Happy as a Poobah
First Confession: A Sort of Memoir, Chris Patten, Allen Lane, June 2017, 320 pp. (Hardcover)
The key to this eminently readable book is the sub-title: ‘A Sort of Memoir.’ Chris Patten is sceptical about most political memoirs. He often finds them tedious and self-serving. But that leads to a paradox. Lord Patten deals with great issues – always illuminating – and small events, usually amusing. Yet that is only the mise-en-scène. His principal aim is to obey Socrates’s dictum: know thyself. Without ever being self-serving, he wants to discover who he is and how this came about. That may be an impossible mission, and at one stage, our author explains why, when he quotes Michael Oakeshott’s conclusion that life ‘is a predicament not a journey’. Moreover, as a Catholic who believes in an afterlife, Chris Patten would presumably agree that neither the predicament nor the journey end in this world.
That said, it has been a fascinating journey and the ‘predicament’ element could be overstated. Lord Patten is not Hamlet. Although he is one of the most accomplished political writers of our time, he preferred action to words. He enjoyed being a Minister; this was a man who was in politics to do things, not say things. But that raises another question. For a man of Chris Patten’s political temperament, the time was frequently out of joint. Inasmuch as he has a political philosophy, it is Burkean: the importance of order, the defence of property and an organic view of society. So he was naturally drawn to Peel, Baldwin, Macmillan, Peter Carrington, John Major: men who believed that the Queen’s (or King’s) government must be carried on: who were inspired, not be theory or ideology, but by a profound allegiance to Britain and a belief that politics should rest on a sound bottom of common sense.
That is all well and good, as far as it goes. But consider the careers of those
statesmen in the Patten pantheon. In each case, there were controversies, failures, obloquy. Though I doubt if Chris Patten believes in the literal truth of original sin, he probably does regard it as a good summary of the political human condition. Equally, there are moments when common sense is not enough. Lord Patten writes well and generously about Margaret Thatcher, especially in comparison to Ted Heath: the incredible sulk, mean-spirited and swinish. He tells the story of the appalling Grocer tucking into lobster and Chablis while his advisors watched, empty-mouthed. Chez Ted, that sort of selfishness was a regular occurrence. Chez Maggie, it would never have happened. In similar circumstances, though there would have been no lobster or Chablis, Mrs Thatcher would have bustled about preparing sandwiches, even if no-one was hungry.
But there were more important contrasts between Margaret Thatcher and the statesmen whom Chris Patten admires. For as long as British history is studied, historians will be arguing about the Thatcher achievement, the Thatcher legacy and indeed the Thatcher myth. Lord Patten is right to argue that she was much more cautious in action than some of her wilder rhetorical flourishes would have suggested. Although she would have scorned the notion that politics was the art of the possible, she often acted upon it. Yet there is still a difference. By the end of the 1970s, many senior British politicians, in all parties, shared a guilty secret. Although they would have been reluctant to confide their views to the electorate, they had been infected by pessimism. Through the repeated experience of hopes turning into failure - after such knowledge, what forgiveness - they had become convinced that the only realistic ambition for any British government was the orderly management of decline. The decline could be guaranteed: the order was a harder task. Then along came this strident and simple-minded female, surely the least sophisticated Tory leader since Bonar Law, who would have regarded acquiescence in decline as tantamount to treason.
Once she arrived in government, mistakes were made. Chris Patten is sardonically scathing about some of the excesses of early Eighties monetarism. But there was a line of march, however embattled. In 1979, it had seemed as if the UK was condemned to chronic inflation, lawless
trade unions and nationalised industries which could levy vast amounts of rent from the public purse. That changed, because of Thatcherism. Pari passu, she succeeded in reviving the animal spirits of the middle classes. Neither by temperament nor conviction was Chris Patten ‘one of us’, as Margaret Thatcher used to describe her praetorian supporters. For all that, he respected her, admired her – and liked her. From the endless consideration she displayed towards secretaries, telephonists, drivers and others who could not answer back, to the way she spoiled the Patten family dogs on her visits to Hong Kong, there are lots of little, humanising touches in these pages. This will come as a surprise both to the lefties who hate her and to her more simple-minded devotees, to whom she is the once and future warrior queen, girt in the Iron Lady’s armour. The Old Girl was more complex and more human than the flesh made myth would suggest and Lord Patten has made an important contribution to the Thatcher debate.
Our author is also good on John Major. At crucial stages in her career, Mrs Thatcher enjoyed good luck, most notably the bone-headed intransigence of Galtieri and Scargill. To be fair to her, she knew how to exploit her good fortune. Giving her a stroke of luck was like dropping Bradman when he was on a duck. If that ever happened, a great groan should have reverberated among Australia’s opponents all around the ground. The next chance would not come until after tea tomorrow. But poor Mr Major never had any luck to exploit. As the actual record of his Premiership emerges from the disparagement, much of it from silly Tories, most of it intellectually dishonest, John Major will attain rehabilitation, and Chris Patten’s pages will help. Yet it is impossible to gainsay Lord Patten’s final, wistful comment on the Major Premiership: ‘When I think about his years in No.I0, I just wish that he had enjoyed the experience much more.’
As one progresses into the book, another paradox emerges. It would generally be assumed that Lord Patten was a consummate insider and he is happy to be described as a Poobah. But he is also a devout Roman Catholic and has Irish ancestry. Although it might seem odd, now that England is a post-religious country, a lot of RCs do not feel that they are completely accepted. Chris Patten writes as if his faith makes him a little bit of an
outsider. Perhaps that helped him to sympathise with Margaret Thatcher, who was never seduced by the complacent intellectual comforts of insider-hood.
Empathy with outsiders goes only so far. Chris Patten was never comfortable with the intellectual discomforts habitual to another group of outsiders: the Ulster Protestants. The Prods do not usually make life easy for visitors. The generally economise on charm and often put their worst foot forward. When he served in the Province, Mr Patten was unimpressed. He refers to ‘the tawdry pageantry of Protestant dominance in Northern Ireland’ and twice quotes an equally disobliging verdict: ‘John Bull’s political slum.’ Yes – and no. The Prods did not behave in this way because they had a double dosage of original sin. They acted as they did because they felt threatened. At moments, our author seems to understand why. He cites John McGahern’s description of Ireland living through ‘a very dark time’ from the Thirties to the Fifties. For sexually abused children, for the slaves confined in nunneries – see the Magdalen Sisters – the darkness persisted. The Unionist population of John Bull’s political slum saw nothing to attract then in Eamon de Valera’s theocratic slum.
Chris Patten was influenced by Maurice Hayes, then one of the most senior Roman Catholic civil servants in the Province’s history, a subtle, wise, learned and charming man - yet ultimately an Irish Nationalist who became a Senator in Dublin after retiring from the service of the Crown. There was also John Hewitt, a poet from a Unionist background, but one which gives him little sustenance. It is not easy to find alternatives. Ulster Protestantism has little verse and its songs are powerful as battle-cries; less so as seductive melodies. There is a word, ‘thrawn’: an Ulster Scot borrowing from the Scottish lowlands. It is best defined as ‘stubborn’ redoubled in spades. There is no better way to characterise the Ulster Prods. That said, and thrawn though they are, there is also a gnarled moral grandeur.
Chris Patten did not appreciate it, which is fair enough. No-one can appreciate everything, and he has done his best to relish most of the experiences which have come his way. This book is illuminating about
great events and perceptive about those involved in shaping them. But it is more than that. It is an engrossing memoir of a happy life, and a life well lived. There are lots of reasons to read it, the most obvious being that it is a jolly good read.