Chris Patten’s First Confession A Sort of Memoir (2017)

Autobiography is a tricky genre and expressions of it are never to be taken at face value. The accounts politicians produce of their lives can be particularly self-serving. When I picked up this book by a senior British Tory I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be exceptionally interesting, for three reasons.

The first is its compelling subject matter. While Patten never reached the very top of what the Victorians called the greasy pole, the posts he held, which included significant responsibility for Northern Ireland, being the last Governor of Hong Kong, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, and the Chancellor of Oxford University, placed him close enough to the centres of power to make his recollections a significant source for recent British history. Having been a member of Balliol, renowned for the effortless superiority of its students, must have helped his career (among Australian products of the college, Kim Beazley comes to mind); we read that his year included the captain of the Indian cricket team, the Nawab of Pataudi, ‘whose daughter, also a Balliol graduate, was many years later to star with my youngest daughter in a Bollywood film.’ Patten’s discussion of the British exit from Hong Kong, in particular, which he steered in a direction vehemently opposed by China, runs counter to a widely accepted narrative. The vignettes he supplies of such figures as Edward Heath, who emerges as worse than one would have thought, Margaret Thatcher, who seems to have been a more sympathetic figure than seemed likely, and John Major, are amusing and well-informed.

Secondly, the commentary on issues Patten provides is always highly intelligent and worth thinking about. Rather than forcing events to conform to a pre-existing world view, one has the sense of someone whose view is always provisional and who is open to changing his mind. Basically a Tory ‘wet’, he shows that liberal attitudes can exist in a conservative party. This was not always the case during his career, nor is it now. It is a welcome surprise to see them argued for with such thoughtfulness.

Finally, the author emerges as a thoroughly likeable person, from his boyhood onwards. Extraordinarily for a politician he does not seem to harbour grudges and is sympathetic to attitudes contrary to his own. His has been a life well lived; how rarely does one come to the end of an autobiography thinking that one would like to meet the author of the book and have a good yarn about things.

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