Magazine article The Spectator

Afarewell Despatch

Magazine article The Spectator

Afarewell Despatch

Article excerpt

NOT QUITE THE DIPLOMAT : HOME TRUTHS ABOUT WORLD AFFAIRS by Chris Patten Allen Lane, £20, pp. 304, ISBN 0713998555 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Chris Patten was the star of the 1979 intake of Conservative MPs. In today's unattractive phrase, he ticked all the boxes.

Head of the Conservative Research Department at the absurdly early age of 27, he acquired an early and easy familiarity with power and the powerful that sat attractively with his relatively humble origins and reassured the rest of us that the nation and the party were indeed open to all. His public manner matched his charm in private: a sort of demotic Balliol punctuated by an occasionally menacing and explosive laugh. He could be 'gobsmacked', but he can translate Thucydides. He also possessed all the political accomplishments most of the rest of us lacked. He shone brightly in the firmament.

The Tory wets loved him, not only for his charm of manner, but because he instinctively subscribed to the postwar consensus. At home, he supported the Jim Prior approach to industrial relations and Northern Ireland and the House of Commons heard that he was not in principle opposed to an incomes policy. Abroad, he approved of the America of Truman and Marshall and supported our enthusiastic membership of the EU. Over Israel/Palestine he consorted with Ian Gilmour and Dennis Walters. In short he was not a biffer, he was a consensus-loving establishment man with all the public political skills that Sir Humphrey lacked. No wonder Margaret Thatcher, a natural biffer and in many ways the Brigadier RitchieHook of late 20th century politics, had her suspicions. However, she could not ignore him. His abilities and her party's recognition of them forced her to give this decent, honourable, clever and rather old-fashioned figure some pretty difficult jobs in her administration. His civil servants loved him, perhaps as much as Douglas Hurd and Tristan GarelJones loved him.

Chris Patten has now retired, although on the back of this book's dust-cover he implies that he would not be averse to one last canter. This is his farewell despatch. Since the scope of his career is somewhat broader than your average Carleton-Browne of the FO's, there is a danger of the book's descending into the sort of tour d'horizon which foreign office ministers so successfully use to anaesthetise the House of Commons. It is a danger the author recognises but does not wholly avoid, perhaps because there are signs that he was writing to a tightish deadline.

Nevertheless, as one would expect, it is full of good things and of happy phrases.

I particularly liked, when discussing one of the most serious charges in the long sheet marked A. Blair, 'the dismantling of the barriers of discretion and seemliness between politicians and civil servants'. Time and again this reviewer found himself underlining vigorously an assertion made pithily, with insight and backed by experience. For instance, abroad, he is clear-sighted on Putin's Russia. He recognises that the Chekists are back and that the West needs to support the borderlands. He remains convincing and authoritative on China, recognising in a remarkably acute passage on India that, since China lacks India's democratic and legal traditions, Peking may find more difficult than Delhi the transition from the assembly shop of the world to a genuinely innovative, knowledge-based economy. …

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