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February 02, 2006

The old-fashioned arguments of a Europhile Tory: Not Quite the Diplomat - Chris Patten

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Not Quite the Diplomat: Home Truths about World Affairs
by Chris Patten
Pp. 304. London: Allen Lane, 2005
Hardback, 20

These days we are used to huge supermarkets everywhere which include all manner of exotic produce and astonishingly cheap "no frills" flights to the continent. Some people choose to nip off to France for "booze cruises" to fill up their cars with wine - others don't bother. But there is nothing unobtainable or extraordinary or impressive about it. It's more a case of:

What shall we do this weekend? Shall we go to France? I've got a coupon for some Eurostar tickets.....
It is difficult to appreciate how Europhile politicians of Chris Patten's generation sincerely connect their support for EU institutions with the struggle in their youth for the cosmopolitanism and sophistication that we now take for granted.

Patten writes proudly:

My own mother, unlike most of my friends, used garlic when she cooked and sometimes shopped at an Italian delicatessen in Soho, demonstrating that it is possible to purchase olive oil without going to a chemist's shop. We went to restaurants whose exotic connections with the Mediterranean were advertised by the whicker-bottled Chianti bottles that served as lamps. We sometimes drank wine at meals.
Of course Patten is knowledgeable and intelligent enough to acknowledge that Eurosceptics can also be found on the continent. When pressed Patten would probably concede that even British Eurosceptics have on occasion eaten pasta or visited Spain or progressed beyond a schoolboy fluency in French.

But deep in his psyche, in his DNA, is his suspicion that what they really want is to make olive oil unobtainable except at a chemist. He deliberately blurs the cultural and political issues by talking about "pro European" and "anti European" rather than pro or anti EU. This linguistic deceit is utterly typical of his Eurocrat class and I hope he has the decency to feel a bit ashamed.

All the tricks are there. "What is truth?" asked Pontious Pilate. Patten asks: "What is sovereignty?" He tries to suggest that whether or not we remain a self-governing nation is some abstract matter of interest to obscure constitutional theorists alone. Imagine if people had taken that attitude during the War.

There is the stale complaint that Eurosceptics in the Tory party were to blame for disunity. But Euroscepticism is and was the mainstream view among Tories - MPs, Tory businessmen, Tory journalists, Party members, supporters - and among the electorate at large. Party unity could best have been achieved under the Major government by allowing a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty.

There is the casual reference to Eurosceptics being xenophobic, but without naming names. Does he just mean UKIP? Or his fellow Conservatives? Or all Eurosceptics? It is so warm and cosy for Europhiles to slide into this lazy abuse rather than to outline the more challenging case for handing over more power to the EU.

I would have thought that if anyone could make a positive case for the European Union it would be Patten. His failure to do so suggests to me that there is no such case to be made. Certainly he warns of practical difficulties if we withdraw. For instance he points out that EFTA countries outside the EU still contribute something to the EU budget as part of the trading deal. But this does not amount to an argument that the EU is a Good Thing. There may be practical advantages for a Sicilian shop keeper paying out for protection. That does not mean the mafia is a Good Thing either. Increasingly it seems that rather than a facilitator of free trade the EU gets in the way.

Chris Patten's career greatly prospered under Margaret Thatcher, who promoted him to the cabinet. He also did well out of Tony Blair who appointed him as an EU Commissioner. But he has bitten both of the hands that fed him. While his chapter on Europe takes swipes at Lady Thatcher, the chapter on Iraq denounces Tony Blair with startling vigour:

If Mr Blair has signed up to this world view, in which preventive wars are acceptable for America as the global superpower, though for no one else, and in which America can in practice follow its own rules and do whatever it likes, then he has done immeasurable damage to our historical relationship with the United States, to the values on which it is based, and to our previously shared commitment to the international rule of law.
I have always liked Chris Patten - he enjoys the innocent mischief of looking up what people said a while ago and highlighting the discrepancies that emerge with what they say today. For all his grand offices (most recently as Chancellor of Oxford University) he retains a lack of pomposity and a keen sense of humour.

When I was still at school back in the early 1980s and he was a new MP I persuaded him to speak to the Westminster Young Conservatives of which I was Chairman and subsequently he took me for tea in the Commons. Back then he had little time for Margaret Thatcher's efforts to switch towards the free market. I was pleased he changed his mind about it, notably as Governor of Hong Kong. There the tremendous prosperity capitalism could achieve if only government could resist a lot of clever meddling became clear to him. But this was the subject of his earlier book East and West. I hope he makes a similar conversion in his attitude towards Europe but I fear there is precious little sign of it from this latest literary endeavour.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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