Cousins and Strangers/testimony

By Gowan, Richard | International Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Cousins and Strangers/testimony


Gowan, Richard, International Journal


COUSINS AND STRANGERS America, Britain and Europe in the New Century Chris Patten New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006. 3O9pp, USSiy.oo paper.

TESTIMONY France in the 2ist Century Nicolas Sarkozy, trans. Philip H. Gordon New York: Random House, 2007. 251pp, US$24.95 cloth.

It seems increasingly possible, if by no means guaranteed, that the next British general election will see the Conservative party return to government. If (as is also likely but not certain) that election is held in 2009, it will come 30 years after Margaret Thatcher's first victory over Labour. In 1979, she led the Tories out of opposition at a time of international instability. In the US, the White House was struggling with the legacy of a lost war and Middle Eastern crises that had challenged the west's energy security. Iran in particular was causing trouble-Thatcher took power in London just two months after Ayatollah Khomeini's return from exile to Tehran. If the current Conservative leader, David Cameron, does indeed become prime minister, he may be struck by the parallels between the dilemmas that faced Thatcher and those on his own agenda.

He may also take comfort in the belief that Thatcher-often an uneasy opposition leader and initially uncertain on foreign policy-grew into the job. She drew closer to the United States, fought for the Falklands, and parlayed with Gorbachev. In spite of her own suspicions and later rhetoric, she made important decisions to deepen Britain's commitment to Europe. Whatever one's visceral reaction to Thatcher (in this author's case, one of residual fear) she at least seemed to have a vision of Britain's global role.

But Mr. Cameron may also be moved to wonder where it all went wrong. As Chris Patten (a minister under Thatcher and her successor John Major before going on to govern Hong Kong and be a European commissioner) observes in Cousins and Strangers, the years after the Cold War saw the sudden and utter intellectual enfeeblement of the Conservative party. This phenomenon was rooted in international-and especially European-affairs. Patten's book is a tour d'horizon of today's international scene, but also "the nearest I shall ever get to writing my memoirs" (49)-the British edition was entitled Not Quite the Diplomat. Although he was largely in Hong Kong through the mid-1990s, he dwells on the party's self-destruction in that period. While Thatcher contributed to European integration, her own unease with the process became a psychosis on the Conservative right. This intensified after the Tories' defeat in 1997, as their dogmatic anti-Europeanism left them looking "so unsophisticated in the field of foreign policy, where they had traditionally thought themselves supreme" (97).

Thus Cousins and Strangers is not only a memoir and analysis of international affairs (it is very good as both), but an effort to remedy this lack of sophistication. For Patten, this is all the more urgent, as the impoverishment of Conservative thought is now a transatlantic problem. He liked "big, beefy, brainy" Bill Clinton but has pithy contempt for the Republicans that followed (27). This is partly personal-if you ever wanted to excoriate Dick Cheney but couldn't find the words, this is the book for you. But Patten also has an ideological horror of the neoconservatives. "As a conservative," he explains, "I assert that the one thing that neoconservative does not mean is conservative" (225). If the British Tories destroyed their reputation for competence through turning on a European project that Margaret Thatcher had helped construct, the Bush administration seems to have made a similar yet more catastrophic mistake by assaulting the institutions and norms of "a world made by America, largely in America's image" (225).

So the British Tories must now contend not only with the legacy of their internal debacle over Europe, but the wreckage left by the American right on the world scene. The task of a conservative, as defined throughout this book, must now be to restore some equilibrium. …

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