16 August 2019

Free Exchange: Sir Malcolm Rifkind on China, Trump and the ‘real risk’ to the UK


Our guest this week is a true heavyweight of the British political scene.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind spent more than a decade in Cabinet from 1986 to 1997, beginning as Scotland Secretary under Margaret Thatcher before going on to serve as Transport Secretary, Defence Secretary and finally Foreign Secretary under John Major.

In 2010 David Cameron appointed Sir Malcolm to chair Parliament’s Joint Intelligence Committee, with oversight of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.

CapX’s Acting Editor John Ashmore sat down with Sir Malcolm to discuss the changing role of the Foreign Secretary, how Britain should deal with a rising China and what the future holds after Brexit.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind on…

the Foreign Office and Brexit

One impressive consequence of the change [of leadership] is that the Foreign Office is now back in the centre of foreign policy. I always thought it was a very serious mistake of Theresa May’s to create a separate Brexit department and not allow the Foreign Office be directly involved in the central foreign policy issue of the last half century.

The ‘real risk’ to the UK

The real risk to the UK is not of some Corbyn-led Labour government that is triumphant in the polls it is that as a result of a perhaps unnecessary general election Labour ends up as the largest minority party because what all the clever tacticians around the PM don’t appear to be taking sufficiently into account…is the resurgence of the LDs and in the largest number of Conservative seats in the Home Counties, in the West Country, in the south of England the party coming second isn’t the Labour Party or the Brexit Party, it’s the Liberal Democrats.

On the ‘special relationship’

Very often the mistake made by Foreign Secretaries who have not previously served in the Foreign Office or Prime Ministers who are new to the job is that they assume our partnership, our work, cooperation with the US requires us to agree with them, either all the time or most of the time.

Anyone who knows the history of this country knows that right back to Roosevelt and Churchill what is often called ‘the special relationship’; has weathered perfectly satisfactorily when there have been blazing rows between the two countries when there has been an honest disagreement of view.

The Americans are mature enough to understand that another mature democracy will occasionally have a different view because our geopolitical interests

A US-UK trade deal

I’m not sure there is that much scope for a dramatic trade deal with the United States – I’d love to be proven wrong.

China’s naval ambitions

Apart from 50 or 60 years I the Middle Ages China never had an interest in having naval strength outside its own waters. Such has been the growth of the Chinese Navy in the last 10 years, the Chinese Navy is now operating in the Red Sea, it has a base in Djibouti, in Sri Lanka and in the Pacific it’s extending its influence way beyond issues of Taiwan, the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea to become the other Pacific power.

The transformation of Belt and Road

Europe and Asia for the first time in 2000 years are now looking directly at each other through Central Asia. Up to a few years ago all European-Chinese trade and other links you had to go round the Suez, round India, round the Straits of Malacca…As we speak every day of every week there are freight trains going from eastern China across central Asia, entering Europe and ending up either in Germany or the Netherlands, some linked to the UK bringing exports.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is not Tiananmen Square, it’s not a relatively small area of one city, it’s a colony of millions of people who would conduct civil disobedience and be hugely difficult to govern. The destruction of Two Systems in One Country would also damage their strategy in relation to Taiwan because what the Chinese would like to persuade people in Taiwan is ‘why don’t you be like Hong Kong?’.

If Beijing is forced to choose – and I hope I’m wrong – I fear they would rather suppress Hong Kong and the protest movement than live with the increasing humiliation of effectively an anarchic Hong Kong that would not accept they are now part of China.

John Ashmore is Acting Editor of CapX