In First Confession, one of the wittiest and wisest political writers takes us behind the scenes of British politics in 1980’s and 1990’s. In this extract, Chris Patten shares the circumstances which led to his appointment as the last Governor of Hong Kong
Not the least peculiar irony in the history of democracy in Hong Kong – a story still far from its final pages, whatever President Xi may think – is that the collapse of the Labour Party vote in the British constituency of Bath resulted in 1992 in that city’s defeated MP becoming the last Governor of Britain’s last major colony. Conservative success in Bath had for years depended on the Opposition vote splitting between Labour and Liberals. In 1992, Labour voters deserted the red rose and voted tactically to defeat me, encouraged by an effective and expensive campaign funded by David Sainsbury, the supermarket multi-millionaire and (later) Labour minister.
It was painful. I felt hurt and, for a time, sick at the humiliation. My wife and daughters, who had worked hard in my campaign, were shocked at its nastiness as well as the result. But that is political life. Expect garlands and petals scattered before the wheels of your chariot and you are bound to be in for a rude and salutary shock. I had been the chair of a successful – in national terms – General Election campaign, but as the slave accompanying the victorious general during his Roman triumph used to whisper, ‘Remember you are mortal.’
John Major offered me the chance to go to Hong Kong as the last British Governor, a politician to end a line of Colonial or Foreign Office appointments
Fortunately, I had expected this outcome (which did not make it any less unpleasant) and had even told the Prime Minister, John Major, that he would win the election overall but that I would lose my own seat. I tend to pessimism at the best of times and I think John believed that I was exaggerating the difficulties. In any event, I had plenty of time before and during the campaign to consider what I wanted to do if I lost.
When that happened, I was not attracted to the idea of trying to continue my political career in the House of Lords, though the opportunity was offered to me. So was the possibility of being parachuted into a rapidly vacated constituency in a by‑election. Kensington and Chelsea was suggested, apparently gift-wrapped. This struck me as unseemly, and a further unfair burden on my wife and children, who had already faced the heat of an occasionally vicious campaign in Bath. I resisted some well-meaning pressure to pursue this course, or at least to hang around the political scene, a wallflower at the ball, waiting for someone to ask me to dance, an embarrassment to everyone. Despite occasional second or third thoughts I never really regretted this decision.
I was thinking about looking for a post outside politics in the field of development assistance. Then John Major offered me the chance to go to Hong Kong as the last British Governor, a politician to end a line of Colonial or Foreign Office appointments. Recent policy seemed to have driven London into a diplomatic cul‑de‑sac, in which routine humiliations by China (not least of the Prime Minister, John Major) never seemed to bring any benefit for Hong Kong or Britain. The diplomatic object was simply a smooth transition to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Smooth was defined as meeting Chinese demands, after a few ineffectual objections and a bit of hand-wringing. But what price a successful and honourable transition? One of my advisers used to ask mischievously whether you could describe a funeral as ‘a smooth transition’.
I was not a complete stranger to Hong Kong and China. I first went to the colony in 1979, when I was a young backbench MP. On my return I wrote an article for the Guardian advocating the introduction of elections for local government there. This did not please the then Governor, a stern chieftain, who thought that popular political pressure could best be dealt with by housing and welfare programmes. He drove through ambitious schemes with great energy and determination, dealing with floods of refugees from the mainland.
Lord Maclehose was a clever man, no one’s stooge. It used to be said when he was Governor that he and the Maltese Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff, were the most unpopular men in the Foreign Office; that spoke well for his independent mind. But he was not at all interested in anyone’s democratic aspirations to run their own affairs. He was a civilized, unbending Scot who thought he knew what was right for Hong Kong, and that he could best manage its relations with Beijing. How much his own initiative, eighteen years before the hand-over, in raising quite so explicitly with Deng Xiaoping questions concerning Hong Kong’s position after 1997 reflected the Cabinet’s views has never been wholly clear to me. I liked him – after all he was another Balliol man with a taste for dry martinis – but I was never under any illusion about what he would think about even modest efforts at democratic reform. Unlike some others, however, he did not seek to bad-mouth me or stab me in the back...
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Most politicians write autobiographies to 'set the record straight' and provide retrospective justification for their careers. That is not the case with this book. 'It occurred to me that to track down myself would enable me to discuss an issue that had begun to intrigue me, namely the relationship between politics and identity, the things that had shaped me and whether and how they had come to reflect my life and opinions. As I wrote, the question of identity moved from the wings to centre stage, and roiled politics and nations on both sides of the Atlantic.'
'Who am I? Who are we?' Chris Patten's career has taken him from the outer London suburbs to the House of Commons, a seat in the Cabinet, last Governor of Hong Kong, Chairman of the BBC and Chancellor of Oxford University. About all of these he is enlightening and entertaining. He has unexpected and telling things to say about each of the three Prime Ministers for whom he worked - Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. But his political heroes - Baldwin, Macmillan, Butler - came from an earlier time: he is proud to be 'wet', and reckons all his paladins were pretty damp themselves. But more, Patten uses each phase of his life as a spur to reflect upon its contemporary situation - education, America, conservatism, Ireland, China, Europe and finally the question of links between violence and religion. Unlike one No.10 press secretary, Patten definitely 'does God'.
At the end, the reader has an impression of someone who knows himself as well as any of us can, and who continues to think, passionately and intelligently, about the world around him. Wise, funny and opinionated, First Confession is a different sort of memoir, a meditation on personal and political identity which, in an age of simplification, reminds us of the complexities of both.