Leadership and Sovereignty in a Muddled World: Chris Patten Reflects on His Experiences in London, Hong Kong and Brussels

By Patten, Chris | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2010 | Go to article overview

Leadership and Sovereignty in a Muddled World: Chris Patten Reflects on His Experiences in London, Hong Kong and Brussels


Patten, Chris, New Zealand International Review


In any career in public service there is a moment when you suddenly start to get recognised. I remember shortly after I had become a minister a stranger leant across--this was on a cross-Channel ferry--and tapped on the back of the Financial Times. I lowered it gingerly, and he said 'has anyone ever told you how like Chris Patten you look?' There is a similar sensation when you start to slip out of recognition, leaving public office behind you. I like the story about Stanley Baldwin, the British Prime Minister, travelling on a train just before the Second World War. A fellow occupant keeps on looking at him and he eventually says to him 'weren't you in Harrow in the 1880s when I was there?' and Stanley Baldwin says 'yes I was in Harrow in the 1880s', and the fellow says 'what have you been doing with yourself since then'. I guess that is the stage in life that I have now reached. I was introduced recently at a meeting by someone who said that 'Lord Patten has had a very chequered career', and it has certainly been a very varied career. It has embraced most forms of government service and dealt with most sorts of political problems. I began as a member of Parliament and a minister in a variety of government departments. I spent two years in Northern Ireland trying to deal with the consequences of our failure, something we have partially addressed, to share our space peacefully in what are now called with a gesture of political correctness 'The Atlantic Islands'. I went on after having been a minister and chairman of the Conservative Party to become Governor of Britain's last substantial colony with huge, almost Lord Curzon-like authority and power. After handing Hong Kong back to the Chinese and after having, as part of the Belfast Peace Agreement, reorganised the police and security services in Northern Ireland, I became a European commissioner in Brussels, helping to run the institution which manages those areas of policy where European countries have agreed to share decision-making. When I became a commissioner, I was much criticised by the Murdoch press in Britain, which is nationalistic about everything except the ownership of the media. One newspaper said that I was turning my back on the British way of life. One cartoon in the tabloid Sun had two sketches of me, one handing over the Union flag in Hong Kong, the next handing over the Union flag in Brussels. That is more or less what passes for debate on Europe in Britain, where you need to be a psychotherapist to fully comprehend the nature of Britain's relationship with its mainland partners.

Three issues

These various experiences--in London, Belfast, Hong Kong, Brussels--have brought me into contact with three related issues in political science. The first is the meaning of sovereignty, the second is the role of nation states in the modern world and the third is the idea of identity--what Amin Maalouf, the famous Lebanese Arab Christian French novelist, called 'the panthers' of identity politics. As historians of New Zealand know very well, sovereignty is a notoriously slippery concept. In Europe in the Middle Ages the position was clear enough: sovereignty rested with God, but in time God was good enough to delegate to the monarch, for example Henry VIII, who stood in for him. Then along came Parliament, where sovereignty became an expression of the will of the people rather than of God, a point which Charles I disputed and unfortunately lost his head in the process. Sovereignty is often treated in public debate as though it was like virginity: here one moment, gone the next. Alternatively some of my fellow conservatives in Britain seem to regard it as though it were an ancient monument that foreigners vandalised by night, stealing a bit here, a bit there.

Customarily I suppose there are three ways in which sovereignty is defined by politicians and lawyers. First, there is the notion of parliamentary sovereignty, but surely no one suggests that sovereign parliaments do anything at all regardless of geographical boundaries or constitutional limits and proprieties. …

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