First Confession: A Sort of Memoir by Chris Patten
Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir by Ken Clarke
A Sort of Memoir by Chris Patten.
London: Allen Lane, 312 pp., £20.00
Kind of Blue:
A Political Memoir by Ken Clarke.
London: Pan, 525 pp., $15.95 (paper)
History to the defeated doesn’t even say “alas,” it just cuts them dead. In the British Conservative Party especially, the waters of oblivion close over the defenders of deserted orthodoxies like appeasement and the Corn Laws. So now with the Tory Europhiles. For a generation and more, to be “a good European” was the passport to promotion in the party. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Young Conservatives prided themselves on being the largest youth movement in the free world, and they were as passionately devoted to the Common Market as they were to table tennis and the twist. By contrast, the opponents of Britain’s entry in 1973 were a sullen minority, easily written off as crusty nostalgists for the Empire. In the 1975 referendum on Britain’s continued membership, they made a wretched showing alongside the dinosaurs of the Old Left. Enoch Powell and Michael Foot sharing a platform looked like a tableau vivant of the wrong side of history.
In retrospect, it is remarkable how soon that tide began to turn. Already by the late 1980s the YCs had come under the control of the anti-European pro-Empire right. The Federation of Conservative Students had been closed down in 1986 for its scandalous racist antics by the party chairman, Norman Tebbit. The YCs themselves were closed down as an embarrassment in 1998. The party’s future direction was becoming clear. The painful struggle that John Major endured in 1992 to push through Parliament the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union, was only the most conspicuous sign that “the bastards,” as Major so delicately dubbed them, were on a long-term roll. Aspiring Conservative candidates had to take on the protective coloration of Euroskepticism to have much hope of selection.
Today, as the remaining Remainers pick their way through the debris of the referendum of June 2016, they hear only the derisive cries of the victorious Brexiteers: “You lost, get over it, stop moaning.” Analysis of the results of the general election that Theresa May so foolishly called in June 2017 shows that the Conservatives owed their survival to the influx of millions of Leavers. All that is left of the great Europhile generation is their memoirs. If revenge is a dish best served cold, we are in for a veritable smorgasbord.
Patten and Ken Clarke are the two most attractive survivors of that generation: genial, unstuffy characters, easily reaching for the slang—“gobsmacked,” “double whammy”—that doesn’t trip off the lips of their stiffer colleagues. Even their book titles tell you something— the familiar first names, the selfdeprecation in the subtitles. (Kind of Blue is borrowed from the Miles Davis album, Clarke being an obsessive jazz buff more likely to be found tapping time with his Hush Puppies at Ronnie Scott’s than at the Athenaeum.)
The two men came from modest backgrounds to occupy most of the great offices of state, both of them offering the safe pair of hands that the state gropes for in fraught moments. Clarke’s father was an electrician in the local Nottinghamshire colliery. Patten’s family had emigrated from Ireland to escape the horrors of the Famine. It is hard to imagine a sharper contrast with Patten’s own secure and happy childhood in the suburban lanes of Perivale. The garden smelled of honeysuckle, and there were tiny new potatoes from the vegetable patch that his mother fried in bacon fat. Patten’s father, the lovable Frank, was a not very successful music publisher, though he was responsible for one of my favorite songs of the early 1950s, “She wears red feathers and a huly-huly skirt.” Father and son were both fine cricketers and keen supporters of England and Blackpool Football Club, just as Clarke father and son—an equally happy duo—would traipse off to see Nottinghamshire play cricket at Trent Bridge. Clarke and Patten are lookers-forward, an admirable quality in life but not ideal for a memoirist, and in both cases, I would like to have had more of those idyllic early days.
Patten and Clarke sailed through their scholarship exams into St. Benedict’s, Ealing, and Nottingham High School respectively, both first-rate schools that reserved a generous tranche of places for scholarship boys and provided a springy ladder out of the suburbs. Patten has remained an unwavering though not uncritical Catholic all his life, and he is grateful to St. Benedict’s and sad to see it ravaged in recent years by horrific stories of child abuse. He says of himself, “I was in clover, never bored, well taught, not remotely bolshie,” and he sailed on to Balliol College, Oxford, just as Clarke did to Gonville and Caius, Cambridge. Those who persist in regarding Britain as a closed, caste-ridden society should reflect on these not untypical examples of postwar likely lads. England, and still more Scotland, has always been a more open society than it appeared, if not as open as it should be.
Herbert Henry Asquith, prime minister during World War I, described Balliol men like himself as possessing “the tranquil consciousness of an effortless superiority.” Patten tells us that this description is not helpful or accurate. But then he gives a list of conspicuous twentieth-century alumni of the college: Ted Heath, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, the Lord Chief Justice Tom Bingham, the Guardian columnist Hugo Young, and Ian Gilmour. I have to say that, in their different ways, effortless superiority was exactly what they all exuded.
This is not a mere social footnote. It is decidedly relevant to the casus belli of our times. For all the abovementioned were also passionate, unwavering supporters of the European ideal. Tom Bingham was the first judge to urge that the European Convention on Human Rights be incorporated into English law. Hugo Young wrote the most influential polemics in support of British participation in the European enterprise. It was Roy Jenkins and his coterie of pro-European Labour supporters who assisted Edward Heath in getting the European Communities Bill through the House of Commons.
You could be forgiven for seeing the whole thing as a Balliol conspiracy of the elite against the unenlightened. That word “elite” did not figure much in political debate until the referendum campaign of 2016, when it went toxic. “Elites” or “experts” suddenly became Public Enemy No. 1 in the rhetoric of Michael Gove and Nigel Farage, as they did in the rhetoric of Donald Trump. The country, we were told, was being dragged in the wrong direction by an exclusive clique of know-it-alls who were out of touch with the real needs and desires of the people. Such an outcry was not unknown in the United States. But it was rather new in the United Kingdom.
When the Daily Mail of November 4, 2016, carried the headline ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE on its story about the High Court’s ruling that Parliament must have a say on triggering the Brexit process, there was a collective frisson, shared by quite a few people who voted Leave. It was not simply that if the object of leaving the EU was to restore the sovereignty of the British Parliament, then it seemed only logical that Parliament should approve the process. It was also the implicit assumption that the Will of the People had the right to brush aside everything else, Parliament and the rule of law included, a doctrine that owed more to Robespierre than to Burke.
Patten’s account of his thirteen years in the House of Commons seems worlds away from these alarming events. Elected for Bath in 1979, after five years as the precocious head of the Conservative Research Department, he immediately fell into the company of a congenial bunch of talented young MPs like himself in the liberal wing of the party. The whips called them the Blue Chips, which suggests a clique of well-heeled aristocrats, but though a couple of them were the sons of peers, most were middle-class meritocrats like Patten.
For Patten, the company of kindred spirits like Gilmour, William Waldegrave, and Tristan Garel-Jones must have passed the time agreeably. Yet perhaps for this reason there is something flat about his account of those years, which were indeed swept by “sharp conflicts” and “tempestuous passions.” It is as though Patten and his friends scarcely mingled with anyone else. The leading figures of the Thatcher Revolution (or counterrevolution)—Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit—scarcely figure. Thatcher’s chief guru, Sir Keith Joseph, was briefly Patten’s boss at the Department of Education, but he has only a walk-on part as a slightly deranged obsessive—it was, I think, Patten who
christened him “the Mad Monk.” Margaret Thatcher herself figures mostly as a sort of stern house matron who occasionally shows a softer side. The great battles of the period—the miners’ strike, the ferocious arguments about trade union reform and the governance of state schools and the privatizing of nationalized industries—all seem to be happening offstage, as they would in a play by Racine or Aeschylus.
Patten does pay dutiful tribute to Thatcher’s achievements in “making Britain governable again,” but he does not show much interest in how it was done, and he remains hostile to her economic policy, which he refuses to consider seriously. I noticed the same thing in his earlier account of his travels around the United States on a Coolidge Fellowship after leaving Balliol in the late 1960s. There too tempestuous passions were in play, new ideas up and running. Patten shows little interest in these debates, writing off Reagan as a buffoon, or, worse, a dishonest buffoon. He reads Hayek but does not inhale, remaining wedded to the old patrician Republican Party of John Lindsay (for whom he worked and whom he came to admire), Nelson Rockefeller, and Jacob Javits. He is just as proud to be immoderate in the defense of moderation as Goldwater said he was in the protection of liberty. Which is fine, except that contentment with the conventional wisdom was unlikely to provide much of an engine for reform. It is notable that the “Wets,” as the moderates came to be called, were often resistant to reforming anything much. As employment secretary, Jim Prior, for example, espoused what he called “a step-by-step approach” to the reform of trade union law, but his instinct turned out to be more like Cardinal Newman’s “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.” The sustained energy came mostly from the rougher element who would not have been welcome at the Blue Chips’ table. But it was Kenneth Clarke who displayed the most conspicuous energy in turning Thatcher’s mantras into concrete results.
What makes Clarke’s ministerial experience so fascinating is that he passed through virtually every department of government except the Foreign Office, and in each of them he found virtually the same situation: the formal hierarchy of minister and department concealed an extraordinary covert syndicalist reality. Almost everywhere the minister and his officials had become accustomed to doing little more than acquiesce in the day-to-day control of the trade unions and staff associations. The 1980s British sitcom Yes, Minister has achieved global renown as an accurate and enduring picture of bureaucracy that is applicable in every country and to every type of regime. Yet the peculiar, elegant impotence of Whitehall at this period gave the program an extra bite in Britain. Time and again, on arriving in a department, Clarke encountered a staggering level of noncooperation, which elsewhere would have been grounds for dismissal. After agreeing to a reform program for the National Health Service with the prime minister, Clarke sauntered back to his office to be informed by the affable permanent secretary, Sir Christopher France, that regrettably he did not have any officials who could be spared to work on it. So often the minister was, to borrow the embittered Norman Lamont’s phrase about the Major government after he left it, “in office but not in power.”
To have restored a modicum of genuine ministerial power was not the least of Thatcher’s achievements, for which subsequent governments, whatever their aims, have reason to be grateful. And throughout her principal hatchet man was the most notorious of the Wets, Kenneth Clarke. After her fall, as John Major’s chancellor of the exchequer, he did more to restore the public finances than any other chancellor since the war. In this office too, he was acting in a decidedly Thatcherite fashion.
No one could have been better qualified to succeed John Major as party leader in 1997. Yet Clarke was utterly humiliated in that contest and on the two other occasions he stood. He lost 55–45 to William Hague, then an inexperienced pipsqueak; he lost 61–39 to the risibly inadequate Iain Duncan Smith; and in 2005, when David Cameron won, he was eliminated in the first round. Each time, his opponent claimed, with varying degrees of plausibility, to be a fervent Euroskeptic. Each time, Clarke’s friends implored him to muffle his enthusiasm for the EU. Each time, Clarke refused.
Twenty years ago then, the Conservative grassroots were already venomously hostile to the EU. And it cannot be denied that much of the damage was done by Thatcher herself. She persistently badmouthed the EU and its leaders at every opportunity while energetically deepening the Union through the achievement of the Single Market. It might be too much to say, as Patten reports the acerbic Jock BruceGardyne saying, that she would save the country but destroy the Conservative Party and that both the country and the party deserved what was coming to them. But she certainly is a good part of the reason why we are where we are.
Patten himself came too late to the High Table to take much part in the struggle. He reached the Cabinet in Thatcher’s closing years, and his first task was the hopeless one of trying to rescue the wretched Poll Tax, which shifted the local tax burden from property owners to all adults, one of the worst ideas ever to make it onto the statute book. Anyone who retains any illusions about Cabinet government should note the craven way in which every minister except Nigel Lawson tamely assented to a measure they knew would be a disaster (and even Lawson retreated into an impotent grump). In general, it seems, the Wets declined into a sort of internal exile, still ready to accept any office that came their way but unwilling to offer any sustained critique or alternative.
If they were stirred at all, it was mostly by dislike of Thatcher’s favorites (several of them admittedly easy to dislike) and by a growing dislike of their constituents, whose devotion to the Blessed Margaret became even more doglike. Patten rightly remarks that it is extraordinary how many politicians “do not seem to like people—their voters—very much: a bit like doctors not being able to stand the sight of blood.” But he himself is not immune to such aversions; he admits that “my feeling about Bath fell short of dewyeyed love” and that when he lost the seat in 1992, “my sentiments at parting company were thus not those of unalloyed gloom.” He particularly disliked “a number of rather unattractive and mildly snobbish middle-class voters.” People of this middling sort he dismisses as “the blazered vote.”
But who are the real snobs here? Patten had, after all, worn a blazer himself in his day. The dislike was returned as heartily at Westminster as at Bath. Famously, when the news of Patten’s defeat came up on the screen at an election party given by the Tory treasurer, the faux bonhomme Alistair McAlpine, the assembled hard-liners crowed “Conservative gain.” A remarkable show of loathing, considering that Patten was party chairman at the time and had just helped to win them the general election.
You sense that he was not unhappy to say goodbye to domestic politics and sail off to Hong Kong as Britain’s last governor. His remit was to prepare for the handover to China in five years’ time. This was to be the beginning of a period in his life in which everything went right for him and he rendered signal service to the state.
On reaching Hong Kong, Patten immediately incurred the formal hostility of the Chinese government and the rather more heartfelt hostility of the British business community by injecting a degree of democracy that previous governors had not thought to offer the colony. Patten took seriously Deng Xiaoping’s offer of “one country, two systems.” Edward Heath had originally supported the argument that an injection of democracy would be the best guarantee of Hong Kong’s future freedom. But after being repeatedly feted in Beijing, he abandoned this view, inviting himself to stay with Patten, then going around the colony saying what a mess the governor was making by being so confrontational. It was a typical piece of Heath boorishness, equaled in Patten’s experience only by the time when he demolished a lobster and half a bottle of Chablis during a speechwriting session without offering Patten and his colleague so much as a sandwich.
Patten is struck by how much of his “public and private life has been spent dealing with the politics of identity, whose wild and carnivorous beasts have torn so many societies to pieces and unleashed so much havoc.” For over a decade, first in Hong Kong, then as chairman of the Independent Committee on Policing in Northern Ireland from 1998 to 1999, and finally as an EU commissioner from 1999 to 2004, he was engaged in the business of smudging sovereignty, in the greater interests of civil concord and prosperity. In Northern Ireland, the British had fought the IRA to a standstill, and a sequence of peace deals wound the conflict down until the province could begin to breathe again. The outstanding issue that Patten was sent to resolve was that of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which by virtue of its name and the Crown on its cap badge was seen as a sectarian force by the Catholic minority, who risked death if they joined it, as indeed the Protestants did too. Three hundred RUC officers had been killed during the Troubles, 277 by the
IRA. Patten brokered a new settlement under which the force was to be renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland and recruits were to be drawn on a fifty-fifty basis, so that within ten years 30 percent of the force would be Catholic. The Unionists protested, quite accurately, that British sovereignty over the Province was being smudged to encourage Republicans who continued to hope for a united Ireland one day. But the deal stuck. In Brussels, he was in charge of the EU’s external affairs. He found himself cleaning up the moral and physical chaos left by the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Kosovo war had only just ended. After a shaky, hesitant start, the EU was now launched on an ambitious program that combined financial aid and support for building institutions such as the courts and the police with trade deals and the eventual prospect of EU membership in return for good behavior. By backing down on extreme nationalist demands and agreeing to accept outside supervision, the various statelets could have a tolerable future, provided they accepted the smudge. These were tense and often dangerous days, punctuated by gunfire, in shabby bandit country where compromise had been regarded as a crime. But tireless negotiation, plus American backing (the visiting US firemen like Richard Holbrooke were indispensable), made an uneasy peace stick.
These are remarkable achievements. On the basis of this experience, Patten could be forgiven for believing that it ought to be possible to persuade people to accept smudged sovereignty, overlapping identities, call it what you will, in any circumstances in which they would be demonstrably better off as a result. He remains puzzled and hurt that the British Conservative Party turns out to be an exception to this rule:
The only great regret I have at this stage of my life is the result of the EU referendum and what it tells us about the populist perils that ambush liberal international values here, elsewhere in Europe and alas in America too.
Patten and Clarke are both happy men. They find it hard to imagine the unhappiness of others, to think themselves into the resentments of the less fortunate. “Identitarianism,” whether they see it at work in Europe or the US, is a closed book to them. In particular, Patten cannot see why people fuss about sovereignty. He insists that
what sovereignty means in practice is the power and authority you have in relation to events at any given moment. Sovereignty is not a once-and-for-all commodity, or an incredible shrinking asset. It is not . . . like virginity, as Geoffrey Howe used to note—there one moment, gone the next.
But this is not how the word is commonly—and, I think, correctly—used. Sovereignty (“aboveness”) is not the same as power. It is a matter of locating legitimate authority. The questions to be asked are not about the quantum of power being exercised under that authority. The questions are: What is the nature of that authority? Where does it come from? Who in the end calls the shots? Who makes the ground rules? What we are in quest of is what might be more helpfully called ultimacy.
“A State either is sovereign, or is not,” to quote Sir Noel Malcolm, our foremost expert on Hobbes. You can’t share sovereignty. It’s plenary and it’s exclusive. This is a doctrine that comes straight from Hobbes via Bagehot and Enoch Powell. Bagehot says in The English Constitution:
Hobbes told us long ago, and everybody now understands that there must be a supreme authority, a conclusive power in every state on every point somewhere.
When a nation-state joins an international organization like NATO or the UN or the EU, power, not sovereignty, is being pooled. For mutual convenience, the parties may agree to smudge their sovereignties, but they are not thereby obliterated. Any party is entitled to leave and take back the relevant powers whenever it chooses, a right made explicit in the case of the EU by the Lisbon Treaty of 2007. Exactly how any nation-state makes its decision to join, not to join, or to leave is up to that nation. The people of Norway and Switzerland have both voted to stay out, several times, despite the wishes of their governments, and both nations have stayed out. The people of France, Ireland, and the Netherlands have all voted “No” to further development of the EU, and their governments all blithely disregarded their advice.
I remember Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch EU commissioner alongside Patten, lamenting that “the people were not well instructed.” A breathtaking piece of condescension, but there was no doubt that the Dutch government had the right to ignore the vote. The poor Irish people were made to vote again to give the desired answer, which they obediently did. The British government too had the theoretical right to disregard the result of the 2016 referendum, but it would have been political suicide. The point is that the European Union remains an association of nation-states, and is likely to remain so, despite the hopes of the federalists and the fears of the Europhobes.
Nor is it true that the mission creep of the EU’s institutions is likely to bring its members closer and closer to the point where they ultimately lose their individual sovereignty to a United States of Europe. The EU’s budget remains tiny. Ninety-nine percent of British taxpayers’ money is spent by British ministers to suit British needs. In their day, many of the most fervent Brexiteers, like Lawson, Gove, and Tebbit, carried out vast reforms of the British tax system, state schools, and trade union law without a squeak out of the EU. The euro remains hopelessly crippled by the continued reluctance of Germany and other Northern European states to transfer funds to Greece and other Mediterranean members, which would be an essential first step for the creation of a federal Europe. “Take back control,” Patten retorts, not unreasonably—“what control did we lack?”
To Patten and the 48 percent who voted like him, it seems obvious that EU membership offers opportunities in trade, work, travel, and national security to us all, not just the pampered elites. The auto workers of Sunderland owe just as much to the UK being in the EU as do the slickers of the City of London. What’s more, the connections built up over forty years are devilishly difficult to disentangle without damage, as Britain’s negotiators are now finding every day.
In an earlier work, Not Quite the Diplomat (2005), Patten gives an acute analysis of the difficulties we are now running into, and the drawbacks of any alternative arrangements such as those now enjoyed or endured by Norway and Switzerland. These problems were, in truth, not hard to foresee: if you withdraw from a trade bloc but wish to continue trading with it on favorable terms, then inevitably you must become a rule-taker instead of a rule-maker. In return for access to the single market, we graciously allow Continentals to come to Britain to do the jobs we were not prepared to do ourselves, stocking shelves, picking peas and strawberries, waiting tables. One numbskull Brexiteer suggested recruiting British pensioners to pick the potatoes instead. “Now there’s an election winner!” Patten chortles.
Patten rejects the idea that Cameron had no alternative but to offer a referendum on Brexit. Even if the Remainers had won, let’s say by the margin they lost by of 52–48, the Leavers would have been back for one more heave. True enough, but could Cameron really have gritted his teeth and carried on regardless, as the UKIP vote continued to rise beyond three to four million and to reach the point where the party began to win seats and hold the balance of power to malign effect, as the Irish members did in the Asquith years?
I quite agree that “it is crucial to manage national opinion so that the public do not believe that their loyalties are being rolled over.” But how is this to be done? Is it really true that, as Patten claims, “it should be relatively straightforward for political leaders to prevent national pride turning into aggressive xenophobia”? If so, why didn’t they do it? Several times, he laments that he and the other pro-Europeans failed to confront the myths, lies, and exaggerations about Europe, for fear of stirring up the right wing and out of reluctance to stand up to the tabloid press.
I don’t think it was just fear, or political prudence, to use a kinder term. There was also a lofty unwillingness to look more closely at what the identitarians were worried about. There was a certain Balliol insouciance among the elite, and the common folk felt it. The fact that we have only just begun to talk about identitarianism suggests that we haven’t really thought much about what it means. The nearest I can get to defining it is that it is the old Hobbesian case dressed up as “traditional conservatism.”
Put quite simply by Sir Roger Scruton in a recent newspaper article, the indictment is that a familiar and coherent tradition of living together has been undermined by a sequence of hasty, illthought-out tamperings with Britain’s political arrangements:
The mass immigration of communities who define their political membership in religious rather than secular terms; the transfer of sovereignty from parliament to unelected officials in foreign countries and foreign courts of law; the disruption of the common law by the abolition of the tutelary office of Lord Chancellor and the creation of a continental-style Supreme Court; the assault on national unity caused by creating a Scottish parliament while leaving the English with no assembly of their own—all these changes have occurred with only the most muted of protests from the Conservative Party and certainly with no attempt to articulate in a coherent way what is really at stake in them, namely our survival as a distinctive sovereign body.
One may certainly quarrel with the slant that Scruton puts on these items. I have already argued, for example, that there has been no transfer of sovereignty to Europe. But it has to be admitted that, taken together, these changes do add up to something. I would define it as an unclenching of power from the balled fist of Whitehall/Westminster. As they work their way through, these changes nudge us in the direction of a more open, devolved society, in which it is easier to raise questions and interrogate authority. But then plenty of people, especially older people, are not that keen on the idea of an open society, and do not care to be nudged. Nothing was more remarkable about the results of the EU referendum than the age breakdown: over 70 percent of under-twenty-fives voted Remain; two thirds of over-sixty-fives voted Leave.
There is a fair case, based on reallife experience, for each of the changes that Scruton abhors. Scottish opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of restoring its old Parliament to bring government closer to home. The new Supreme Court is not the brainchild of demented rationalists; it is a natural response to a world in which we expect judges to review official decisions without fear or favor. As for the EU, many of its activities arise out of purely practical needs for common standards of health, safety, patent law, environmental protection, trading rules, design, professional qualifications, and a dozen other desiderata of the modern world. Yes, Patten concedes, the EU often tries to do too much, but if it did not exist, we would need to invent something not unlike it—which is what we are currently struggling to do.
All this needed to be said loud and clear before public opinion had soured and congealed. The failure of the elite was not in what they did but in what they failed to say. Their heads were clear enough, but they never cleared their throats. I do not say that an invitation to join the modern world is ever an easy one to put to suspicious voters. But it is a sad fact that over the past forty years nobody with that kind of persuasive power has led the Conservative Party, or the nation, in the general direction of Europe. Ken Clarke might well have managed it, but he was too unbending to give himself the chance.
Ken Clarke in his office in Westminster, September 2005