The Nearly Man
First Confession: A sort of Memoir by Chris Patten
Chris Patten, long-serving Conservative Member of Parliament, Home Rule Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, ex-governor of Hong Kong and now Chancellor of the University of Oxford is, perhaps, an enigma. Whenever there seems to be a pigeonhole in which to slot him a ‘but’ appears. He just is different from his friends and colleagues. He is a grandee who isn’t grand. He is a Conservative but not right wing. He is liberal but not a Liberal.
Great grandson of Patrick from County Roscommon, Patten was born in 1944 in Greenford, West London, where he and his elder sister were brought up in modest surroundings. It would appear that it was his brain that launched Patten on his route to success.
He won scholarships to school and university. There he was taught by excellent teachers and became a passionate historian. He admires cleverness and often comments on colleagues who are really clever, or, indeed, not as clever as they think they are.
In 1965 he chose to work for the Conservative Research Department turning down a job as a graduate trainee at the BBC. Everyone thought he was foolish. But, between graduating (Balliol College, Oxford) and this decision Patten had won the Coolidge Atlantic Crossing Fellowship and spent a year in the US ending up fund-raising for a Republican mayoralty campaign in New York. Politics had found its way into his blood and was not going to budge. In spite of this infestation Patten still looks to history rather than political philosophy to define his views.
For Patten, the concept of Conservatism comes from Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s rejection of the French Revolution. He endorses Burke’s ‘opposition to utopianism and political blueprints’ and his objection to an ‘excessively rationalist approach to life’. This latter is important to Patten who was raised as a Catholic and is still practising. He feels that as a society people should respect their forebears and traditions in addition to looking forward to the future of their children. He sees these values as within Burke’s ideals of ‘patriotism, defence of the Crown, country and national interest’ as well as ‘defence of property and of order’.
Another of Patten’s heroes is the long-serving Conservative minister, Rab Butler, who ‘never quite became Prime Minister’. Patten thinks that Butler ‘should have got the job’. This is often mooted about Patten himself: ‘the best Tory Prime Minister we never had’. He underlines the morality and charitableness of Butler, describing him as a ‘consummate man of public affairs’ and quoting Butler’s claim that he knew ‘how to govern the people of this country’. Patten would probably apply a similar description to himself.
Perhaps the most interesting phases of Patten’s career are the two spent in Belfast. The chapter detailing these is named Crazy Irish Knots. As usual he introduces his analysis of the political situation with a potted history culminating in the 1916 Easter Rising which, he says, looked to the Northern Irish like ‘an Irish and Catholic stab in the back’. There was, after all, the First World War to be fought.
Patten felt that the North had ‘turned its Britishness into a sacred identity that most of the rest of Britain could barely recognise or comprehend’. He was uncomfortable with this and is disturbed now to see a rise of Nationalism in Great Britain and other parts of the world. He is scathing about most of the political behaviour on both sides of the border during the twentieth century, although he also acknowledges mainland culpability. The Northern Irish were not that keen on Patten either, when, with his British Irish Heritage and Catholicism, he took, in 1983, the post of Parliamentary Secretary.
It sounds like quite a fun job – apart from the guilt of raising the ‘Peace Wall’ by one and a half metres. He says he ‘built houses, opened health facilities, conserved buildings, ran a railway and spent the public’s money pretty well’. There were difficulties over the nomenclature of ‘Stroke City’. On Patten’s watch the city, remaining Londonderry, found itself inside Derry District Council. Stating ‘you could not make it up’ Patten adds wryly that he was rebranded too: ‘the Minister of Treachery’
In 1997 Patten returned to Belfast to become chair of the Independent Commission of Policing in Northern Ireland. This was to prove a more knotty problem. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was regarded as Protestant and Unionist. Patten was asked to develop a police force which ‘is seen as an integral part of the community as a whole’. Only 8% of the RUC were Catholic then but 20 years later 30% of the officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are, more closely reflecting the proportions of the population. Other than balancing recruitment Patten felt that ethos and symbols were central. Badges were redesigned and union flags removed from police stations. Crucially this controversial work was conducted without security, as Patten and his fellow commissioners relied solely on the word of ‘paramilitary terrorists on both sides’, as they visited villages and towns up and down the country and listened to local views.
During a long career Patten worked in many countries and was involved in many conflicts including, when he was a commissioner of the EU, the Balkan War. He worked with China when he was governor in Hong Kong. He worked with American diplomats. He is, he acknowledges, clever and well-informed, although reiterates that he has often met people who are his superior in both these assets. It is worth reading this book as its author sheds light, from a well-versed position, on many of the global political events of the second half of the twentieth, and the first 17 years of the current, century. He seems a thoughtful and reflective man, moderate and deeply suspicious of ideologies and bandwagons.
Using this experience, as well as his historical knowledge, Patten feels able to make strong generalising statements. Bracketing his work in Northern Ireland with his efforts in the Balkans he states ‘identity conflicts, like most others, require for their settlement a combination of force and politics’. He thinks that in ‘Northern Ireland there would never have been peace had not the terrorists in both communities come to understand that the British security effort was not going to run out of patience and energy. Second, in a big conflict, Europe had to work hand-in-hand with the United States. Europeans could not operate on their own’. Reading these words it is clear why Patten is unhappy with the current situation in global politics.
Patten abhors Brexit and despises Trump. Like many people he feels that everything on which a relatively peaceful world order was based is being undermined. He thinks that lies and mendacity have trumped good sense and collegiality. He despises the tool of referendum as oppositional to democracy, ‘substituting crude majoritarianism for discussion and compromise among those we elect to give us the benefit of their judgement’.
Closing the book with, at 73, a meditation of his life as a Catholic, family man, as well as a British European liberal international Tory, Patten has only one great regret: ‘the result of the EU referendum and what it tells us about the populist perils here, elsewhere in Europe and, alas, in America too’. He ends with the hope that Britain, Europe and America do not fragment what has been ‘one of the most peaceful, prosperous and increasingly tolerant periods in history’.
Pattern, C. First Confession: A Sort of Memoir. Allen Lane. 2017.
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A version of this review was first published in the Irish Examiner on pages 41 and 42 of the Weekend section on 4th November 2017. It is posted here by permission of the Editor.