A life played out on the world stage

From Floreat Domus Issue: 
Issue year: 
[Lord Patten]
Lord Patten

“I didn’t do very much in modern history…”. It seems an unlikely thing for Chris Patten to say, but today Lord Patten of Barnes, last Governor of Hong Kong, former Member of Parliament, former Minister, former Secretary of State, former Chairman of the Conservative Party, and current Chancellor of the University of Oxford, is looking back to his younger self as a History undergraduate at Balliol.

There is an unmistakable warmth and sincerity when Patten is asked about his years studying History here, and he responds with a veritable roll call of honour, listing the names of some of Balliol’s most eminent historians with evident regard and affection. These include Dick Southern, “undoubtedly the greatest medieval historian of the last fifty years”, Richard Cobb, “the greatest British historian of the French Revolution”, and Maurice Keen, who is “simply a great historian.” The English Civil War was taught by Christopher Hill, “the best Marxist historian of the post-war years.”

He concludes the sentence: “I didn’t do very much in modern history, but I did the nineteenth century with John Prest – he’s written some wonderful nineteenth-century biographies. So, it was a fantastic privilege.”

Northern Ireland quote

It seems only fair to observe that in his years since leaving Balliol, Patten has done a very great deal in modern history, having been influentially present at an extraordinary number of decisive moments of national and international importance in the course of a long and varied political and diplomatic career spanning Westminster, Hong Kong, Belfast, and Brussels. Or, as he describes his distinguished record with self-deprecating humour: “I’ve had a fairly unique experience in being a Cabinet Minister, a colonial oppressor, and, as The Daily Telegraph would see it, a servant of the super-state!”

In 2007, we have already seen celebrations to mark the fifty years of European co-operation since the Treaty of Rome, watched the extraordinary scenes from Northern Ireland as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were sworn in to share power in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and witnessed the increasing concern of scientists and environmentalists urging political leaders ever closer to collective international action on the issue of global warming.

It is a great privilege, therefore, in this year, to have the opportunity to talk with Patten about his thoughts on these issues and on his own contribution to the development of these events.

The Patten Report

Modesty prompts his reluctance to expound too freely in response to the question I pose, “What is your greatest achievement?” (“Well now, that’s really for others to say…”), but Patten eventually admits that “The most difficult thing I’ve ever done was the Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland after the Belfast Agreement, and I guess, if I’m honest, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. It was the part of the Belfast Agreement which the politicians themselves couldn’t negotiate, so to some extent it was imposed on them. And it’s the part of the Agreement which has lasted best. We must hope that the Paisley-Adams marriage, whilst not made in heaven, will endure. But certainly the reform of the police service in Northern Ireland has endured. And it was tough, emotionally as well as politically and intellectually.”

[Prince of Wales & Chris Patten]
30 June 1997: the Prince of Wales and former Governor, Chris Patten, wave from Royal Yacht Britannia just before they depart from Hong Kong on the last day of British rule.

The reforms recommended in the report, entitled A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland, but popularly known as ‘The Patten Report’, were resolutely non-political. Instead, the proposals – all 175 of them – were tested against policing benchmarks, not political ones.

In a newspaper article which appeared shortly after the report was published to angry criticism from hard-line Unionists, Patten wrote: “Those benchmarks were effectiveness, efficiency, impartiality, accountability, representativeness and respect for human rights. Get those right and you depoliticise policing in Northern Ireland. Argue about the politics of policing and you remain stuck forever.”

Whilst it might be overstating things to suggest that there was no further argument about the politics of policing in that troubled province, the reforms of the Patten Report were gradually implemented, despite the controversy they generated, and were eventually instrumental – indeed vital – in creating the kind of social environment in Northern Ireland which made possible the remarkable Sinn Fein-DUP power-sharing of this year.

On environmental issues too, Patten played an active role, particularly during his time as Secretary of State for the Environment (1989-90) under Margaret Thatcher. He was one of the first to take seriously the problems of the Greenhouse Effect and the depletion of the ozone layer, and was a strong advocate for the strengthening of the Montreal Protocol, which placed restrictions on the use of halons and CFC gases.

He was, he says, pleased to produce the first White Paper on the environment and “pleased to preside over the conference in environmental diplomacy by ending the production and use of ozone-depleting substances.”

European integration

[The Chancellor in procession at Encaenia]
The Chancellor in procession at Encaenia

From his days as a student in Oxford, Patten was persuaded of the need for closer co-operation between European countries, and he writes in his autobiography of the deep impression made on him by a speech urging Britain’s entry into the Common Market given by Harold Macmillan. “It was”, he writes, “the best speech I have ever heard…the hand movements that followed rather than accompanied the thought just delivered…the magnificent studied put-downs…the mixture of plump archaism with demotic metaphor – all these complemented a simple argument that I have always found totally convincing.”

Now, asked to reflect on the achievements of Europe over the past fifty years, he is a resolute supporter still.

“The main thing that Europe has achieved is now taken for granted. The whole purpose of the enterprise was to end wars in Europe, to promote political integration through economic integration. Everybody now takes that for granted. That lashing of France and Germany together in an historic act of reconciliation and enterprise was the sort of thing that shapes centuries and does so for the better.

“We’re also more prosperous because we’ve shared our markets and removed barriers to trade and the movement of people. We’ve engaged in a unique exercise in sovereignty-sharing in order to deal with problems like the environment.”

Elysian Fields quote

On The Daily Telegraph-style fears of the erosion of national identity, Patten is bracingly dismissive: “I don’t think any of us has lost our national identity, or our patriotism. Increasingly, in order to cope with the problems that bear down on individual nation states, countries have to co-operate to a different and more profound level than ever before and the European Union – for all its faults, for all its sometimes vapid ambitions – provides a model for doing that.”

As for the future of Europe and the role of the EU in international political affairs, he feels that the prognosis is excellent, given the right care and leadership. “It should continue and complete the process of enlargement”, he says, “which has been the great stabilising factor in European politics. It should play a more significant role in helping America carry the burden of global leadership, because without that we are unlikely to be able to encourage the USA to return to a more traditional approach to multi-lateralism.

“We need individual European countries to make the reforms that hold us back still and undermine our growth rate, and we have to do more to be increasingly competitive. If we do those things, I think there is every prospect of Europe continuing to be a region of the world that other people admire and respect, and all that has to be done in a vocabulary which relates our purposes to the problems of the 21st century.”

“My children simply take it for granted”, Patten remarks, “that Europeans aren’t fighting one another any more. But the three great Balliol figures in the British European story – Macmillan, Heath, Jenkins – couldn’t take for granted that Europe wouldn’t be split asunder again.

“If you go and look at the war memorials in Oxford and Cambridge colleges, you see British names, dominion names (as we rather quaintly called them), American names and German names. In the First World War, three Balliol men won Victoria Crosses, and two won Iron Crosses. They had a tremendous impact on previous generations, on Macmillan’s generation, on Jenkins’s and Heath’s generation. But except as a rhetorical flourish, I don’t think it has very much effect on people today. They can look at what’s happening in Asia – where there has been no historic reconciliation between China and Japan – and wonder what things would have been like in Europe if we hadn’t looked for a way out of that terrible bloody cul-de-sac.”


[Lord Patten & family]
Lord Patten on the day he was installed as Chancellor of the University, 25 June 2003, with his wife Lavender and his daughters.

As my conversation with Patten draws to a conclusion, a mention of his old college prompts a smile of great warmth and sweetness and the simple answer, “I had a very happy time. I didn’t work as hard as I should have done. I met my wife.” Another warm smile. “I think, in those days, with no exams at the end of the year, the second year at Oxford was about as close as you can get to the Elysian Fields. I did a lot of drama: I used to write for the Balliol Players with two or three others, which was huge fun…late breakfasts at the old Kemp Café in the Broad, playing cricket down at Holywell on late summer evenings, the Buttery before dinner in the winter…I mean there is just a huge collection of memories.”

Asked about his role as the University’s Chancellor, Patten admits that the funding of higher education must come high on his list of priorities: “Unless Oxford is able to raise more money, is able to increase its endowment, we’ll have more difficulty competing in the future because the financial squeeze puts pressure on our ability to compete in the higher education global marketplace.”

There are, he argues, three ways for universities to get more money: increased government support (and the scepticism of the Chancellor is evident even as he suggests it); private support in the form of benefactions for endowment and annual expenditure; and an increase in tuition fees.

On this last controversial point, he says: “If you increase tuition fees, in order to make sure that you have a needs-blind admissions policy, you need more cash for bursaries for poorer students so the whole thing ties together.” He adds: “I’m delighted that Balliol has been so professional about fundraising – the University has to do this as well.”

The commitment of the Chancellor to making an Oxford education possible for the brightest students, regardless of their circumstances, is evident and is clearly motivated by a deep appreciation of the opportunities afforded him by his time at Balliol: “My education at Oxford taught me to think for myself, to write a decent sentence in English, to be sceptical about generalisations, to appreciate irony and self-deprecation, and to be interested in ideas.

“I think that there’s an old Balliol tradition that life – and I don’t want to sound like a bishop here – but life is about more than worldly success. It’s about putting things back into the community after the sort of privileged education one gets.”