Chris Patten First Confession: A Sort of Memoir

The best we can do is try to be better and kinder ourselves; to remember how much it is sheer courage that usually gets people through disappointment and heartbreak; and to recognise how the greatest disruption to our well-ordered plans is often love, occasionally regretted but usually embraced and invariably transformative.  These modest words about basic ambition typify the autobiography of Chris Patten, former Chairman of the Conservative Party, last Governor of Hong Kong, European Commissioner for External Affairs, Chancellor of Oxford University, Chairman of the BBC, advisor to the Pope - as he self-deprecatingly puts it a Grand Poo-bah, the Lord High Everything Else.

The autobiography of a conservative liberal challenges a political culture in which a thick skin of prejudice, reinforced by reading the tabloids, is proof against the dilemmas of the real world. Patten writes: I am a Conservative who has never believed that everything my party does or stands for is right. I am a Catholic who has occasional doubts and disagreements which have not persuaded me of the merits of agnosticism or atheism….I have always been in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU without thinking everything about it is hunky-dory.  I found this book refreshing as a loyal member of the Church of England always in doubt about aspects of an institution I publicly support. Being derogatory about institutions is fashionable but reading Chris Patten’s appealing life story leaves you with more confidence about institutions inasmuch as they contain loyal folk like the author who breathe integrity and work for right development of the fabric of society. You can only dream of institutions so perfect that no one will need to be good wrote T.S.Eliott. Good men and women bring fruit through critical loyalty to the institutions they serve. It is heartening to read a balanced perspective on UK politics from Ted Heath to Theresa May ending with a provocative  question: Do we really want to escape the alleged EU cage to take up residence in the Trump kennel?

Political leaders have ceased to be as brave as they might in speaking up for what seems to them to be the public good and the national interest Patten claims and goes on to quote Saint Thomas Aquinas:  If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.  The career of the author includes the shipwreck from a parliamentary seat and landing in troubled waters the wake of the Saville abuse at the BBC. Patten’s analysis of Heath, Thatcher and Major are fascinating reading since he worked close to each leader and saw their strengths and weaknesses. Thatcherism – not a fully worked-out doctrine, but in effect simply the aggregate of what she did – was not always very Conservative, and in the end she came close not only to wrecking the Conservative Party but also, in the longer term, to corroding the middle-class values whose preservation was the objective of her furious activities.

There’s much clarification of world politics through the eyes of a participative observer.  We learn how Britain and France’s opposition to German reunification led to the euro as Germany agreed loss of the Deutsche mark in exchange for her neighbours’ support.  I liked this ironic definition linked to our current scenario.  Sovereignty is the management of a community’s affairs as the sovereign chooses and wishes. Our own sovereignty has been exercised through Parliament during the years we have been members of the EU, though this is regularly denied. ‘Bring back Westminster control,’ the Brexiteers demanded. Then, when their plan was published for EU exit – a government White Paper – they had to admit that Parliament had actually been sovereign all along. Patten laments Britain apparently giving up the centrepiece of foreign policy this last century, namely holding out one hand to Europe and another to America. The latter however is seen as essential to solving the big problems in our world, so the book laments its new insularity.

In this life story we gain insight about so-called ‘panthers of identity politics’. Respect for racial and religious identities needs enveloping in a common set of values and the failure to establish and esteem these lies at the root of much of the world’s ills. As a Roman Catholic serving UK governance in Northern Ireland Chris Patten notably helped build bridges across traditions, though he does not shy from illustrating the savage naivety of the ‘panthers’.  There’s an amusing analogy with football, one of his passions: The chant of the Millwall Football Club fans, ‘No one likes us; we don’t care’, should be avoided at all costs! In Northern Ireland he was labelled from the day he made the sign of the cross at a civic lunch. Such religious externals are clearly second nature to him and yet his Christian allegiance is set in an ecumenical context through his marriage to Lavender, an Anglican. It’s no wonder David Cameron brought him in at short notice to iron out the logistics of the potentially inflammatory UK visit of Pope Benedict. The humble sense of how others – or God – might see us breathes through Patten with empathy for those on the sharp end of things and this makes for good politics. His service in promoting democracy as last governor of Hong Kong is a key legacy. 

There have been few political memoirs in recent years that include the unashamed profession of Christian faith that appears gently all through First Confession. The section on mortality is particularly striking.  I know that my own appointment is not yet due. It worries me, but I don’t panic. I suppose this is partly because of my lifetime’s comfort blanket. As a Christian, I believe in an afterlife. I admire the bravery of those who do not have this to sustain them, who may have allowed, even encouraged, their rational faculties to shred this hopeful mystery. It has been my solace from childhood to old age… We believe in the Christian promise, that death is not the end of the story… it is the Christian and family parts of my identity which I hope will be with me right down to the wire.

If good living comes from good values and good values come from good vision here is a book that illustrates one man’s vision and values whilst encouraging self examination about ultimate ambitions. As Chris Patten concludes: Maybe success is leaving a mark or imprint which encourages people to cheer up, to cope with life a bit more happily and successfully. Maybe your mark should give others hope, make them smile, and give them the confidence and understanding to know that in ways large or small they can make their world and our own a slightly better place.

Chris Patten   First Confession: A Sort of Memoir Penguin 2017 £9.99 Kindle edition ISBN 978-0-241-27560-3 299pp

Reviewed by Canon John Twisleton  Haywards Heath July 2017




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