This is the text of the article Sir George wrote for the House Magazine.
Chris Patten kindly agreed to come to my room in Portcullis House for the interview. He looked at the view of the Thames and the space available, and left the impression that his negotiations for accommodation in the Upper House might have a less satisfactory outcome.
There is something refreshing about talking to Christ Patten – an unusual combination of intellectual argument from the Oxford Common Room, and earthy common sense from The White Hart.
I reminded him that, 13 years ago, he was Party Chairman in the run up to an election everyone thought we would lose. We didn’t; did he have any advice for his successor?
“I think we won in 1992 for 2 reasons. First, because we had the benefit of the doubt and second because our narrative was more credible than Labour’s. The reason why we flatlined for ten years is because we never recovered the benefit of the doubt; and have not had a story that connects all the dots, both in policy terms and aspirations.” Chris doubted if we would win an election in competition with Labour as to who would spend most money, but believed there were issues about quality of service where Labour should not have a free run. However, he thought things were getting closer.
“I can’t think of a Government re-election campaign that has had a worse beginning. Bringing back Alastair Campbell; the over-the-top thuggishness about Michael, and the worse slogan in living memory - Forward not Backward.”
We moved on to his role in the House of Lords. Chris wants to play himself in slowly, and then use the Platform for three issues.
Higher education and research; The UK & Europe; and Foreign and Security issues.
As I had just taken part in a debate on the composition of the Lords, I asked him about that. He thought its authority would be reinforced if it had greater legitimacy, which should involve an element of election. He was more relaxed about indirect election via local authorities, and suggested having MEP’s with a double mandate.
I asked him about the possibility of Oxford University opting out of the public sector.
While Chris understood why people put forward the argument –frustration with Government parsimony, linked with its growing interference and refusal to treat it as a world class institution –he did not favour UDI.
“Higher education is a public good and should get substantial public investment. And while we are trying to be more professional about endowments, to depend entirely on private giving would be a bold venture. 4% of Oxbridge alumni give to their university , compared with 60% at Princeton. But also there is not too much that we do that is world class. The BBC; the British Council; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; our Armed Forces; and the great Universities. They are the best in Europe and the second best in the world. It is hugely in the national interest to keep them in the first division. Going independent would be impractical and brave to the point of foolhardy – although under the banner of an admiral philosophical proposition.”
We moved on to foreign affairs and, against the background of complaints about the UN and the EU, I asked if multi-national organisations were inherently bureaucratic and inefficient. Chris demurred. “ If I had to chose a model of efficiency between the Department of Work and Pensions and the EU Commission, I am not sure that the EU Commission would be the less efficient. The main problem with international organisation is you have the same number of Sir Humphreys as there are Members. You have 15 different bureaucratic styles and personnel policies. At Brussels, you get some of the very best, but you also have a “flags on jobs” policy that inhibits efficiency. Nonetheless, the two countries that get most people to the top are France and the UK – who have the best civil servants.”
He found the main difference between the DOE – where he was Secretary of State - and the Commission was that the latter took longer to do things. “The Permanent Secretary in the DOE had more latitude to move people around. He worked out quickly where a Minister’s interest lay, and what sort of officials he needed. It is incomparably more difficult to do that in Brussels. Hong Kong was actually the most efficient organisation- proconsular powers linked with Chinese entrepreneuralism.”
I asked him about the political fall out from a No vote in a referendum on the EU Constitution. He doubted whether Tony Blair could survive as Prime Minister, if this happened. He thought the debate should be put in perspective.
“The rest of Europe thinks the Treaty is a spectacular triumph for British diplomacy; it exhales British Gaullism. If the British gave the thumbs down to something denounced in France for being too British, there would be a few waves of surprise and hostility in Europe.”
“If 24 vote yes – even 23 – and we vote no, do we think we can easily go back to the rest and say – OK you have all given it thumbs up, but we want to renegotiate? What would be the impact on our standing in Europe? How much clout would we have?”
“I can understand the UKIP argument for going out – though I think it crazy, when you look at the rise of China. This is not the time to leave a Christmas club, let alone the EU. But I don’t understand the point in remaining members, but with minimum influence.”
“If the French vote no, then we are back to square one. I think that would be very bad; it would open up arguments that have been put to bed. The Federastic tendency, that has been locked up the broom cupboard, would be released.”
Finally I asked him about China. “China is an argument for rational exhuberance. There is a great Chinese entrepreneurial tradition, which you simply didn’t have in Russia. China and India represented 50% of global output in 1820. This was down to 7 or 8% by the middle of the last century. Where will it be in the future?”
He saw major problems to be overcome – the politicisation of credit, a rotten banking system, too much corruption, a bad regulatory regime and a political system that creaks. “But they have turned round into the most open economy in the developing world. Tariffs are down from 40% to 6% in 12 year. Half the world’s growth now comes from the US and China. The IMF say it has a sustainable 7% growth rate. That is good news. But sooner or later, the test will be whether China can bring into line its legitimisation of political authority.”
The last time I saw Chris Patten in the House was when he came to dine with a few of his friends. As I walked out of St Stephens Entrance with him, I asked if I could get him a cab. As the question left my lips, a limousine purred out of the night to take the Commissioner home to Putney. This time, he left clutching his Freedom Pass to go to his publishers.