I Hated All My Dad Stood for, but Seeing Him Die Was Agony; MICHAEL PORTILLO, ON FACING UP TO THE CONFLICTS THAT DIVIDED HIS FAMILY

Daily Mail (London), January 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

I Hated All My Dad Stood for, but Seeing Him Die Was Agony; MICHAEL PORTILLO, ON FACING UP TO THE CONFLICTS THAT DIVIDED HIS FAMILY


Byline: JANE KELLY

AT THE moment of his greatest defeat, in May 1997, when he lost his Parliamentary seat and ministerial office, it was not by chance that Michael Xavier Denzil Portillo kept his dignity while other men were behaving like fools and cads. His composure under fire is a quality he calls 'Castilian'.

'I'm temperamentally half-Spanish. I care about dignity and honour,' he says.

Since his political career hit the buffers after the General Election, he has had more time on his hands. 'I write a bit, think a bit and speak a bit,' he

says. He has also explored his roots, which were buried deep in Spanish soil.

Tonight, the former torch bearer for Thatcherism can be seen traversing Spain, by second-class ticket, for the BBC series Great Railway Journeys.

It took him two weeks to go from Madrid to Granada, then back up to Salamanca and the plain of Castile, where his father's family live in the remote village of Madrigal.

He was delighted to make the programme, but his first visit to Spain for 37 years was an emotional cauldron.

'The programme is supposed to be about trains,' says Portillo, 45, 'but more of the personal story came out. I put all of myself into it.' THE journey brought back memories of his father, a man against whom he seems to have reacted all his life, yet whom he adored.

When he reached the ancient city of Salamanca, the place where he believes his father's spirit rests, he had to face memories of his father's decline from Alzheimer's disease and eventual death.

In 1988 his father had returned to the city and was found wandering around in tears. Knowing that he was losing his mind, he deliberately said goodbye to the place where he had been a student and a successful lawyer.

Portillo has since suffered agonies thinking of that time, when his father was lucid but knew that he was slipping into dementia.

From old photographs it possible to see that Portillo and his father, Luis Gabriel, born in 1907, looked alike, yet throughout his life Michael Portillo was diametrically opposed to his father.

He says his father was 'fanatically gentle'. Portillo, as MP for Enfield Southgate, was always seen as a hard man of the Right, giving no quarter to opponents, a member of the Adam Smith Institute's

Omega Project, which produced the blueprint for much of the privatisation in Margaret Thatcher's second term.

Portillo Senior refused to carry arms during the Spanish Civil War. But his son was once a gung-ho Defence Secretary.

Luis Portillo opposed the death sentence, and when he received lists of Fascists sentenced to death, reprieved them all. Here, his son backed a return to the death sentence.

His father was a socialist-internationalist, while Portillo is a staunch defender of the Union. His opposition to Europe led John Major once to imply he was 'a bastard'.

Above all, Luis was a man who was frustrated economically. In Britain, he could never get a well-paid job, whereas his son has held three ministerial posts and is now consultant to an oil company.

Portillo's train journey takes him into the tortuous issues of Spain which split his family and wrecked his father's life.

In the film we see him and his Spanish relatives enjoying a family gathering. 'They are completely laid back about me,' he says. 'They don't follow my career with any excitement.' All their excitement about politics was probably exhausted long ago.

ON JULY 21, 1936, Portillo's uncle Victor, then 17, who had already been to jail for political activity, joined General Franco in his attack on the republican government. His brother Luis was on the other side.

After the Civil War, which lasted just over two years and led to the deaths of one million people, Victor stayed in Franco's army, while Luis had to flee to safety in Britain. …

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