looks very comfortable nowadays as a TV pundit and presenter, though there was much glee nationwide when he lost his seat in Parliament in 1997. On 20 April 2009, Jonathan Bartley found him relaxed and expansive in his garden in the heart of London.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You have said that you have a strong sense of being half-Spanish. Can you talk a little about your sense of identity?
I’ve no doubt at all that the thing I am most is English. Which is strange, because my mother’s Scottish, though there is some English blood in me. I was brought up in England and strongly influenced by that sense of being English – and British (I don’t see any great conflict between the two).
I don’t have any kind of identity crisis. I only have a kind of identity celebration, really. I’ve regarded being half-Spanish as really just a great privilege – you know, an eye on a different society, the opportunity to speak another language, an enormous family out in Spain.
Having a foreign name was probably a bit of a drawback in British politics, at least at the margins, particularly if you go back 20 years. I remember when I was first elected, just after the Falklands [Conflict], a lady wrote to me: ‘I wonder if you can imagine how resentful it makes me that a foreigner like you is occupying a seat in our House of Commons.’ And then – and this is so typical of the English – she said: ‘On the other hand, if you are part of an exchange programme and, while you’re here, one of our people has a seat in your country, that would seem to me like quite a good idea.’
What values were instilled into you as a boy?
I would describe both of my parents as intellectuals. My father had been a don at the University of Salamanca, my mother was a teacher with a degree from Oxford University and I was brought up in a house full of books. So, learning was a very big part of it. Hard work, too. I don’t remember them being exactly pushy, but they helped me a great deal with my schoolwork and they celebrated achievement. My three older brothers were quite sporty but it was very clear that I was no good at sport and I think that’s one of the reasons why I studied quite hard. That had to be my field in which I excelled.
I had a thoroughly Christian upbringing. My father was a very devout Roman Catholic –
And you were confirmed a Catholic?
Technically, I wasn’t. I was baptised and I had my first communion, but they never got round to confirming me, which I was rather pleased about.
Your father was a refugee from Franco, is that right?
Yes. He left Spain in January of ’39, at the end of the Civil War. He was an academic lawyer and had been an adviser to the Republican government on legal matters, particularly on the death penalty. He got into a considerable amount of difficulty because he was responsible for reviewing death sentences and he always commuted them, and people asked, ‘What’s going on? All these bastards on the other side and none of them is being put to death.’ It got quite sticky for him.
My father was a huge respecter of life – we weren’t even allowed to kill spiders. He was so committed to peace that even when he went to the front he didn’t carry a weapon
My father was a huge pacifist, a huge respecter of life – we weren’t even allowed to kill flies and spiders. He was so committed to peace that even when he went to the front he didn’t carry a weapon.
And what did you think of that, growing up?
I thought it was marvellous. I respected it enormously.
You served as Secretary of State for Defence in the mid Nineties, and later became a director of BAe Systems. You don’t seem to have embraced your father’s pacifism.
Nor lots of other things, either.
As a teenager, you had a picture of Harold Wilson on your bedroom wall. What changed?
Well, everybody thinks things through themselves.
My mother was also very much to the left in politics but her father had been a prosperous manufacturer of linen in Scotland and a terrific collector of art – I mean, really quite a wealthy man. So, I’ve always thought, you know, my mother probably rebelled against her parents and… I mean, I didn’t exactly rebel against mine, but I reached a different position.
And what brought you to that position?
I suppose a number of different things. I was at Cambridge University in the early Seventies and the Labour Party really looked clapped out at that time, as I think it does now. There was a similar kind of feeling, that it had fallen into decadence, possibly even corruption, and, you know, it was quite unattractive. And in February ’75 Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party and there was a kind of dynamism about it.
I had a lot of friends at university who were very switched on by that, although I didn’t take any great interest in politics myself at that stage. I was taught by some Conservatives and I was probably reading quite a lot of Conservative-oriented texts – and, you know, a Conservative frame of mind kind of rubs off.
What were you reading?
Probably [Edmund] Burke in particular. Hegel. Marx – but obviously Marx wouldn’t particularly have…
Did you read Robert Nozick? Milton Friedman?
I didn’t read anyone as recent as that – I would say no one more recent than [John Stuart] Mill. I still think of Mill quite a lot.
And then finally – a piece of complete serendipity – about six months after I’d left university I was working in a shipping company and I was fed up with it and I asked Maurice Cowling, the man who had taught me particularly, what I should do and he said: ‘It’s a great pity you’re not interested in politics, because if you were you could go into the Conservative Research Department.’ And I said, ‘Well, actually I am.’
So, there was a great deal of pragmatism in it, and the influence of your environment?
Yes. Probably more the environment than anything.
You described yourself recently as ‘beyond being a lapsed Catholic’. You’ve also said that you think you’re an atheist. Does that make you an agnostic?
Yes, I suppose it does. [The chemist] Peter Atkins (who is quite a good friend of mine) was on The Moral Maze recently and Clifford Longley said to him, ‘You probably think I’m mad to be religious,’ and Peter Atkins said: ‘Absolutely stark raving bonkers!’ I think, because there is not only no proof of the existence of God but also no reason to believe in it, I ought to be an atheist; but that sounds a bit too dogmatic.
Was there a time when you would have been a bit more dogmatic about it?
No. I’m probably at my most militant now. After all, when I was a Conservative MP it really wasn’t very useful to go around talking about tending towards atheism, so I probably kind of just put it out of my mind. It hasn’t been true recently, but the Church of England was the Conservative Party at prayer and that was so important. Most of my constituents, even just recently in Kensington & Chelsea, were churchgoers. If I wanted to see them, I turned up at church on a Sunday.
You made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in ’99 –
Only as a journalistic enterprise, to write a story for the Observer, not because I felt a calling. I’m sorry to disappoint you. The Spanish ambassador to Britain at the time went every year for 30 days, and he had told me: ‘Of all the things I do in my life, this is by far the most important.’ I was pretty impressed by that.
Actually, I did enjoy it enormously. It’s a very, very moving experience. It’s an experience that changes you.
How did it change you?
Well, probably it made me more observant of nature. I have always worried about how unobservant I am – you know, if I walk into a cathedral I really have to make myself look around me. I only did the pilgrimage for a week, so I can’t make any claim to great heroism here, but for seven days everything goes past at walking pace and suddenly you find yourself looking at flowers and trees and cows and noticing the colours and the terrain and, critically, what the weather is doing.
I remember the monastery at Samos, this place of extraordinary quiet where the monks eat in silence, and my little chamber perched high above a river where you can hear the water running and nothing else. You know, it’s transforming.
You wrote: ‘The stresses of our modern life have created a hunger for simplicity and peace.’ Would you call that a hunger for spirituality? Is that a term you would use?
I would use the term ‘spirituality’. I’m not sure that I’d necessarily mean it literally but, you know, I’d be struggling for a word that conveys that sense of being interested in the questions of how and why, and the thought that you only live once and whether you’re making the best of it and getting the balances right – all that area.
Do you think there should be more silence in the Palace of Westminster?
I remember the Archbishop of Canterbury pausing for five or six seconds before answering a question on the Today programme and it was very, very effective.
Indeed. The eloquence of silence. No, that’s absolutely right. No, there should be.
I do – I was going to say that I try to do that, but that would sound as if it’s self-conscious; but I do find myself sometimes doing that, pausing. It’s probably because I’m slow to think, but there’s actually no reason why people shouldn’t pause before they say something. It’s strange, this etiquette of interview that we’ve got into, that you’ve got to make an instant riposte without any chance to think.
Your defeat in the ’97 election became somewhat iconic. How did it affect you personally?
How to answer that? Obviously, I was knocked about a bit, although probably less than most people imagine. I don’t think I understood the extent to which I had become a hate figure, so I probably didn’t sense the humiliation as much as people thought that I might. And we were going into opposition, and so I was going to lose government anyway and government was what I really enjoyed – much more than the House of Commons, I must say.
And I immediately felt relief, believe it or not, that I wasn’t going to have to fight the Conservative leadership election. I thought it would be a grim and bruising process and, you know, who wanted to lead a party of 165 Members of Parliament after 18 years in office? There was no prospect of winning the following election, that much was clear on the night of May 1, 1997.
Is Britain a broken society? Not from top to bottom or side to side, but yes, bits have broken off it. I think there is an underclass that has no connection with the world of work. They have no prospects, no ambitions
I view [that defeat] now as almost wholly positive, because I managed to get out of that furrow and find I could make a living outside the House of Commons, so that even when I went back in 2000 I never felt I had to do that for the rest of my life. In fact, I was quite surprised at myself when I decided I did want to go back.
At first, though, I found adjustment to ordinary life strange. You know, I was embarrassed when I went on tubes and buses because you think everybody’s staring at you.
Some people would say there have been two Michael Portillos, perhaps separated by that defeat. Do you think there is truth in that?
Well, the answer is partly yes, partly no. I mean, I feel as though I’m entirely the same person, and I think most of my friends would say I am the same person; but I was then in a very stressful situation and I’m now in a situation in which stress is almost entirely absent. I was then in office and now I’m leading a – well, a reasonably ordinary kind of life.
I think I’ve learnt quite a lot… But I’ve also sought to reinvent myself.
It has been a conscious decision?
Well, yes – but I don’t want that to sound quite as artificial as it might sound. If you are being Paxo’d every night and you’re on the defensive and you’re responsible for policy some of which you don’t agree with, you are not going to be such an appealing fellow as when you’re making TV documentaries about railway journeys around Spain.
To what extent have you – if I may use a religious term – repented of what you did before ’97?
Well, I clearly made some mistakes, but I certainly don’t repent of what the Government did. I think it –
What about the poll tax, for example?
Well, the poll tax was a mistake, but it wasn’t a sin. It was badly done. We made hideous political errors. And, by the way, what were Conservatives doing trying to draw up a register of the entire British population? It was a mad thing for us to do, so that was my objection.
But no, there was nothing wrong with the idea that everybody ought to contribute something towards the cost of their local services. Indeed, I still say today that one of the great problems we have is that a lot of people have no sense of connection to the business of earning money and paying taxes and receiving services.
Do you think Britain is a broken society?
Not from top to bottom or side to side, but yes. Bits have broken off it. I think there is an underclass, in the sense that people are alienated from society, they live on benefits, it may be that they’ve lived on benefits for generations, it may be that they’re having children very, very early, that they have no connection with the world of work. They have no prospects, no ambitions; they’re liable to be both the victims and perpetrators of crime.
I think what has happened in the last 10 years or so is that it’s been even more possible than it was before to lose these people from sight: firstly, because we don’t actually need them in the economy, we’ve been able to fill up all the jobs that needed filling with immigrants, and, secondly, because during the boom this underclass could easily be afforded. And so the moral or the social question has been left to one side, and that, I think, is very, very worrying.
What would you do about them? Would you tighten up on immigration?
No. Would I –? No. I mean, if immigration stopped tomorrow, I don’t think this class of people I’m talking about would fill the jobs the immigrants would vacate. There is a complete lack of motivation amongst these people to enter the world of work. I think that one of the things you have to do is sharpen up the incentives very considerably. I mean, you just cannot have people living generation after generation on welfare.
Do you mean cutting benefits?
I mean requiring people to come up to the mark if they are going to receive benefits. You’ve got to say to young men in particular, ‘No benefit for you unless you spend 10 weeks on a course to improve your numeracy or literacy. Then, OK, you get benefit.’ You have got to make people re-engage with their obligations.
Doesn’t that go against your Conservative instincts? Isn’t it quite paternalistic?
It’s actually asking the state to intervene less. I mean, what has happened indeed is that the state has become the father of millions of children and the husband of millions of women. It is playing a role that it is just not qualified to play, and of course that’s had an immensely distorting effect on society.
Some people have suggested that the foundations of the present economic crisis were laid by Margaret Thatcher. Back in 2007, in A History of Modern Britain, Andrew Marr traced the deregulation of the financial markets and the huge credit boom back to her zeal to roll back the state.
I think the proposition is preposterous. I mean, it could only be invented by people who want some way out of the responsibility for what has happened in the last 12 years. And how exactly Margaret Thatcher is meant to be responsible for the United States I can’t imagine.
Let me tell you what I think her values were. Actually, let’s go back to her remark, ‘There is no such thing as society.’ What she actually meant – and it’s perfectly clear if you read the original text1Margaret Thatcher made the remark in an interview with Woman’s Own published in November 1987. In full, she said: ‘We have gone through a period when too many people have been given to understand “I have a problem; it is the Government’s job to deal with it.” So, they are casting their problems on society. And who is society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people – and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.’ – is that society is not something to be blamed for our ills. We cannot escape personal responsibility. She said: ‘No such thing as society, there’s only families and communities.’
At the time, people were always saying, ‘I’d like to do this, but society won’t let me,’ or ‘They’ve changed the rules’ or – it was always this ‘they’ that was responsible for what was happening in people’s lives. And what Margaret Thatcher was trying to do was to change the ‘they’ to a ‘we’. You know, ‘We can do something.’ Or I can. I may not be a very substantial figure but I’ll have responsibilities in my family, I’ll have a position in my community and I can make a difference.
Now, I think – well, I more than think, I know that the Thatcher revolution was intended to work as follows: Allow people to keep more of their own money, make the taxpayer do less so that people will do more. Substitute direct, personal responsibility for what happens in communities for a ‘society’ in which all those responsibilities have been subcontracted to the state, leaving people with a feeling that they have no responsibilities towards others.
Marr’s point is that, primarily because of her Methodist upbringing, Mrs Thatcher naively thought that everyone would be self-disciplined and thrifty and would save, whereas actually the opposite happened: people let rip.
Well, there was a boom and then there was a recession in the Nineties and then there was a long climb after that and we’ve got a credit boom now. I mean, why not blame William Gladstone or whoever you like?
Working for the Thatcher government, we were all conviction politicians. We thought that the way we could shape the economy and society was really important
Because Gladstone didn’t give the banks huge powers, didn’t open up mortgages, open up owner-occupation, open up the housing market, open up share ownership –
Ah, well, wait a minute! True, she opened up the housing market. I think that was a thoroughly good thing – it has made many people feel a connection to society, feel that they have a stake. Share ownership – there’s nothing wrong with share ownership in itself.
As for naivety, why not give her credit for idealism? I mean, she did have a kind of Christian idealism. In a way, almost a socialist – No. No. That would be going too far. A Christian idealism. She believed that if you left people more of their own money they would do more good with it. And there are societies where this is the case. In the United States, it’s perfectly clear to me that people who have money feel a much more serious obligation to do good works.
I’ve never understood why this has not caught on in Britain. I mean, there is the puzzle. I’ve been involved in charities and you invite people to a lunch to introduce them to a charity and they don’t even give you the price of the lunch! I mean, really, one’s got to be firm about this. The way in which British people – I’m talking by and large, of course; Lord Sainsbury has now given a billion pounds [away], so it doesn’t apply to everyone – the way in which many British people completely neglect their duty to put anything back is extraordinary.
Would you describe yourself as a conviction politician?
Working for the Thatcher government, in its broad thrust of policy we were all conviction politicians. We thought that the way we could shape the economy and society was really important, was really different and was very well established psychologically, philosophically and politically. And, by the way, we weren’t alone in that view. It was broadly accepted by every country in the world. It was broadly accepted by Tony Blair.
Now, as for individual decisions, they’re made in all sorts of different ways. You know, if I’m deciding whether to close the Settle-to-Carlisle railway (a decision I had to make as Minister of Transport), it’s not a matter of conviction; it’s a consideration of all the elements, all the interests, all the consequences.
Did compassion play a role?
Yeah, a great deal. I mean, I worked in the Department for Social Security and compassion played a big role.
But you still closed the railway?
I didn’t. I kept it open. It was something that had value.
If you had run against John Major for the leadership of your party in 1995 and won, do you think the outcome of the ’97 election would have been very different?
Not very different. One of my colleagues said to me afterwards, ‘I think if you had been leader we would have lost 3-2 instead of 3-0.’ There was absolutely no way we could win that election, whatever happened.
If you’d won the leadership in 2001, how big a difference would you have made?
Well, in one sentence, I would have done what David Cameron’s done, or at least I would have tried. I would have shown concern for schools and hospitals and the environment and transport and, you know, tried to get away from the wretched subject of Europe, for example, and the wretched subject of immigration. When I was Shadow Chancellor [in 2000-01], I was already pushing the party into the centre ground. Things that seem silly now – accepting the independence of the Bank of England, accepting the minimum wage and so on – I think I did in my first weekend in the job.
I would have laughed in the old days at the idea of having a round House of Commons, but I now think there’s more and more to that way of looking at life
Would you like to be a member of the House of Lords?
I have taken the view that, having been identified for so long as a Conservative and wanting to have a career in broadcasting, it’s been useful not to be associated with a particular party so strongly as I was before. And also, having decided voluntarily to leave the legislature, it would seem to be rather odd straightaway to want to bounce back into the legislature.
Do you think that part of the attractiveness of BBC1’s This Week is that it’s not so adversarial?
Would you get a Lib Dem in there?
We don’t see the need.
Is there an argument for a less adversarial approach not just in broadcasting but in the House of Commons itself?
Yes. I mean, quite a lot of what happens in the chamber isn’t very adversarial, but of course that’s not reported – and maybe that pinpoints something, which is that on the whole when you go into a studio you are somehow obliged by the environment to become adversarial. It’s obviously true of the chamber in the big moments, the big debates. I remember time and again going there thinking that I’d be awfully reasonable and mild with an opponent from the Labour Party and then suddenly the punches are flying and you have to respond.
Politics is extremely tribal. Isn’t that destructive?
Yes, I think it is. I would have laughed in the old days at the idea of having a round [chamber], but I now think there’s more and more to that way of looking at life.
Do you feel that broadcasting is in any way second-best?
Broadcasting about politics is a second-best to being in politics, I’ve no illusions whatsoever about that. It is to be in the wings, it is to be on the sidelines. Broadcasting about other matters I enjoy very much indeed. It gives me a certain amount of creative fulfilment that on the whole I didn’t have in politics, and I feel proud of it. So, the broadcasting I do now is the best thing for me now and being in politics was the best for me then.
You know, you asked me how I’ve changed. Well, one of the ways is, I’ve got older, and I wouldn’t have the same ideological energy now that I had 12 years ago.
Would you have the same ideology?
I think that’s emerged, hasn’t it?
This edit was originally published in the June 2009 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||Margaret Thatcher made the remark in an interview with Woman’s Own published in November 1987. In full, she said: ‘We have gone through a period when too many people have been given to understand “I have a problem; it is the Government’s job to deal with it.” So, they are casting their problems on society. And who is society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people – and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.’|
Michael Portillo was born in 1953 and was educated at Harrow County School for Boys. He read history at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he gained a first.
He joined the Conservative Research Department in 1976. From 1979 to 1981, he was a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Energy, and he then worked for Kerr McGee Oil (UK) for two years as a consultant.
He stood for Parliament, unsuccessfully, in 1983 as Conservative candidate for Birmingham Perry Barr. In 1984, after stints as a special adviser to Norman Tebbit at Trade & Industry and the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, he won a by-election in Enfield Southgate.
He joined the Government in 1986, becoming in succession a whip, a parliamentary under-secretary for social security, minister of state for transport and minister of state for local government and inner cities. He joined the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1992 (when he was also admitted to the Privy Council) and was then Secretary of State for Employment (1994-95) and then for Defence.
After losing his seat in the Labour landslide in 1997, he began a career in journalism. He wrote a weekly column in the Scotsman and in 1998 made the three-part series Portillo’s Progress for Channel 4.
He returned to Parliament in 1999 after a by-election as MP for Kensington & Chelsea, serving as Shadow Chancellor in 2000-01. He unsuccessfully contested the leadership of his party after it lost the election of 2001, and quit the House of Commons in 2005.
In 2002, he made the first series of Dinner with Portillo for BBC4 and championed Elizabeth I in the series ‘Great Britons’ and recorded a ‘great railway journey’ across Spain for BBC2. In 2003, he joined Diane Abbott MP on the sofa for This Week. His other work for BBC TV includes Portillo in Euroland (2002), When Michael Portillo Became a Single Mum (2003), Portillo Goes Wild in Spain (2006) and The Science of Killing and The Lady’s Not for Spurning (both 2008).
He was New Statesman’s theatre critic from 2004 to 2006, and since 2004 has written frequent columns for the Sunday Times. Since 2006, he has been a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. In 2008, he chaired the judges for the Man Booker Prize.
He has been married since 1982.
Up-to-date as at 1 May 2009