Show caption ‘We don’t have a Conservative government at all, but an English nationalist party.’ Chris Patten photographed at his home in London. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer Chris Patten Chris Patten: ‘We have a populist government that is – fatally – not popular’ The Tory grandee, publishing his diaries of his time as governor of Hong Kong, on the ‘greedy’ west giving China an easy ride – and his party’s ‘long nervous breakdown’ Tim Adams @TimAdamsWrites Sun 12 Jun 2022 07.00 BST Share on Facebook
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A few minutes after the result of Monday’s confidence vote in the prime minister was announced, I spoke to Chris Patten on the phone. The former Conservative party chairman and current rebellious Tory peer was dismayed to see the “Johnson cult still hanging on”. He described the government as “shameful and seedy”. “The most depressing thing is I’ve been watching interviews with ministers this evening,” he said, “and the titles alone are so depressing. Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for Brexit opportunities. If ever there as a contradiction in terms it is that. And nobody should ever see the words ‘Nadine Dorries’ and ‘culture secretary’ in the same sentence.”
I suggest the fractures go back to the 1990s. John Major’s bastards have long since taken over.
“It’s been a very long nervous breakdown. And I don’t see what pulls the party together again. In politics, one has to make a distinction between people who are doing things that are wrong and people who are trying to do things that are right. And I just think Johnson is terribly wrong. It is hard to beat Dominic Grieve’s description of him as a moral vacuum.”
A few minutes later he phones me back. “What I should say,” he said, “is that we don’t have a Conservative government at all, but an English nationalist party which is populist, but – fatally – without being popular.”
Patten has become a kind of living reminder of that shift on the right. He was the architect of Major’s 1992 election victory, built on a belief that, post-Thatcher, the party must be “tolerant, efficient and generous-spirited”. Those are three values for the scrapbook. Had he not lost his own seat in Bath in that election, partly because he was associated with the poll tax, he would have become, at 48, chancellor of the exchequer. His subsequent career has been a tour of duty of threatened institutions and imperial relics, the more grown-up version of Portillo on a train. He was, of course, Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong, lampooned in Private Eye as the grand poobah, before the handover to China in 1997. He followed that up with the job of which he is most proud – establishing a new, non-sectarian police force in Northern Ireland, as part of the Good Friday agreement. He was then an EU commissioner, partly responsible for the union’s foreign policy. Then chairman of the BBC Trust, fighting a rearguard action against cuts. For the last 19 years he has been chancellor of Oxford University. In each of those roles, he has been pitted not against the left, but mostly against the Daily Mail and the ideologues and nut jobs in his own party.
Patten lives in a large villa in Barnes in south-west London, next to the wooded common. There is a 1930s village atmosphere, which bankers and lawyers now pay £5m to inhabit. Visiting him is like stepping into a lost Conservative hinterland. I’m met at the door by his wife, Lavender, and their terrier, Bobby. The gracious, book-lined sitting room gives out on to a generous garden. Under a painted portrait of Patten and his wife of 51 years are photographs of their eight grandchildren. He turns off a muted symphony when I arrive. On the table is the book he’s just put down, Julia Boyd’s A Village in the Third Reich: How Ordinary Lives Were Transformed by the Rise of Fascism, and a copy of his own new book, The Hong Kong Diaries, which is the occasion for our meeting.
The book was a lockdown project. He kept a daily journal of his historic years in Hong Kong, partly on tape recordings. The plan was to hand the lot over to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, but he felt he should get it in order. “It involved turning 850,000 words into 250,000. And cross-checking against my wife’s diary, to make sure I had the days right.”
With Margaret Thatcher (and Michael Portillo, far right) while he was environment secretary in 1989. Photograph: Tony Harris/PA
It’s a strange thing to reinhabit the years of Patten’s book, the last trappings of British empire dissolving in a series of intractable negotiations with the Beijing government. Grand promises made about “one country, two systems” mixed with anecdotes about the Pattens’ three daughters and two dogs. Reading it, you can’t help but reflect on an essential loss of rigour in Britain’s dealings with the world; contrast the likes of Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind as foreign secretaries with the incumbent, Liz Truss.
“It’s too depressing to think about,” Patten says. “Many good people were driven out of the Conservative party by Brexit. There are still a few. I look at people like Jeremy Hunt – though I fear it is going to ruin his leadership chances for me to say he’s perfectly good and decent.”
Patten seems a consummately relaxed 78. Does he ever get mad, watching his life’s work, at home and abroad, unravel?
“I listened to Sheila Hancock earlier talking about how one of the things about getting old is getting angrier. And yeah, I do get angry about things. And it’s probably just because so many of the things that I think my generation took for granted are now being trashed.”
Patten was not a silver-spoon Tory. He was born into an Irish Catholic family on his paternal side. His father was a drummer in a jazz band who became a music publisher, before running a precarious business making jingles for TV. “We never talked about politics or religion at home,” Patten says. “It was an extremely apolitical household; my parents would have voted Conservative. They bought the Daily Express in the days when it was a decent newspaper.”
His vocation was shaped more by the timing of his birth, which came with tragedy and hope built in. Patten was born in 1944 on the day the German army was driven out of Crimea. His wife’s father competed in the 1936 Olympics, “part of that Chariots of Fire generation”, and was killed in 1944. “For people of my age, it was a bit like being born just after the Congress of Vienna [of 1814], to then live through a period of stability and growing prosperity, longevity, better health, in which there were a number of givens: Europe or welfare democracy or that thing that Peter Hennessy writes about, leaders who, in the absence of a written constitution, could be trusted to do the right thing.”
Patten receiving the union flag after it was lowered for the last time at Government House – the governor’s official residence – during a farewell ceremony in Hong Kong in 1997. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Part of the reason that he despairs in watching our own democratic norms under threat – proroguing parliament, undermining the independence of the judiciary and the neutrality of the civil service, threatening to ignore treaties in Northern Ireland – is that he knows it makes it harder to criticise other regimes.
After he left Hong Kong, Patten was part of the EU team that negotiated China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2002. Tony Blair suggested that it made “the road to democracy [in China] unstoppable”.
That belief looks laughably naive now?
“When Chinese leaders said Hong Kong could remain itself for 50 years after 1997,” he says, “it rather begged the question of whether they knew what it was in the first place. I talk in the diaries about trying to explain to my opposite number in Beijing what the rule of law was, that it wasn’t rule by law. And him looking at me mystified. Concepts like that were mysterious to them. I think they thought that Hong Kong was just about allowing people to become rich.”
Do you think it was also their belief that the British government had deluded itself about its own purpose? I mean, it was a colonial project. Do you think that they always saw through that?
With wife, Lavender, and daughters (from left) Kate, Laura and Alice, after receiving the Order of the Companions of Honour at Buckingham Palace in 1989. Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA
“Well, there are two elements to it. I think, first of all, people talk about American exceptionalism, try Chinese exceptionalism. They had the mandate of heaven and I didn’t even have the mandate of the voters of Bath. But there was a bigger question, which I think framed the whole problem. It was politically and morally difficult both for them and for us. This wasn’t a colony like any other. We weren’t preparing it for independence. It was going to become part of China. The Black Watch [the last British military unit to leave] weren’t going to hold Hong Kong against the People’s Liberation Army. I kept on saying the only bunkers in Hong Kong were on golf courses.”
Events of the last decade, not just in China, have shown how the liberal idea that market freedom goes hand in hand with political freedom has been disproved. Western governments, Patten believes, have been wrong – “because of greed” – to give Xi Jinping’s regime an easier ride than Vladimir Putin’s. He fears the results are being played out in Hong Kong. “You can see it in the language used by [former Hong Kong chief executive] Carrie Lam and now this terrible policeman who is her successor, John Lee. That grim communist-speak.”
Patten, a practising Catholic, has been disturbed in particular by the recent crackdown on religion and the arrest of Cardinal Zen, the church’s primate in Hong Kong.
“I knew the cardinal when I was there,” he says. “He’s exactly what authoritarians don’t like: feisty, tough, pastoral, funny.” Zen reminds him, he says, of another “brave, up-yours kind of person”, Jonathan Mirsky, the former Observer correspondent who covered the Tiananmen Square massacre. “Mirsky had many Chinese friends, but he denounced the Chinese Communist party as wicked.” Patten believes both politicians and businessmen are too slow to say that. “What the Russians are doing in Ukraine is wicked. What the Chinese have done in Xinjiang is wicked. What they’re doing in Hong Kong is wicked. We should say so. And they hate it when we do.”
A return visit to Hong Kong in 2005. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP
His book ends with a postscript that is a rallying cry for the democracy movement in his former home (and his current one) – “their cause is our cause”. He went over and addressed the students who organised the protests against Hong Kong’s security laws a couple of times, at the invitation of their informal leader, Joshua Wong. He made the case for negotiation rather than outright demands for independence.
“After the speech in 2017,” he says, “there was a Q&A. The most difficult question was a kid who said, ‘We’ve listened to you, Mr Patten. But what if you’re wrong? What will happen if the Communist party starts arresting us, sending people to prison?’” In answer, he went, he says, “through all those quotes one uses, you know, Nelson Mandela, ‘you can’t lock up an idea’, and so on. But if it was difficult to convince them of that hope then, certainly after 2019 when Mr Lee’s police had been beating them over the head, tasering and teargassing them, it wasn’t going to be any easier.”
A year ago, Patten was taking Bobby for a walk in Richmond Park when he bumped into two Chinese couples in their mid-20s. One of them, a postgraduate medical student at Oxford, stopped him to explain that they had met at that meeting and Patten had been photographed with him carrying the yellow umbrella symbol of protest. He asked Patten the question that all young people from Hong Kong he meets now ask him: “Do you think when we finish our degree we should go back to Hong Kong?”
Patten tried, he says, to give an answer that recognised that he was not being required to be as brave as they might be, in making that choice. At which point, the young man’s “lovely girlfriend just burst into tears”. In the last three months, he says, partly as a result of Britain’s generous visa scheme, “there have been 100,000-plus people from Hong Kong, teachers, medics, lawyers, leaving to come here and lots of other places as well”. If he’s honest he can’t see any other future for the territory “than that it will have its freedoms and its attributes as an open society stripped away comprehensively”.
There is an inevitable sentimental or nostalgic strain to Patten’s diaries of 25 years ago, as he departed on the royal yacht. The tone sometimes threatens to override his reservations about Britain’s own shaming colonial history that led to the acquisition of “the rocks” in the first place. Is he guilty of a kind of historical myopia?
“It’s an aspect of a mature patriotism to look at both the good bit and the bad bits. The attempt, for example, to understand the relationship between a slave trade and the Atlantic economy of which we were a part seems to me to be fundamentally important. It’s not woke to do that. That’s just good history.”
He has been an opponent of the movement at Oxford to tear down the statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Isn’t deciding who we venerate a vital part of that reckoning also?
“I take as my baseline what Nelson Mandela said about the Rhodes Trust,” he says. “Which he thought was something which was valuable to South Africa. It is certainly important to use Rhodes money for more black African students. Simply to denounce it seems crazy. But the debate goes on.”
Had things gone differently for him in 1992, it is quite possible to imagine that Patten could have been the first Catholic prime minister of Britain. Reading his 2017 memoir, First Confession, I was struck by how much his faith meant to him. He states baldly at one point a belief in an afterlife. How I wonder, sitting on his plump sofa, does he envisage that?
He laughs. “It’s funny you should say that. I occasionally get asked to preach in college chapels. Lavender doesn’t entirely approve; I think she fears it makes me a tad sanctimonious. But the last two I’ve done involved preaching on the days when the readings were about death and afterwards.”
People said to him he couldn’t talk to students about death, but he thought, why not? His latest sermon outlined three possibilities. The first was a literalist one based on a reading by Ronald Knox, who was chaplain to Catholic students at Oxford. “He talks about how you will see Christ sitting at the right hand of his father and a sort of celebrity troop of angels,” Patten says, chuckling. His second thought was metaphor. The one he liked most was coined by an Episcopalian American missionary bishop who talked about being on the seashore with his friend. They’re watching a ship under full sail heading over the horizon at dusk. “There she goes,” one says, to which the other, thinking about mortality, replies: “Yes but there’ll be others who will say, ‘Here she comes.’” Though Patten likes that idea, the third possibility strikes him as most understandable: “that we live on in people remembering our smiles”.
If Patten places some of his faith in what comes next, however, he hasn’t quite given up hope of redemption in the here and now. The morning after the Westminster confidence vote, he sends me an email mentioning that he is at an airport on his way to give a memorial lecture to one of his political heroes, John Hume, prime mover in the Belfast agreement now under threat. “Miserable times…” he writes. “Anyway on we go, in my case to Strasbourg and – treason – the European parliament.” Even for old Tories, hope springs eternal.
The Hong Kong Diaries is published on 21 June by Allen Lane (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply