Unconventional reflections of a Catholic Conservative
Chris Patten’s well-written manifesto for liberal values and pragmatism in political life First Confession: A Sort of Memoir
By Chris Patten Allen Lane, £20
Roscommon makes an early appearance in the latest book from Chris Patten, a luminary of British public life. Only a few pages into these reflections he writes of his greatgrandfather, Patrick, who left Boyle in Co Roscommon. Fleeing the Famine he settled in Lancashire, working as a chair-bottom maker.
This heritage is fundamental to the identity of the author. It influenced his career, as a minister in Northern Ireland and chairman of the policing commission that led to the reform of policing in the North.
His Catholicism is described as “a fundamental part of who I am”, which he hopes “will be with me right down to the wire”. The title of the book, First Confession, reflects his religious beliefs, even though it is not obvious to this reader what sins prompted this description.
This strong sense of identity is a guiding theme of the book. Patten recognises that some of the consequences of identity can be malevolent, through the rising tides of nationalism or the coarsening of public dis- course. Centrist politics must respond. He believes, as I do, that “liberal politics constitute the best hope for a decent future and the strongest basis for what is still the honourable adventure of politics”.
But his deep interest and affection for Ireland do not represent the limits of Patten’s career.
It began in the research department of the Conservative Party. He has also served as a member of the British government, as the last governor of Hong Kong and as a senior member of the European Commission. A departure from political life led to a series of other public offices, including chairman of the BBC and chancellor of the University of Oxford.
This is not a conventional memoir. His earlier works recount his career. This instead is a series of reflections, each prompted by a brief examination of a phase in his public life.
It is published during a particularly industrious phase for British political memoirs. The tumultuous events in our nearest neighbour and a series of departures from their political life, both voluntary and forced, have caused shelves to sag under the weight of new publications. Ken Clarke, Harriet Harman, Nick Clegg and Ed Balls have offerings for an interested reader. George Osborne and David Cameron will be publishing their musings soon.
First Confession joins Politics by Clegg at the highest tier of these recent works. Through reviewing his political life, Patten is laying out a manifesto for liberal values and pragmatism in political life. It arrives at a time when this championing is sorely needed.
This creed is international, relevant in this memoir from China to the Balkans. It is also a pulse running through all traditions in British political life but one now grap- pling with the existential consequences of Brexit, a prospect that dejects and deeply worries Patten.
He recognises the distance of politics from daily lives. However, this is not the the same as apathy; instead, it “is simply normal people getting on with making the most of their opportunities and trying to cope with the small disasters that bombard most lives, this is the heroism of muddling through”.
Nobility of public life
This book makes a defiant case for the value and even nobility of public life. It is clearest when he reflects on the Conservative Party leaders for whom he worked.
An entire chapter is devoted to the merits and demerits of Heath, Thatcher and Major. Each leader is subject to a thorough – and, for Edward Heath, damning – appraisal. His evaluation of John Major is the most positive and affectionate, arguing that he made the right choices on the key issues of his time.
Many Irish readers will be drawn to the chapter on his experiences of Ireland, “Crazy Irish Knots”. Although deeply challenging, these were also periods of great personal reward. As a minister for state he enjoyed immersion in the mechanics of the governing of the North, from local authority to the health services.
But his experience of the consequences of violence and terror is also very clear. Patten writes that he “was never seduced into thinking, as some seemed to believe, that these six counties were so uniquely beautiful as to explain or justify people killing to control them”.
This is perhaps the reason he instantly accepted an offer from Mo Mowlam to chair a commission on how policing should be reorganised to reflect the changing political environment. His description of this work is typically vivid, writing of emotional public meetings and the political pressures of tough choices. This is typical of a very well-written book. There is a surprising lyricism and humour in his observations.
Writing of Keith Joseph, an intellectual godfather of the Conservative Party, he observes of his time in office that “Few people can have been so disappointed at their inability to change the nation’s soul”. Disraeli was a prime minister who “understood that gravity rather than levity was the attribute required of those who sought to govern a country wreathed in fog and a large middle class”.
This is also evident when he articulates his political views. Conservatism is rejected as an ideology. This makes him a leading member of the “Wet brigade”, a description by Margaret Thatcher of colleagues who demonstrated, in her eyes, worrying levels of pragmatism. He believes that the primary role of the state is to enable individuals and social groups to flourish. Government itself also needs checks and restraints.
These views infuse a life that describes the innate toughness of political life. But this is a book that also beautifully captures its joy and reward.
Paschal Donohoe is the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform I can imagine his last sup of tea, Milky and sweet, elbow on knee, body Parts, his fingers caressing the mess-tin, His steamy moustache whispering a girl’s name.
Michael Longley’s latest collection is Angel Hill (Cape). Today’s poem is from A Bittern Cry, published by the Francis Ledwidge Museum, Poetry Ireland and Meath County Council on July 31st to commemorate the centenary of Francis Ledwidge’s death By Rose Servitova Wooster, £10.99
You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has never heard of Mr Darcy or Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonists of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. It has been adapted for stage and screen and has produced many fictional spin-offs. In The Longbourn Letters, Limerick-based author Rose Servito focuses on the two most humorous char- Thomas Kaufmann Oxford University Press, £18.99
In these days of increasing intolerance toward those who profess a different faith, it may be salutary to consider a startling example from the past. Martin Luther’s view of Jews in his work of 1523, That Jesus Christ was born a Jew, was tolerant by the standards of his time but, 20 years later, he wrote On the Jews and their Lies, a vicious attack on those he regarded as enemies of Christ. Kaufmann is at pains to allow for Luther’s state of mind after the death of his young daughter but concludes “Luther’s anti-Semitism was an integral part of his personality” and derived from his exegesis of the Old Testament. Luther became “the most fateful figure in German history”; the Nazis claimed his support for extermination of the Jews. This is a learned dissertation, distilled from extensive study of primary and secondary sources, scrupulously fair, crisply translated and surprisingly relevant. acters from Austen’s novel: Elizabeth’s father, Mr Bennet, and his preacher cousin, Mr Collins. Collins has been revealed as the heir to the Bennet family home, Longbourn, and the fictional correspondence begins shortly after Mr Collins has become betrothed to Charlotte Lucas, a neighbour of the Bennet family. The letters are full of frivolity and recall the cutting wit of Mr Bennet and benevolent honesty from Mr Collins. As their families increase in size, their priorities shift, with their friendship strengthening over the years. A whimsical read, sure to delight die-hard Austen fans.
The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away
Cole Moreton Harper Element, £12.99
The true-story of two football- mad, 15- year- old boys: both fall unexpectedly ill, simultaneously, yet 300 miles apart. One needs an immediate heart transplant to stay alive; the other is brain-dead and a perfect match. Marc and Martin have never met, yet shall for ever be connected. One mother is saying goodbye; the other is clinging on to a 1 per cent chance of a successful transplant. While confidentiality protects all donor and recipient’s families, they can choose to receive anonymous updates. After many years, the two mothers agree to meet and become dear friends. Author and broadcaster Cole Moreton has bonded with both families, met the boys’ medical teams and lovingly narrates the memorable tale of Marc and Martin. At times, the narrative becomes disjointed, but its honesty and emotion shed light on the importance of organ donation.
Politics is simply normal people getting on with making the most of their opportunities and trying to cope with the disasters that bombard most lives
The Longbourn Letters
Chris Patten’s strong sense of identity is a guiding theme of the book. PHOTOGRAPH: DAVID SLEATOR