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Monday 5 December 2016

The British have not absorbed the lessons of 1916 - Michael Portillo

A former Tory cabinet member is an unlikely person to talk about the men of 1916, but Michael Portillo is just the man for the job, writes Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

MICHAEL PORTILLO: ‘On the British side there was a failure to apply any sort of political nous to the situation. There was a long history of not understanding Ireland’
MICHAEL PORTILLO: ‘On the British side there was a failure to apply any sort of political nous to the situation. There was a long history of not understanding Ireland’

'And now he passes into the ghastly, sepulchral half-world where failed or disgraced politicians tend to end up these days: a world of late-night chat-shows, desultory appearances on the back benches, chunky fees for after-dinner speeches, and - with luck - a couple of remunerative directorships. Life is not too bad: David Mellor has blazed the trail. But it is a tragedy in its way, though some will think not a very great one."

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It's been a few years since those words were written in The Spectator about Michael Portillo but in the interim the tragedy, such as it ever was, seems quite relative. On the one hand, Portillo could be forgiven for looking ruefully at David Cameron and thinking that he could or should have had his job - he famously lost out on the leadership of the Torys. On the other, he fully gives the impression of enjoying the time of his life right now, delivering droll political and social commentary on the BBC and presenting well-reviewed documentaries where his wonkish enthusiasm combines with an on-camera assuredness that he somehow never evinced during his political career (he has his regrets on this score, he tells me).

He may have over-egged the pudding slightly when he recently said that he was "steaming toward being a national treasure" but to be fair, a decade-and-a-half after his exit from politics, he's a far cry from David Mellor and his tawdry tabloid dramas.

The latest of Portillo's documentaries is The Enemy Files, which explores the events around the 1916 Rising from a British point of view. The history of any conflict is written by the victors and so it's an interesting tack to take and one that helps the programme to cut through the commemoration fatigue, which has set in now for many of us.

There are illuminating contributions from Robert Fisk, Declan Kiberd and Kevin Myers but Portillo is an interesting and provocative choice to present the piece; he was of course a political supporter of Thatcher, never particularly noted for her pro-Irish policies, and as recently as 2012 was calling Bobby Sands "a terrorist" in the Guardian. But it's perhaps precisely these facts about him that make him the perfect person to cast a cold eye on British incompetence and arrogance during the 1916 period. "I was to bring a political mind to bear to [the documentary], having sat at the cabinet table myself, and it was thought that perhaps I could offer a view on the thinking at the time and critique the decision making," he explains.

"Given my general state of ignorance about 1916 I was surprised by a lot of things, but mainly I suppose, about how the Rising seemed to go off totally chaotically, at half-cock. It's supposed to happen on Easter Sunday and then it's called off. And when it happens on the Monday it's no longer an Irish-wide event. The use of the GPO is strategically non-sensical. On the British side there was a failure to apply any sort of political nous to the situation. There was a long history of not understanding Ireland and not taking it seriously."

This lack of Anglo nous expressed itself most completely in the failure of the British to understand that in putting the men of 1916 to death, they would make martyrs of them and mobilise the previously indifferent Irish population behind the nationalist cause.

Portillo was an early acolyte of Thatcher, who seemed to have zero compunction about producing martyrs - she faced down the hunger strikers after all. Does he feel, then, that in the decades after the Rising, the lessons of it were adequately absorbed by the British? "The British have not absorbed the lessons of 1916," he responds.

"When we were dealing with the Troubles a lot of martyrs were created. The question then was the same; do we bring the full weight of the law down on these people or do we recognise that they are involved in a political struggle? In the Eighties and Nineties we refused to recognise these people are prisoners of war. What the British did then was wrong but most of the alternatives would also have been mistakes."

But what about today? In The Enemy Files Robert Fisk compares the "cult of blood and martyrdom" of proclamation to the modern death cults of the Middle East. Portillo has publicly dismissed suggestions that poverty and extremism are linked in British Muslims - despite a Commons Home Affairs Committee report that said exactly the opposite. In discussing the refugee crisis he recently said - to the horror of many - that desperate migrants should be "dumped on a Libyan beach".

"What I said about radicals not being linked to poverty is simply a statement of fact," he responds. "The majority of people who have been radicalised in Britain have university degrees. I doubt that the level of poverty that they experience in Britain is comparable to the poverty that they experience in Muslim countries. As regards leaving people on Libyan beaches, I think that any policy that causes people to get drowned at sea should be thought through pretty carefully."

One of the key figures of the Rising - Roger Casement - has in the intervening century received an extra patina of martyrdom, deriving from the contemporary disgrace caused by his sexuality. Portillo had to deal with his own issues on this score. In 1999 he gave an interview to the London Times in which he talked about his "homosexual experiences" as a young man. It was a revelation that probably cost Portillo politically - he subsequently lost the leadership race - and won him zero street cred (he still had gay rights groups and one former lover accusing him of hypocrisy).

Given the huge evolution in political and social attitudes, does he feel he was given a rough ride back then? "I'm afraid I don't follow your drift," he tersely tells me. "You're into terrain that I'm just not into discussing. I'm not a political figure." Except, presumably, when he's presenting a programme because he "sat at the cabinet table". What about his regrets at speaking about the gay experiences at all? There was a sense at the time that he might have been better advised to say nothing and latter-day leaders - one thinks of David Cameron and the cocaine and pig sex stories - have learned the valuable lesson of simply letting things blow over. "Again I really am not getting into any of that. I'm not a political figure."

This is a standard refrain when Portillo gets uncomfortable - he said something similar to Jeremy Paxman in 1997. But of course since earliest life Portillo has been highly political. While other children had posters of pop stars or actors on their walls, the child Michael went to sleep, he tells me now, looking at a picture of Harold Wilson.

By the age of 11, this son of a Spanish refugee father - a pacifist who had come from Franco's Spain - and a Scottish mother was acting as a teller for the Labour Party in the 1964 general election. By 1966, he was running committee rooms for the party. He contested his first general election as a candidate in 1983 - and lost - but the following year he stood for and won the seat following the murder of the incumbent, Sir Anthony Berry, in the bombing by the IRA of the Grand Hotel in Brighton.

He was apparently shaken by the fall of Thatcher, but went on to become the youngest member of the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury immediately after the 1992 election. Thatcher herself said to him "great things are expected of you. You will not disappoint us".

Interestingly, he says that privately she in fact was not particularly prudish at all. "I don't know how many examples I could give you but I was with Cecil Parkinson when he had the affair with Sara Keays and Thatcher wanted to appoint him foreign secretary and he said to her [Thatcher] 'oh you mustn't do that, because I've gotten this girl pregnant.' And Thatcher replied 'oh, well, in that case I'd better make you Secretary of State for Trade and Industry!' Hardly: 'You're banished from cabinet.'"

Portillo himself remained close to the pulse of power for most of his career. Portillo supported John Major ahead of John Redwood during the leadership challenge but two years later he was out on his ear and schadenfreude was unconfined: one newspaper lead with the headline 'Nation Rejoices As Portillo loses seat'. After a particularly excruciating interview with Paxman, Portillo himself declared that his name had become "synonymous with eating a bucketload of shit in public".

He would eventually be re-elected and indeed became Shadow Chancellor under William Hague but, after another doomed leadership race, he was gone for good, leaving the party to Europhiles like Ken Clarke.

I'm interested to know, then, what he makes of the potential Brexit. "I am a firm believer in self-determination. If the Scots want to go their own way, they should be allowed to. If the Brits want to leave the European Union, the same would apply."

He gives Cameron "high marks on the economy and low marks on foreign policy. It's difficult for me to see that our interventions in Libya, Egypt have been in the British interest.

"I think Britain should be less interventionist and more circumspect about allowing pockets of terrorism to appear."

He has been married to Carolyn Eadie, a highly successful City headhunter, since 1982 ('Kiss the boys and marry the girls' ran a headline in the UK Independent at the time of his "homosexual experiences" confession), but they never had any children. He's said that he thinks this was a disadvantage during his political career but, now, at 62, an age when many people are enjoying the particular pleasures of grandparenthood, I wonder if he feels it was a disadvantage in life. Again, he stonewalls: "I really have nothing to say on that."

He's described himself, in his second career, as a "cork bobbing on the tide of fate" and says that media has brought up unpredictable pleasures. "When you're climbing the slippery political pole each next move is clear - you move from being a back bencher to being a whip and so on.

"Since I've left parliament there hasn't been a structure and I know can't predict what's going to happen next. I'm probably better known now for making documentaries like this one, than I am for being a politician and I'd never never thought that was possible."

The Enemy Files will be broadcast on RTE1 tomorrow at 9.35pm

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