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Issue Date:  May 26, 2006

By Chris Patten
Henry Holt and Co., 309 pages, $26
A life lived on the world stage

Reviewed by JOHN H. CARROLL

In his memoir Cousins and Strangers: America, Britain, and Europe in a New Century, Chris Patten, now the chancellor of Oxford and Newcastle Universities, traces his rise from student days at St. Benedict’s School in West London to positions of power in the British government, the European Union and academia.

Events during Mr. Patten’s university years at Balliol College in Oxford greatly influenced the formation of his political views as a moderate Conservative, or progressive Tory. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, a Balliol graduate, often visited his old college and gave lectures that impressed the aspiring politician. As an infantry officer in World War I, Mr. Macmillan had developed great respect for the working-class troops who served under his command on the Western Front. He tended therefore to be more progressive regarding social legislation than many of his archconservative colleagues.

The young Oxonian then spent a year in the United States on a scholarship and there developed an admiration for American educational standards and political democracy. Mr. Patten entered politics in the late 1960s and served as conservative member of Parliament for Bath. He eventually became chairman of the Conservative Party and managed various political and economic programs for Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Mr. Patten went on to be the last British governor of Hong Kong. He presents some candid comments about head-butting sessions with Chinese communist officials regarding the transfer of a relatively free British colony to the People’s Republic of China and adds a light touch by noting that after the pomp and ceremony of Hong Kong’s transfer to China in June 1997, he arrived at Heathrow and joined the queue to wait for transport home just like everyone else.

His next assignment was a real hot potato: He became chairman of the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, which was established in 1998 as part of the Belfast agreement. “I used to think it educational for audiences from Boston to Los Angeles to observe the Northern Ireland politicians telling audiences how culturally different they were from their political foes as they appeared with every passing row more and more similar,” he observes wryly. After 11 years, his commission produced the report “A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland” -- broadly known as the “Patten Report” -- which made recommendations for the peace process and led to the establishment of the Northern Ireland Police Service.

In 1999 Mr. Patten moved on to become European Commissioner for External Relations. He worked in tandem with Javier Solana, a socialist, former Spanish foreign minister and the NATO secretary general from 1995 to 1999, to formulate and implement a common European Union foreign policy. The scope of their operation covered diplomatic relations throughout the whole world. In the course of his activities, Mr. Patten also worked with Colin Powell, Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela.

Mr. Patten was given the title Lord Patten of Barnes in 2005. Now retired to the English academic scene, he’s taken the time to pen a good read about an interesting career with some intriguing insights into world affairs, a book Publisher’s Weekly -- in a starred review -- calls “Well-informed and light on its feet ... the most enjoyable, readable and engaging a political book in recent memory.” (Cousins and Strangers was published in the United Kingdom in 2005 under the title Not Quite the Diplomat: Home Truths about World Affairs.)

Early in the memoir, Lord Patten states that as a Catholic politician in Britain he was not aware of being the target of any discrimination on religious grounds. However, he maintains that the British still retain some suspicions regarding their old Continental enemies, especially “Catholic” Spain and “Catholic” France. The author concludes his autobiography with some candid comments about world leaders, especially Americans.

He expresses his admiration for America’s great and altruistic role internationally after 1945 that helped much of the world to recover from the ravages of World War II, and for their skillful diplomacy during the Cold War that avoided another major disastrous international conflict. However, Lord Patten is very critical of current American leaders, especially the neocon faction. “America’s gunslinging attitudes and ‘you’re with us or against us’ unilateralism have alienated its friends in addition to its enemies. The United States must shun the imperial mantle, renew its commitment to global governance, and take on a leadership role -- and a larger share of the expenses -- in environmental and economic management,” he concludes.

This is a harsh criticism from a friend, one who still hopes for a brighter future.

John H. Carroll is a retired federal civil servant who served 25 years as a research analyst. He lives in Silver Spring, Md.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2006

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