Bruce An­der­son

Happy as a Poobah

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.