Not Quite the Diplomat: Home Truths About World Affairs

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 Europe, and he acknowledges the absence of a European demos. His analysis is cogent even if he ducks some of the awkward policy questions: why, if there is no demos, do we need a directly-elected European Parliament; why should the EU have a centrally organized social policy; and why should the Commission have twenty-five commissioners when there is work for no more than half of them?


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 Russia and its tendency to criticize the United States without offering any viable alternative. But he also records the success of enlargement and the effective use which the EU is now, after a false start, making of its soft power in the Balkans. The fact that the double act between Patten, who held the external relations portfolio in the Commission, and Javier Solana, the Council’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, worked well is a tribute to the good sense and lack of amour propre of both of them. But it is an unwieldy construct. The endless travelling (‘when we don't have a policy we go on a visit’) and the disjunction between responsibility for policy and responsibility for money makes no sense. This is surely one element of the EU's Constitutional Treaty which deserves to be rescued. But it is hard to escape concluding from Patten's account of the realities of European diplomacy that for the time being the EU's collective role is likely to be limited to the practical implementation of policies whose strategic direction is set elsewhere; and that for Britain the key choice will be not whether we are prepared to ‘surrender’ foreign policy sovereignty to Brussels, but how far we are prepared to work with France and Germany to secure our goals.


This, of course, raises the issue of the nature of our relationship with the United States. Like most Conservative politicians of his generation and background, Patten is an instinctive Atlanticist (one of his political heroes is John Lindsay, the liberal Republican Mayor of New York for whom he worked briefly in the 1960s); and like most of them, he too is appalled by what is happening to America's view of the world. He believes that the invasion of Iraq was misguided and that the neo-conservative establishment in Washington is failing to make America, or the world, any safer. He has little regard for President Bush, even though his real scorn is reserved for Vice President Cheney. He writes tellingly about the dangers of American exceptionalism and about the damage done to American, and general Western, interests by Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib (the book was published before the further publicity about extraordinary rendition). It is hard, in reading his analysis, not to fear that there is now an unbridgeable chasm between America and Europe (including Britain) on how to manage international security; and that Patten's plea for a return to the old collaborative relationship and to a style of American leadership based on a search for consensus with allies may alas be wishful thinking.


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 Brussels. But how sad for his party, and for the country, that, thanks to the decision of the electors of Bath in 1992, he never occupied any of the great British offices of state and never quite made the contribution to national policy-making at the highest level which his talents fitted him for.


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
Chairman, RUSI

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