Paschal Donohoe: Chris Patten and the ‘nobility of public life’
Review: ‘First Confession’ joins the highest tier of recent works by British politicians
Chris Patten in Dublin, 2001. Photograph: David Sleator
First Confession: A Sort of Memoir
Roscommon makes an early appearance in the latest book from Chris Patten, a luminary of British public life. Only a few pages into these reflections he writes of his great grandfather, Patrick, who left Boyle in Co Roscommon. Fleeing the Famine he settled in Lancashire, working as a chair-bottom maker.
This heritage is fundamental to the identity of the author. It influenced his career, as a minister in Northern Ireland and chairman of the Policing Commission that led to the reform of policing in Northern Ireland.
His Catholicism is described as “a fundamental part of who I am”, which he hopes “will be with me right down to the wire”. The title of the book, First Confession, reflects his religious beliefs, even though it is not obvious to this reader what sins prompted this description.
This strong sense of identity is a guiding theme of the book. Patten recognises that some of the consequences of identity can be malevolent, through the rising tides of nationalism or the coarsening of public discourse. Centrist politics must respond. He believes, as I do, that “liberal politics constitute the best hope for a decent future and the strongest basis for what is still the honourable adventure of politics”.
But his deep interest and affection for Ireland does not represent the limits of Patten’s career.
It began in the research department of the Conservative Party. He has also served as a member of the British government, as the last governor of Hong Kong and as a senior member of the European Commission. A departure from political life led to a series of other public offices, including chairman of the BBC and chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Series of reflections
This is not a conventional memoir. His earlier works recount his career. This instead is a series of reflections, each prompted by a brief examination of a phase in his public life.
It is published during a particularly industrious phase for British political memoirs. The tumultuous events in our nearest neighbour and a series of departures from their political life, both voluntary and forced, have caused shelves to sag under the weight of new publications.
Ken Clarke, Harriet Harman, Nick Clegg and Ed Balls have offerings for an interested reader. George Osborne and David Cameron will be publishing their musings soon.
First Confession joins Politics by Clegg at the highest tier of these recent works. Through reviewing his political life, Patten is laying out a manifesto for liberal values and pragmatism in political life. It arrives at a time when this championing is sorely needed.
This creed is international, relevant in this memoir from China to the Balkans. It is also a pulse running through all traditions in British political life but one now grappling with the existential consequences of Brexit, a prospect that dejects and deeply worries Patten.
He recognises the distance of politics from daily lives. However, this is not the the same as apathy, instead it “is simply normal people getting on with making the most of their opportunities and trying to cope with the small disasters that bombard most lives, this is the heroism of muddling through”.
Nobility of public life
This book makes a defiant case for the value and even nobility of public life. It is clearest when he reflects on the Conservative Party leaders for whom he worked.
An entire chapter is devoted to the merits and demerits of Heath, Thatcher and Major. Each leader is subject to a thorough – and, for Edward Heath, damning – appraisal. His evaluation of John Major is the most positive and affectionate, arguing that he made the right choices on the key issues of his time.
Many Irish readers will be drawn to the chapter on his experiences of Ireland, “Crazy Irish Knots”.
I was never seduced into thinking, as some seemed to believe, that these six counties were so uniquely beautiful as to explain or justify people killing to control them
Although deeply challenging, these were also periods of great personal reward. As a minister for state he enjoyed immersion in the mechanics of the governing of the North, from local authority to the health services.
But his experience of the consequences of violence and terror is also very clear. Patten writes that “I was never seduced into thinking, as some seemed to believe, that these six counties were so uniquely beautiful as to explain or justify people killing to control them”.
This is perhaps the reason why he instantly accepted an offer from Mo Mowlam to chair a commission on how policing should be reorganised to reflect the changing political environment.
His description of this work is typically vivid, writing of emotional public meetings and the political pressures of tough choices.
This is typical of a very well-written book. There is a surprising lyricism and humour in his observations.
Writing of Keith Joseph, an intellectual godfather of the Conservative Party, he observes of his time in office that “Few people can have been so disappointed at their inability to change the nation’s soul”. Disraeli was a prime minister who “understood that gravity rather than levity was the attribute required of those who sought to govern a country wreathed in fog and a large middle class”.
He believes that the primary role of the state is to enable individuals and social groups to flourish. Government itself also needs checks and restraint
This is also evident when he articulates his political views. Conservatism is rejected as an ideology. This makes him a leading member of the “Wet brigade”, a description from Margaret Thatcher of colleagues who demonstrated, in her eyes, worrying levels of pragmatism. He believes that the primary role of the state is to enable individuals and social groups to flourish. Government itself also needs checks and restraints.
These views infuse a life that describes the innate toughness of political life. But this is a book that also beautifully captures its joy and reward.
- Paschal Donohoe is the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform