What Next? Surviving the Twenty-first Century Chris Patten

Allen Lane, pp.459, 25

‘The Half’ is how actors refer to the half hour before their play begins, when they ready themselves, steady themselves, for their performance.

It seems a bit early to be discussing how to survive the 21st century. After all, there are 92 years left in which to do it, years in which we can expect traditional verities to fall away, existing technologies to be transformed, and problems yet unheard of to supplant the imperative causes of our own day. Political pundits have always tended to extrapolate from both the problems and the solutions of their own time, and Chris Patten is no exception. Such works have a short shelf-life. Yet there is much more to his latest book than hand-wringing and soothsaying, and there are good reasons why even the most sceptical should read it.

One reason is that it contains one of the best analyses in print of where we are now. Globalisation, migration, climate change, water- and energy-shortage, terrorism and organised crime, nuclear proliferation, Third-World poverty, drugs and prostitution: there are sane accounts of all these much- debated problems, full of new information and perceptions, even if the overall picture is familiar enough. Patten casts a world-weary eye over international politics, a world in which the short-term horizons of all the main actors leaves him with little to analyse and less to admire.

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Chris Patten is a traditional Tory with a Tory’s instinctive distrust of ideology. He is a pragmatic liberal paternalist, who believes in the beneficent power of the state. Of course, he is well aware of the tendency of all political power to overreach itself. But there is a touching faith in the power of consensus politics to protect us from the consequences. The same belief in collective solutions powers Patten’s faith in the European Community. It is a rather top-down view of the world, in which unguided humanity gets very little credit for initiative.

A politician’s choice of targets is often revealing, and Patten makes no secret of his. President Chirac of France, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Prime Minister Howard of Australia, assorted third-world tyrants, all come in for their share of elegant abuse. The ignorance and corruption of Messrs Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are a persistent theme. There is, however, much more to these judgments than the follies of which they are accused. Patten objects to the American refusal to ratify the Kyoto treaty and the invasion of Iraq, just as, at a lower level of iniquity, he objects to Chirac’s attempt to combine support for the Third World with the defence of the Common Agricultural Policy, or what he sees as the craven subservience of Howard’s Australia to the United States. There are eloquent pages devoted to all of these questions. But it becomes obvious that the real offence of those who made these decisions lay in their ideological motivation and deliberate rejection of consensus. Vladimir Putin, an equally awkward figure but a pragmatic realist with a declared agenda and wide public support in his own country, gets off quite lightly by comparison.

Patten’s views never descend into mere worthiness. But there are times when his suspicion of all-embracing solutions leads to a frustrating refusal to offer any conclusions at all. Things are just too difficult and problematic. Men of goodwill everywhere should get together. A solution will surely emerge. But as to what it should be, who can say? Perhaps the most revealing example of this attitude lies in the field of drugs-control, to which he devotes an interesting chapter. Patten is too honest to pretend that the legal prohibition of drugs works. He knows that it does not. He understands that prohibition serves only to create a criminal underclass of users and place a lucrative consumer market in the hands of organised crime. He is quite prepared to admit all this. Yet when it comes to the point, he cannot bring himself to suggest legalisation. This, he declares with engaging candour, is because while his head points one way, his heart points another. Here, encapsulated in a few pages, is the politician’s instinctive belief in the political solution, the urge to be seen to intervene even in a field where state action has proved useless or harmful.

Other issues pose very similar dilemmas. Patten has a low opinion of Europe’s colonial interventions in Africa and Asia, born of much experience as England’s development minister in the 1980s. But, seeing the former colonies pursuing policies on the environment or public health that strike him as unenlightened, he is all for manipulating their governments through such quintessentially European and American institutions as the IMF and the World Bank. He recognises the force of the economist P. T. Bauer’s argument that aid is useless, because if the right economic conditions exist it is not needed while if they do not exist it will fail. But that will not do, because Something Must be Done. In much the same way, Patten believes in markets, because a great deal of experience suggests that they allocated resources more efficiently than administrative command. Yet confronted by the fact that markets naturally generate repugnant disparities of income, he runs for the regulated solution, which would inhibit salaries and bonuses that a political manager might regard as immoral or excessive. The trouble about pragmatism is that it allows politicians to evade important questions by proposing contradictory answers to them.

Inevitably, a book like this provokes the question what would have happened if Chris Patten’s parliamentary career had not been cut short in 1992 by the electors of Bath. He would unquestionably have been a more convincing flag-bearer for liberal Toryism than any of the other candidates in the four leadership contests since 1997. In opposition he would, on the strength of this book, have been appealing and articulate but occasionally incoherent. In government, his innate curiosity and objectivity would have combined with his strong sense of moral purpose to make a formidable prime minister in an age in which the electorate has come to value management over ideology.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated