Chris Patten claimed many of the glittering prizes in British politics and society: cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, Chairman of the Conservative Party, European Commissioner, Chairman of the BBC and Chancellor of Oxford University.
But it was his time as the last Governor of Hong Kong – with that unforgettable image of him, eyes moist, having accepted the drawn down Union Jack and sailing out of Victoria Harbour on Britannia – that he says were the most worthwhile years of his stellar career.
His latest book, First Confession (Penguin Random House), offers a frank and forthright account of his life shorn of the usual drudgery that plagues most political memoirs. Patten was recently in Australia on holiday, lamenting the loss of the Ashes, and I caught up with him for an interview.
‘There seemed to be an inevitability about the things I have done,’ Patten, 73, said. ‘I’d put up a sail and the wind would carry me along. I have been extremely lucky. But it doesn’t mean that I’m without rather strong opinions about things.’
Patten makes no apology for being ‘immoderate when you are standing up for moderation’. When trying to change Thatcher’s mind about the poll tax, seeking to get Major re-elected against the odds or endeavouring to persuade the Chinese to allow a degree of democracy in Hong Kong, these qualities could be useful.
During 1974-75, Patten headed the Conservative Party’s research department. The party was led by Edward Heath, whom Patten describes as clever but with defective personal skills. ‘He was extraordinarily self-centred and curiously one of those people who go into politics even though they don’t like people very much,’ he said.
Patten won the seat of Bath in the House of Commons in 1979, the election that catapulted Thatcher to power. ‘I enjoyed issues and I loved being a minister and making decisions,’ he recalled. ‘I never much cared for the sort of gossipy, boozy, halitosis in the morning, side of parliamentary life.’
He held several junior ministries before Thatcher elevated him to cabinet as Environment Secretary in 1989. He respects Thatcher as a reforming leader with drive and conviction who undoubtedly ‘saved Britain’, but does not ignore her flaws. The Iron Lady could be overbearing, inflexible and even cruel to colleagues.
‘She was a bit of an intellectual bully, though she was kind to people like drivers, lift men and secretaries,’ Patten says. ‘She was pretty brutal with ministers if she didn’t like them or if she thought they were bullshitting her. She was much better if you stood up to her.’
Patten was given carriage of the poll tax, a local government community charge, which he describes as akin to ‘the ten biblical plagues’. It was so ruinous that it cost Patten his seat of Bath in 1992. And he believes it was the biggest factor in Thatcher losing the prime ministership in 1990. Yet Patten backed Thatcher to the bitter end, even though he privately advised her to go.
‘The poll tax should have produced every warning sound because it honed in like a heat-seeking missile on voters in marginal constituencies,’ Patten said. ‘By that stage she wasn’t concentrating on issues as much as she used to, she was obsessed with Europe and she had made a promise to reform the local government tax system.’
Although Patten favoured Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to succeed Thatcher, he quickly realised that Major was more than capable in the job.
‘Increasingly, the British people understand that Major was much better than the press suggested and right about all the big issues,’ Patten said. ‘But he was never very happy in the job, not because he didn’t think he could do it, but because people were so patronising and bloody-minded to him. But he was very much the work horse and a very decent man.’
Major asked Patten to become Chairman of the Conservative Party ahead of the 1992 election. The government was returned, but without Patten. He recalled being ‘sick at the humiliation’ of losing his seat. Major planned to appoint Patten as Chancellor. Instead, he was sent to Hong Kong.
During his five years in Hong Kong, Patten oversaw economic and social improvements and expanded democratic and civic reforms, which have since been watered down. ‘I wasn’t surprised they rolled back what we tried to do on democracy,’ Patten reflected. ‘But I thought that they would probably allow a greater accountability on their own terms. They haven’t done that.’
With US-led global leadership under Donald Trump ‘questionable’ and Xi Jinping’s retreat from the ‘opening up’ reforms pioneered by Deng Xiaoping in China, Patten sees Australia as a beacon for liberal values in the Asia-Pacific region. ‘Australia is required much more than ever before to step up to the plate,” he said.
Patten, who served as European Commissioner (1999-2004), blames Brexit on the Conservative Party. He believes David Cameron made a ‘terrible decision’ to hold the referendum and assesses Theresa May to be utterly diminished after an ‘abysmal’ election campaign which resulted in the government losing its majority. Cameron and May, he said, are not in the league of Thatcher and Major. ‘It has been the most depressing thing, politically, to happen in my lifetime,’ Patten said. ‘It will reduce our political influence in the world and make life more difficult for us on the economic front. I think my children’s generation will spend the next twenty-five years trying to re-establish our relationship with Europe.’
Today, Patten sits happily in the House of Lords – ‘the Elysian fields of the British Constitution’ – but one glittering prize that eluded him was leadership of the Conservative Party and, possibly, the prime ministership.
‘I never actually thought I would be Prime Minister because I was always on the left of the Conservative Party,’ Patten conceded. ‘But I would like to have done it. You always want to test yourself in a job. But I never spend anytime moaning or groaning about it.’
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