countries which have a link with the United Kingdom historically. It’s meant to essentially be a force for promoting the rule of law, respect for human rights, democratic values.
SO: But it could be said that with the Harare Declaration of 1991 and the Millbrook Declaration of ’95 and the creation of CMAG, that the Commonwealth had already taken –
MR: Well, there was no shortage of declarations! The problem was in making these more than declarations. And the concern was that for various institutional and political reasons, the Commonwealth was not using the opportunities it had to help realise some of these aspirations and part of the concern was the Secretary General. Not the person, that’s another issue, but the Secretary General was in a weaker position than, for example, the Secretary General of the United Nations. Or maintained he was, saying that he could not speak on behalf of the Commonwealth unless he had a mandate. In other words, if something happens, Ban Ki-moon or whoever is Secretary General of the UN, has to have the approval of the member states for action, but if he’s wanting to express outrage or concern or initiatives, he just does it. That’s his job.
SO: Excuse me, Sir, but that never seemed to hold back SG Sir Sonny Ramphal.
MR: Well, quite. But if you look at the documents and the detail and so forth, there is nothing that explicitly gives the Secretary General that mandate.
But the public also want to be reassured that the Commonwealth has seized the initiative. And the single biggest example, and it’s still a live issue, I’m sure you are familiar with this, is Sri Lanka. And at the height of the problems in Sri Lanka, the Commonwealth didn’t say a word. No one said anything on behalf of the Commonwealth. Individual governments were speaking out, but the Secretary General did not explicitly seize the issue. The role of the Secretary General, what he either did say, or didn’t say, and let’s leave the individual out of it. There was a question of the clarity of the office, what he was entitled to do. There was CMAG. CMAG had responded extremely well whenever there was an actual military coup d’état. If a government was overthrown and a country had to be suspended, CMAG did its job properly. The criticism of CMAG was that it didn’t seem to be willing to have the political will or the tools to operate when you had grave abuse of human rights or rule of law that fell short of a change of government. So democracy hadn’t been overthrown; the spirit of it was being either trampled on or ignored. So there was that dimension to it. So that was a matter of anxiety and a general feeling that although there was no hostility to the Commonwealth amongst wider public opinion, there was a growing difference. It was just fading away gently and quietly and that should be, if possible, altered.
SO: Was this a concern amongst a certain group of countries, or was this a wide-spread sense of unease and a missing opportunity for the Commonwealth?
MR: I can only comment on what I’ve been told because I was not involved at the time. This all happened with the previous heads of government. I was at the CHOGM in Perth, I was not involved in the previous CHOGM because I was not in government and there was no reason why I should have been involved. My understanding is that a number of countries including some of the old Commonwealth, but also some of the newer member states – I can’t off hand remember which ones – but there were at least seven or eight perhaps nine or ten countries that were seized of this. And as often happens in these international gatherings, when it comes to drawing up a communiqué, ideas are put into the melting pot and sometimes you get away with something which, if it had been thought about in more detail, other countries might have opposed seeing as this could lead to difficulties or the thin end of the wedge. So the communiqué of Trinidad – I think it was Port of Spain – Heads of Government Conference, was agreed with a reference to the desirability of inviting a group of eminent persons, so called, to look at these matters.
SO: You said that Sri Lanka was the prime example in which there were national government statements and activity because of their concern, but the Commonwealth itself was more reticent.
MR: Well, the Commonwealth during the height of the trauma in Sri Lanka when there were major allegations, whether they were true or untrue is not the point, but there were major allegations of atrocities, of large numbers of innocent people having been killed, of the government being insufficiently careful as to how it dealt with that crisis. The Commonwealth did not have a view. Neither condoned nor condemned and it was left to individual governments who did feel strongly about it to express their concerns. And therefore the concern was how can you have a Commonwealth which is based on the rule of law and respect for human rights and has been willing to speak out on South Africa or on other issues, but somehow doesn’t seem to have the structure that enables it to do so in this area?
SO: You told the Foreign Affairs Committee that there had been other examples. I just wondered whether any particular ones came to mind? You said Sri Lanka is the most obvious one, but other …?
MR: Well, you have, for example, some very savage sentences on homosexuals in one or two African countries. Uganda. And I think there was one other country where it wasn’t just a question of homosexual activity being criminalised, but it was treated as something akin to rape or murder to be found guilty of having had homosexual practices was quite heavy, so that gave rise to a lot of controversy. And there were a number of examples which, to be honest, I’d have to go back and check to be clear in my own mind the details.
SO: So those were your two principal approaches; the Secretary General should be given an express mandate to always –
MR: We concluded three basic areas of proposed reform. First was to give the Secretary General an explicit mandate to speak out on his own authority when things happen, not to feel that he had to clear it with other people. That was the first point. The second was to beef up the remit of CMAG so that it would be expected to involve itself, not just when governments were being overthrown but when they had reason to believe that there was serious violations of human rights or rule of law issues in an individual country. And the third issue which became the most controversial was our recommendation for a commissioner for rule of law, human rights etc. And for the reasons we explained in the report we felt it would be desirable.
SO: Going back to the first two, were those unanimous? There was consensus?
MR: All our recommendations were unanimous.
SO: I’m just wondering about the internal diplomacy and discussions.
MR: This is an interesting point. Most of the energy within the EPG, most of the initiatives and the discussions and the argument, it was all very constructive. Probably the people who were most involved were Ron Sanders, Hugh Segal, I suppose myself, Michael Kirby, Dr Asma Jahangir was very good when she was there. She missed a couple of meetings but she was pretty active. Badawi, he’s a rather quiet, reticent man. Badawi in his own quiet way actually became very supportive. And the proposal for the Commonwealth Charter came originally from him.
SO: Did it?
MR: Yes. I don’t know who gave him the idea but it was certainly his initiative in the discussions that we had. A Jamaican lady Patricia Francis, who’s based in Geneva, was very articulate, mostly on economic development issues and social issues. One or two were rather quiet. Sir Ieremia Tabai, from Kiribati, was very helpful but very rarely spoke; the young chap, Jo Kavuma, a Ugandan… The assumption had been that you needed somebody to represent those under the age of 60.
SO: He was your token youth member?
MR: Yeah, but very good, nice guy. But he was a little bit overwhelmed by it all, I think. But he was good, he was articulate. Michael Kirby was primarily concerned with rule of law; he’s a judge, he’s not a politician. Rule of law issues, but also overwhelmingly concerned with gay and HIV issues. He is gay himself. He came out publicly in Australia some years ago and it was all very controversial at the time. Newsworthy I should say, rather than controversial. And he was deeply anxious that we should come out explicitly calling for those Commonwealth countries which still criminalise homosexual activity – we had to handle that very sensitively. It ended up with a form of words which we could all live with. None of us disagreed with what he was trying to achieve. But we took the view that … we already knew that we were going to have a hell of a battle over the commission and rule of law and all that sort of stuff. We were advised that on the issues of gay rights you had a problem in quite a number of Commonwealth countries that were in other respects democratic and respected the rule of law. Some of the Caribbean countries felt very strongly against what he was wanting. Some of the Muslim countries in the Commonwealth took a similar view that there was just no way their governments were going to be able to accommodate that. So I think the report uses a slightly ambiguous wording about calls upon Commonwealth governments to examine any legislation they have which might unreasonably discriminate. Michael Kirby was a bit disappointed at that, but he went along with it. But on the broader issues it was mainly Ron Sanders, Hugh Segal and myself that were doing most of the talking, if the truth be told.
SO: To go back also to the second point, the CMAG should be reformed to require it to consider, as you say, and if necessary take action. You said to the Foreign Affairs Committee that they had already carried out their own study of what might be needed and their conclusions had been similar to yours and had been largely endorsed. But then you went on to say that there had been resistance from a number of countries. Was this on the reform of CMAG, or was it specifically focused on the issue of the commissioner?
MR: It’s a question of chicken and egg. CMAG was indeed already authorised to review its own procedures and its own mandate and so forth. Our guess is, and I can’t prove this, but our guess is that if it hadn’t been for us, they would have come up with something tamer. But because we put quite strong and powerful arguments, I think not to be overtaken by us, those on CMAG who wanted a stronger conclusion anyway were able to persuade their colleagues, better that we should be doing it ourselves than this rotten EPG.
SO: ‘We’ve got a backbone’?
MR: Yeah. So at the end of the day what were our public recommendations on CMAG were implemented. But technically CMAG were able to say it’s a pure coincidence, we’re doing it anyway. Now so people can speculate as to how much of that would have happened but for us. So the main controversy was not CMAG; nor was it the role of the Secretary General. The main controversy was the commissioner which we always knew would be the one we were unlikely to get. It turned out to be even more difficult than we’d expected because it wasn’t just the usual suspects, it was countries like India and South Africa.
MR: Who knows? Although India and South Africa had no basic reason to be nervous about a commissioner; it’s partly I think doctrinal. The whole concept of a commissioner for the rule of law, although we emphasis the role of the commissioner is to advise the Secretary General, to help CMAG and not to have executive powers himself or herself, they saw this as the thin end of the wedge, an interference in internal affairs. A bit like some of the problems you have in the United Nations on human rights issues.
SO: You said that you’d expected that there would be some controversy, but were you taken somewhat by surprise by the strong hostility that you did encounter?
MR: Well, we had strong support as well. But the Commonwealth can only operate by consensus so it’s not too difficult. And you tend to get countries sheltering behind others, rather than coming forward. So I think we’d always assumed Sri Lanka and one or two other countries with dubious governments would be very unhappy with what might end up as more pressure on them to reform their ways. India wasn’t represented by its prime minister which didn’t help either. Mamohan Singh wasn’t at the CHOGM Heads of Government Conference; I think it was their vice president. And Zuma was there in South Africa and both of them were very, very unhelpful and that made it perfectly obvious that that part of the proposal would not get endorsed. We all knew that might happen. There had been a debate in our own ranks, do we put forward a recommendation that we know probably is not going to be accepted? And one or two were a bit inclined in that direction but the strength of the argument which won the day was, ‘No, we’re not ministers, we’re not governments. Our job is to say what we think ought to be done.’ And it’s not just the recommendation, although the recommendation might not be accepted; we have given a very full analysis in our report, there is a chapter as to why we think this is desirable. That is now on the table, it is there. And even if it’s not accepted at this moment in time, they are on alert. They are on watch. How they handle future problems in the Commonwealth, if they don’t handle them effectively and convincingly the argument for going back to the commissioner proposal will still be around. So better it’s on the table as something they’ve rejected for the time being. Those who were against us argued we don’t need the commissioner, we can do these things anyway. Okay, well let’s see if you can.
SO: If I could go onto the non-publication of the report: I’m very struck that in comparison to the 1986 EPG Report on South Africa which came out before the special review meeting in London in 1986, this had a rather different trajectory.
MR: Well, that’s because they got approval to do that. We had right from the very beginning – I was as guilty as anyone, I’m proud to say I was as guilty as anyone for this – we took the view that although our job was to report to the heads of government, as far as the Secretary General was concerned, he assumed that meant we didn’t say anything at all in public. Did our work and privately sent our report to the heads of government who would then handle it and it would be up to them whether they wished to publish it, or not, period. We took the view that because we knew all along there would be some resistance to some of our more sensitive recommendations, we would have a better prospect if we generated a debate in the Commonwealth why we were sitting, why we were deliberating. People should know the direction we were moving. So that hopefully we would get endorsement from various parts of the Commonwealth family and the heads of government would be faced not just with a recommendation, but with something that clearly had support behind it. So we established our website, we gave progress reports from the very beginning on the way our thinking was going. And when we came to our conclusions what we did, purely a device to maximise the impact we could make, we knew that we couldn’t send our conclusions and final report to the public because technically it was for the heads of government. So what we did was we published on our website and wrote to various Commonwealth NGOs and Commonwealth interested people, we said these are our draft conclusions. They are not our final ones, they may be changed but these are what we are currently thinking; these are the arguments and recommendations we are likely to be making. We want to give an opportunity for everybody to comment on them so that we can take into account your comments and your views. So it was already all in the public domain. And we got a lot of response and most of the response was ‘You are not going far enough’ sort of stuff which … no one was saying ‘this is unacceptable’, on the commissioner for example. And there was a good discussion about some of the detail. Some people saying you should have more power for the commissioner, but virtually no one saying ‘This is a wrong idea and you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.’ And that’s exactly what we talked –
SO: So where was this generation of interest coming from? NGOs, private citizens?
MR: We’d drawn up a list, the Commonwealth has about 100 NGOs. They automatically were all communicated with, they got letters from us with this. But there was also a couple of dozen well-known Commonwealth individuals, people who speak and write on the Commonwealth regularly. There were journalists, there were various other … And because it was on the website it was technically open to any citizen of the Commonwealth to respond. I was quite proud of this; it was my idea. So then we ended up with our final report and that was still private in one respect, although none of its conclusions or recommendations were not already in the public domain, what was not in the public domain was all our reasoning behind these conclusions. All we’d published was a series of recommendations with perhaps a brief sentence about them.
SO: Not the detailed argument of how you got there?
MR: That’s right, and so we were very keen for the whole thing to be published as soon as possible so that people could read not just our conclusions but why we reached these conclusions and see the strength of the argument for them and so forth. And that’s where we were unsuccessful in the short term. Pretty certain the secretariat, the Secretary General wasn’t very keen either. And we kept being given excuses. The British government was excellent, the Canadian government was excellent, but it needs consensus. And we kept being told there were some governments who were unhappy about it being reported, a report being published in full before the heads of government have deliberated and discussed it and so forth. So, okay, we were irritated but we didn’t treat this as a resignation issue because we assumed it was going to be published by CHOGM. We all arrived in Perth, it’s still not been published. And first day, first day and a half we were still being given these excuses. And then the heads of government go into retreat, which is where the decisions are going to be taken and they still haven’t published the report. So again, I’m afraid I was probably the main person responsible, but it wasn’t just me, we were just so pissed off, excuse my language, that we called a press conference while the heads of government were in retreat.
SO: Grossly improper!
MR: We called a press conference and we had copies of the report obviously which we had, but which hadn’t been published. And we presented the press with a copy of it. Said, as they had refused to publish the report, we are publishing it. We think it’s quite disgraceful, this is not the private property of the heads of government, this belongs to the Commonwealth as a whole. We are publishing the report as of now. And, of course, because the heads of government were in retreat there was no news coming out of the retreat. So this was the story of the day, that the EPG was publishing its own report.
SO: A political coup?
MR: Yeah. And word originally got to the heads of government in retreat and within an hour, or an hour and a half, I can’t remember the exact time, they had published the report. Because they knew it was embarrassing enough for them. But at least by saying, “They didn’t have to do this, we were doing it anyway,” you know. Absolutely rubbish! We knew perfectly well they weren’t going to do it. So we won that one. We won the battle but on the commissioner we lost the war, obviously, for the time being.
SO: Were there any ramifications of, as you say, bouncing the heads of government into –
MR: Well, they were intensely irritated with us but by that stage we didn’t give a damn because the … it was perfectly obvious they were going to reject the recommendation anyway. The only reason for us not having done –
SO: Why do you think they were so dilatory in publishing the report?
MR: It’s unfair to say they, implies there was a single view, there wasn’t. And the British government, the Canadians, many of the West Indian countries, some of the Asian countries were all supporting us and saying, “Of course it should be published, this is absurd.” But the Commonwealth operates by consensus.
SO: Was there any degree of tension also … of any slight entanglement with internal Australian politics?
MR: No, the Australian government was first class. The Australian government was extremely helpful but being the host, last thing they wanted was a bust up. And at the end of the day, and I don’t dissent from this judgement, the question of our report being published was not an issue in which you’d allow the summit to be deeply divided. There were more important issues frankly than whether our report was published that day or 48 hours later. But nevertheless it was an important development.
SO: On the recommendations: you were asked by Mr Roy at the Foreign Affairs Committee hearings whether you felt they were overly ambitious.
MR: They were ambitious, they weren’t over ambitious. If the question was did you only make recommendations in the knowledge they would be accepted? The answer is no, we didn’t. We made recommendations some of which we thought it was highly unlikely they would be accepted.
SO: So they were aspirational, even though you realised –
MR: They were more than aspirational. They were our genuine views to what needed to be done.
SO: But whether they were realistic or –
MR: We were politically aware enough to know that because this is not just getting a majority vote, this requires consensus which means 100%, even one country. Now, I don’t want to exaggerate that, if the one country is Tuvalu they can be leant on by the rest and can’t in practice hold up a decision. I’m not being unfair to Tuvalu, but I’m just giving you an example. If, on the other hand, it is India or Canada or the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth will not enjoy that. That’s exactly what happened. Do you remember, during the apartheid period under the question of economic sanctions, the Brits were in the minority. So I don’t complain about consensus requirement: that’s the nature of the Commonwealth. It’s not a company, it’s not a government, it’s a voluntary association of countries. You can’t run it in any other way.
SO: Just coming out then of the Perth CHOGM, the next CHOGM is supposed to be held in Sri Lanka. And this is increasingly contentious.
MR: I was on Channel 4 last night and I was asked whether it would be appropriate for the CHOGM to be held in Colombo in Sri Lanka and I said, “Well, I don’t want to exaggerate, but given all the terrible things that have been happening in Sri Lanka, the sacking of the Chief Justice and the appointment of some crony to replace him and the refusal to have an independent enquiry into all the allegations,” I said, “I don’t want to exaggerate but having the next Heads of Government CHOGM in Colombo would have been rather like having the CHOGM in Pretoria during the apartheid disputes while South Africa still remained a member of the Commonwealth.” It’s not just who chairs that conference for two or three days. The country that chairs it is the chairman of office for the next two years and is automatically represented on CMAG because they are the chairman in office, quite rightly.
SO: So you can’t be really on CMAG’s list if –
MR: You can, but you will then be examined by a group which includes the country that is being examined. Now, there might be ways of handling that but nevertheless on principle it is highly undesirable for all sorts of reasons.
SO: Sir Malcolm, where do you see the Commonwealth going?
MR: The problem of Sri Lanka is relatively modest compared to the South Africa issue. And the Commonwealth survived that. You normally judge the health of an organisation by whether more people want to join or leave. And the Commonwealth still has a queue of people who would like to join if the Commonwealth wanted to have them. So I don’t see the Commonwealth as it were disintegrating or collapsing. The main problem for the Commonwealth is indifference, not hostility.
SO: So in fact paradoxically the Commonwealth needs crisis to –
MR: Well, perhaps a dangerous way of putting it! But I know what you mean. It needs to demonstrate its relevance. And it is accepted as relevant when it comes to developmental issues. It’s highly relevant … and the thing that I most learnt from EPG, which I ought to have realised before but hadn’t really thought about it, was that of the 53 countries about 20 of them are micro states in the Pacific and the West Indies, and so forth. For these countries the Commonwealth is, after the United Nations, the second most important part of their foreign policy because it’s the only place they meet the big guys. If you’re the President of Tuvalu you can rub shoulders with the British Prime Minister, the Indian Prime Minister, the President of South Africa on an equal basis, you can’t do that anywhere else if you are that sort of size of country.
SO: You’ve said elsewhere that for ‘the big guys’, there is a disconnect between the warm words that they say towards the Commonwealth, and actually what happens on the ground in terms of their foreign policy.
MR: Well, no, not necessarily. It varies from country to country. The Canadians are very pro-Commonwealth and reflect that in their priorities. We ourselves: how many other countries have a Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
SO: In your judgement, though, is sufficient emphasis placed on the Commonwealth part of that particular title?
MR: As with any country’s foreign policy you spend most of your time in any given year on the crisis issues. So where’s the crisis? If you’ve got a crisis in the European Union, or if you’ve got a crisis in Syria or the Middle East, and you don’t have a crisis in the Commonwealth, then it’s not surprising that’s not head of anyone’s agenda for that time being.
SO: I was discussing this very point with Lord Hurd last week when he was Foreign Secretary between the end of ’89 and ’95. The way that international crises stacked up, like planes over Heathrow.
MR: Well, that’s right. During the time I was Foreign Secretary I cannot remember now any dramatic Commonwealth issue that dominated my day. Issues arose from time to time but they were relatively small. Zimbabwe in more recent years has been a very important one which has quite rightly been a high grade issue.
SO: Sir, could I just ask you, though, your view of a particular attachment within the Commonwealth from certain sections, certain Commonwealth NGOs, to process rather than, shall we say, hard headed practical politics?
MR: It varies from country to country. For a lot of countries it’s about developmental aid. There’s nothing wrong with that. They are small, developing countries and membership of the Commonwealth gives them a priority, gives them a claim, a share of the resources that are available. Simultaneously for a lot of small countries the point I made earlier, it’s a means of access to the big guys and the Commonwealth can sometimes help promote their interests. And if you are having negotiations at the World Trade Organisation or UNESCO or any of the global organisations, then if the Commonwealth has a view and can promote that view that’s a great asset to many of the other member states who wouldn’t otherwise ever be heard. It’s a bit like the European Union. If you are a Luxembourg or a Slovenia being part of the EU gives you an indirect way of making a significant contribution to the global resolution of issues that might affect you.
SO: Do you see the future headship as being a likely contentious issue for the Commonwealth?
MR: I don’t know, but it is a purely ceremonial, symbolic role. It will certainly continue to be the Queen as long as she is alive, as long as she is Queen. What will happen afterwards won’t be automatic, there is no automaticity. The Prince of Wales will become king the moment the Queen dies. If the Queen died in the next five minutes, we’d have a new king simultaneously. He would not automatically be head of the Commonwealth. That would be for the Commonwealth to decide. How would it decide? I don’t know if anyone really knows at this moment in time. But do reflect on the fact that the Queen and Prince of Wales automatically would be head of state of 14 Commonwealth countries. Well, 15 whatever the number is.
SO: Sir Malcolm, how far do you feel that the Queen has been part of the invisible glue of the Commonwealth?
MR: Oh, yes, she has, very substantially. Because the Queen and the Secretary General are the only two individuals who represent the Commonwealth as a whole and who have a public identity. But in addition to that, the Queen has always attached huge importance to the Commonwealth and that is known and appreciated. She is head of state of somewhere between a quarter and a third of Commonwealth countries. She takes that seriously. But she has also been often perceived to be perhaps sometimes more sympathetic to the aspirations of other Commonwealth countries than Her Majesty’s Government. Put it that way. Whenever there have been issues, she’s been too discrete to say anything publicly but in her own inimitable way it has become known that she has been a force for Commonwealth cohesion, even if that didn’t always prove to be comfortable for the British government of the day.
SO: So through personal charisma, dedication to duty, longevity of office?
MR: Yes, all these heads of government, they love being invited to Buckingham Palace or Britannia when we had Britannia. The Queen is a global icon. Even heads of government are susceptible to flattery. Don’t we know it?
SO: I think official hospitality is not necessarily given the attention that it deserves.
MR: If you think, when the EPG was formed, you will see through there a photograph of the EPG being received by the Queen. Now because of the jobs I’ve done, I’ve met the Queen and been in Buckingham Palace lots of times over the years; but for most of my colleagues it was the most exciting thing that could have happened. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Queen works hard at Commonwealth issues, always has done.
SO: Sir Malcolm, thank you very much indeed.
MR: Not at all.
[END OF AUDIOFILE PART TWO]