Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Baron Christopher Francis Patten joined a long line of FILTH*. After introducing the poll tax and becoming Tory Chairman, by 1992 he was so toxic he lost his safe seat. The constituency of Bath, a conservative seat since 1931, fell to the Liberal Democrats. The good people of Bath punished Patten for his stout defence of the divisive poll tax. Although, in typical politician style, Patten later reversed his stance. He asserted he’d disagreed with the tax. None of that was evident in his tireless efforts to push it through parliament.
As a consolation prize, he gets sent abroad to be the unelected governor in Hong Kong. After returning from exile in mid-1997, he headed a commission on policing in Northern Ireland. By all accounts, he did a decent job there. The Royal Ulster Constabulary ceased to exist. It transformed into the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
By 1999 he was at the European Commission dealing with foreign policy matters. There he presided over the failure of Europe to come up with a unified approach to the Iraq war and its aftermath. This contributed to the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Not something he talks about.
In 2004 a nomination for the post of President of the EU arrives. With strong objections from Germany and France, his candidacy failed. Soon he was back in the UK, accepting positions at universities. Then came an episode that would expose him to considerable criticism. The weight of which still means many in the UK consider him a much-diminished figure. Appointed Chairman of the BBC Trust, he faced many challenging issues.
Then a story broke that top BBC presenter Sir Jimmy Savile was a serial rapists and child sex offender. Patten sought to defend the BBC. Instead of immediately acknowledging the BBC’s manifest failings, Patten dithered. Only later, when the extent of public’s outrage became clear, did he cave into criticism. Then claiming ill-health, he resigned.
It’s important that Hong Kong people, who still rave about ‘Fat Pang’ understand this. He came here in 1992 because he was toxic in the UK. Since returning to the UK his standing suffered again. His actions in defending an organisation that shielded a serial rapist did not play well. I know I’m harsh. Yet, you cannot deny there exist a morsel of truth in this.
I’ve met Patten on several occasions, including over a long lunch at the Police Tactical Unit. He was seated next to me. It’s 1992 and he’d recently arrived in Hong Kong. He was doing the rounds getting to know key units in the Police Force. His bagman challenged us on the use of CS smoke to control riots. Asserting it was indiscriminate and disproportionate, he questioned our methods. A quick lesson on tactics and the merits of CS as against beating people with batons followed. The bagman soon shuts up.
I may have mentioned the inability of the British Police to control riots in any pro-active sense. Standing behind shields, allowing mobs to throw stuff, does not constitute effective tactics. Anyway, within months Patten and his bagman were back at PTU. They came to praise us for handling several Vietnamese camp riots. No more questions about CS.
Patten always struck me as a decent chap, who was out of his depth in dealing with Beijing. He covered this with his eloquence, wit and ready charm. Cultivating with careful crafting an image of common sense, coupled with painful politeness. Lurking below the surface, you sensed a ruthless nature. Unfortunately, he overestimated his ability to influence Beijing. Displaying a hubris that left him blind. Beijing is not London. The rules of the game are different. With his judgment scuttled, he blundered around. Plus, truth is, he arrived too late on the scene.
Of course, his open style of engagement with the Hong Kong people was a winner. They’d never seen a Governor so ready to talk to ordinary folks in such a direct manner. No post-1997 Chief Executive has had the courage to emulate that.
My main gripe with Patten is this. When it went wrong, he could take the boat out of here. Thus, beyond his reputation, he had no real investment in the place. Hong Kong’s not his home, nor did he intend to stay. Then you can’t ignore the fact that he sought to massage the facts over what happened in the lead-up to 1997. With books such as ‘The Last Governor’ history was contorted.
His 1994 electoral reforms went ahead without Beijing’s endorsement. All they needed to do was wait, set up a shadow legislature ready to take over on 1st July 1997. And that’s what they did. Patten’s initiative rubbed out in an instant. Chasing his agenda, he stoked sentiment in Hong Kong. This, in turn, created suspicion in Beijing. The resulting tension he left behind had the potential to derail the transition. Such an approach bordered on the reckless. Beijing responded with some undiplomatic retorts … “A sinner for a thousands years.” My favorite insult from Beijing is “Tango dancer.”
Joking aside, this high stakes game is deplorable because Patten wouldn’t face the consequences. Dealing with the aftermath left with others as he sailed off on the Royal Yacht.
On the final day, he played his part well. In the pouring summer rain, with Highland Cathedral echoing off the skyscrapers of Central, he hung his head. In sadness or shame? It was an epic performance broadcast worldwide. Yet, once again the people of Hong Kong were mere spectators or bit-part players.
Back in town this week, Patten acknowledged he relishes “his aging rock star image.” In the UK, he enjoys no such adulation. The old tango dancer loves working the crowds.
* Failed In London, Try Hong Kong.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.