Chris Patten's book draws extensively on his experiences as an undergraduate, a political researcher, a Cabinet Minister and Party Chairman, a Governor of Hong Kong and a European Commissioner. But it is not, he insists, the usual political memoir. Rather, it is the extrapolation into public print of a literary genre whose readership is normally confined to members of the British diplomatic service: namely the farewell ambassadorial despatch, written on the day of retirement, in which former excellencies give vent to the repressed emotions of their careers and tell their colleagues all the things which they were previously too timid to say about the state of the world and about the policies of their Government.
Frustration and despair, the moods which often characterize these ambassadorial products, are present in Patten's book as well: frustration with those in the Conservative Party and in large sections of the British media who have succumbed to what he sees as irrational Euroscepticism; and despair at the eclipse in the United States of the former multilateralist approach to foreign policy and its replacement by a neo-conservative ideology based on American national interest as defined by America and on the power of the gun.
But though Patten clearly feels deeply about these issues he does not write in anger. His thesis is coolly argued and he seeks to analyze and explain the views of those with whom he profoundly differs. The chapter on National Sovereignty and the Descent of Conservatism is a masterly account of the decline of his party's relationship with the EU. Patten recalls that the Maastricht Treaty, when initially signed, was not particularly controversial within the party; that it was the sort of deal that Mrs Thatcher (who had herself been responsible for the Single European Act, the biggest revolution in decision-making and the sharing of sovereignty in the history of European integration) would most likely have endorsed; and that it was Black Wednesday, the humiliating exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, in which the then Chancellor of the Exchequer's political advisor David Cameron played a walk-on part, which was instrumental in reversing thirty years of policy and turning the Conservatives into a party infatuated with what he calls the ‘ruinous fantasy’ of Europhobia.
Patten also writes interestingly and fairly about the realities of how the EU works and why it does some of the things it does. He notes, in relation to the internal market, that what to some people is excessive interference in the ‘nooks and crannies’ of everyday life is in reality the removal of genuine distortions of competition; and that the Commission is no more corrupt and no more inefficient than any British government department. He is a forthright defender of the decision to open enlargement negotiations with Turkey and a scathing critic of those, like Jean-Claude Juncker (the Prime Minister of Luxembourg), who arrogantly dismiss the need for public acceptability for what the EU does or who claim that the No-votes in France and the Netherlands did not really mean that the electorates there had rejected the European constitution. By traditional standards, Patten would be a Euro-realist rather than a Europhile. He warns against the further vacuuming of powers to the centre in
Unsurprisingly, the area of the EU's activity about which Patten has most to say is its foreign policy. He is honest about its shortcomings (strong nouns but weak verbs, as he characterizes the EU's propensity for declarations rather than action), its failure to think properly about
This, of course, raises the issue of the nature of our relationship with the
Patten writes with humour and style. His descriptions of people and institutions are often wickedly accurate: whether of David Blunkett (‘he deserves some sort of recognition for having made the journey from populist left to authoritarian right without being touched by even the shadows of the European liberal tradition’); of Tony Blair (‘a usually likeable man who has convictions to which he holds strongly – while he holds them’); or of the Foreign Office (‘its best minds are required these days to pursue change management for a changing world narrowly avoiding as they do so cascading objectives...and seeking to find their way through their strategic resource accounting matrix. To make it all worse, diplomats are expected, under Orwellian pressure, to evince enthusiasm for this work’). When his appointment as European Commissioner was announced, the Daily Telegraph in an editorial opined that he was turning his back on the British way of life. The comment says more about the Daily Telegraph than about Patten. He made the most of his time in
Finally, it is customary for reviewers of books in scholarly journals to identify some egregious inaccuracy in the text. In this spirit, it should be recorded that Patten is wrong in claiming that the wife of the former Italian Commissioner, Carlo Ripa di Meana, called her husband, on account of his marital performance, the ‘orgasm of Utrecht’. The term she used for him, in alliterative homage to Erasmus, was the Orgasmo di Rotterdam.
Sir Paul Lever