Chris Patten is one of our most distinguished public servants. But for the vagaries of parliamentary democracy, which saw him lose his seat at Bath in the 1992 general election (an election which, as chairman of the Conservative Party, he played a notable part in winning for John Major), he might even have become Prime Minister. That personal defeat gave him the opportunity to carry out with great distinction a number of crucial roles, including his time as the last governor of Hong Kong and as a European commissioner. He has already left more than a footprint in the sands of history.
First Confession sets out to be a memoir seen through the prism of identity, in particular the identity of the author. This material is concentrated in the first and last chapters – the rest of the book is a highly readable and enjoyable account of some of the challenges Lord Patten faced, and largely overcame, as a minister, governor, European commissioner and, somewhat less successfully, chairman of the BBC.
Not surprisingly, I share most of his values, succinctly and persuasively set out in the first chapter. Patten attended a grant-maintained school and I a grammar school; we both had the immense good fortune to get to Oxbridge. Like him, I believe in God and am an Atlanticist – we both enjoyed a prolonged stay in the United States in our early twenties. There is little between us on economic and social issues.
Yet we reach different conclusions on what is obviously one of the great issues facing our country, and one which makes up a central part of this book. And since Lord Patten specifically expresses surprise at the views I hold, I hope it will not be regarded as an abuse of the pages of the New Statesman if I use this opportunity to explain why.
One of my main criticisms of the book is the uncharitable tone it strikes when discussing those who voted for Brexit in last year’s referendum. Patten identifies the primary components of the Leave vote as those suffering from what is termed blue-collar alienation and the “blazer” contingent in southern England. I, and many other Leave voters, fall into neither category. I would have preferred the UK to remain a member of a genuinely reformed European Union.
This, I believe, is what David Cameron set out to achieve. When he spoke of the need for “far-reaching and fundamental” reform of the EU he was not simply seeking a better deal for the UK, he was trying to persuade other EU leaders of the pressing need for reform of their flawed structures. It was only when his pleas fell on deaf ears that many of us came to the conclusion that if reform was impossible we would be better off leaving.
For me, identity issues played an important part. In this age of globalisation, on which the book touches only briefly, many of the decisions that have a vital bearing on people’s future are taken far away from them. There is a great need to strengthen the bonds of social cohesion, and the unit in which those work most effectively remains the nation state. Had the EU been prepared to afford its members more room to breathe rather than, as now, insisting on a straitjacket of uniformity from Finland to Greece, many of us would have thought and voted differently. But that was not to be.
Instead it seems as though the EU will continue along the path of greater integration until, as many of us believe, something snaps. For we are not the only European country with a strong sense of nationhood. Sooner or later the EU’s attempts to weaken those bonds of national solidarity – as in the attempt to create a Europe of the regions – will come up against the resistance of enough of its citizens to force it to decide between changing course and disintegration.
And yes, it is of course true that immigration played a part in our decision to leave. This is not because those who voted Leave want an end to all immigration or deny that our country has long benefited from successive waves of immigration. As a child of immigrants myself, I could hardly think otherwise. Yet there are legitimate questions to raise about the scale and pace of immigration. If we are to retain what remains a largely admirable spirit of harmony in relations between different ethnic and religious groups in our country, I believe it is essential that we have a degree of control over the number and nature of people we admit.
None of this means that we want to break off the extensive relationship of co-operation with the EU from which we both benefit in so many ways. As the Prime Minister has said, we want a deep and special relationship with our closest neighbours. But the outcome of the negotiations depends as much on them as it does on us and although I am optimistic that there will be a mutual appreciation of those benefits, the result remains to be seen.
One of the book’s main targets is our tabloid press, for which Lord Patten reserves his greatest contempt and on which he lays the blame for much of the decision-making with which he disagrees. I think he grossly exaggerates their influence.
The outcome of the recent general election offers some support for my view – as does our international development budget. I have a vested interest in this since I first committed the Conservative Party, in its manifesto for the 2005 general election, to the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent of GDP. The tabloids have been as violently critical of this programme as they have of the European Union. Yet it has now been achieved and remains in place. The difference, I would suggest, is that the shortcomings of the EU are such that the tabloid campaign fell on fertile ground whereas the instincts of the British people to help those less fortunate than ourselves are sufficiently strong to withstand the pounding they regularly receive.
As one would expect, the memoir gives us much insight into the character of Patten, the man. He was gracious in defeat at Bath, though the bitter-sweetness of the 1992 election result was obviously very hard to swallow. He was sustained in the midst of his controversies in Hong Kong by his determination to do what he could to achieve a real say in their future for the people of the colony and was admirably brave in the face of Chinese hostility. And he deals with some delicacy with the difficulties he faced at the BBC. First Confessions is a worthwhile book, and one that will be enjoyed by readers, whether or not they agree with its author’s opinions.
First Confession: A Sort of Memoir
Allen Lane, 320pp, £20
This article appears in the 05 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania