Sir Malcolm Rifkind

3rd August 2012 at 01:00
A dashing history master gave the veteran politician an appetite for current affairs

There were a lot of good teachers but one that made most impact longer term was a history master, Robin Morgan. He was a brilliant, extrovert character with a loud voice and a lot of enthusiasm. He looked very dashing and handsome. His wife was an heiress to the Wills tobacco family, which was always fascinating to us because we assumed he was quite rich. Certainly, he drove a sports car which he wouldn't have been able to afford on a teacher's salary.

Although his subject was history, he was interested and fascinated by current affairs. Often at the beginning of a history lesson, he would raise some subject of the day, something that was happening in the world or the country, and encourage dialogue. For someone like myself that was quite important.

Already I had been introduced to debating by another master. The school debating society started when I was about 14 and because I'd been in a couple of school plays, it was decided I should take part. I enjoyed it a great deal. If you become involved in a school or university debating society, a lot of the subjects are political - for or against apartheid, for or against capital punishment - and gradually I became more interested in political issues. When the history master opened up these matters, it encouraged us to think for ourselves, offer our views and express our opinions. I found it to be a good form of education.

I had one marvellous clash with him. In my final year I was deputy editor of the school magazine, called Phoenix, which contained some serious and some more flippant articles. One of the things we did was to take a lot of well-known phrases and sayings and attribute them to schoolmasters. So for one of the maths masters, who was not very articulate, we discovered a quote: "Everything bows to success, even grammar." And for Robin Morgan we got one that read: "Get your facts right first, then distort them as much as you like," and put his name against it.

The day the magazine came out, he asked me to stay behind. He pointed to the quote and asked me, "What do you mean by that quotation? You are making me seem like some sort of fascist, distorting the truth." I lamely said it was just meant to be a joke.

One of his subsequent jobs was headmaster of Stewart's Melville College, and because I was an Edinburgh MP in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, I spoke a couple of times at the school. Then we met once after he retired, but we've not been in touch since. He wrote to me once when I got a political job, which was rather nice, because he probably thought I was a complete idiot at school. I was glad to have done something he could feel proud to have contributed to.

I was incredibly average at school. In each year we had three classes and they were graded according to results. I was quite near the top of the second grade. The rule was if you were first or second in the class, you got promoted to the next level the next year. I was content to come third because my parents could not complain, but neither did you risk being put up a level where you would be subject to greater pressure.

I only began to be motivated to work when I went to university. I went to the University of Edinburgh to study law with two Bs and a C. I applied for university at the end of fifth year, at the age of 17, six months after the closing date. With those results and that timescale you would not even get an interview today, never mind a place, but at that time there were more places than applicants.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind will discuss UK-Russian relations at the Scottish Parliament's Festival of Politics on Saturday 25 August. The festival runs from 17-25 August. He was talking to Emma Seith


Born: Edinburgh, 1946

Education: James Gillespie's Boys School and George Watson's College, both Edinburgh; University of Edinburgh

Career: Lawyer and politician.

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