Chris Patten: “Conservative Party being undermined by English nationalism”

Former Tory party chairman Chris Patten on the "awful mess" of Brexit, Donald Trump – and being a part of the end of British imperialism

I should be able to sue for deprivation of literary royalties because I had such a happy childhood. I was extremely happy at school, had a loving family who probably spoilt me a bit. My dad was never as successful as my mum would have liked him to be but he was a dear and kind and lovable man. I never had any angst about what I was going to do with my life. I felt I was on railway lines, which were taking me wherever exams led. You did exams, you did well, then you did the next lot.

I won a scholarship to what used to be called a direct-grant school, which was half grammar school, half independent school and paid for by the local council and scholarships. I am a good example of the way social mobility can work in our country. And I would like to see it work better and faster, for people who are let down by the education system and in particular for women. I have had a very lucky life but not a privileged life, except that it has been a privilege to do some of the jobs that I have done.

Brexit is the worst political error made in this country in my lifetime

The most exciting thing was the election of President Kennedy. He was such a fresh personality and was sufficiently young to have some appeal to even people of my age. But I wasn’t particularly interested in politics. I was rather suspicious of people that were. Those suspicions made me pretty middle of the road in my attitudes. I never believed in a socialist system and didn’t believe the world could all be explained by an ideological commitment to market economics.

Communism or capitalism…

I would tell my younger self to learn another language – it makes your life more fulfilled. I made a terrible mistake when I got a scholarship into university very young. I could have taken a year off and learned Italian or Spanish, or gone around the world. Instead I stayed at school in order to be captain of everything. Young people today will live 20 years longer than my generation and you need an awful lot of interests to make life as worthwhile as possible.

Chris Patten is sworn in as governor of Hong Kong in 1992
Chris Patten is sworn in as governor of Hong Kong in 1992

I grew up in a world split between rival ideologies. Communism or capitalism, America or the Soviet Union. After the collapse of communist authoritarianism in Europe, people thought we had seen the triumph of liberal democracy. Instead people began to identify with extreme views of their own identity – as Serbs or Croats, as Sunni or Shia, with Islam or Christianity. The best way to explain that is with our complicated identities. I’m from Irish potato famine stock, Catholic, lower-middle class, a scholarship boy, a moderate Conservative, pro-Europe, America-phile – at least for America at its best.

My younger self would have been as surprised as all my friends about my career. I was the first of my family to go to university and no one would have expected me to end up as Chancellor of Oxford University after a series of extraordinary public service jobs. At university I acted, edited a satirical magazine, wrote reviews – but nothing political. Howard Marks was the most successful and probably best known of my contemporaries. Without going into whether what he got up to was good or bad, he was a very amiable and cheerful guy. Who knew where his life would lead him?

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

Margaret Thatcher helped make Britain governable again – but she injected some dangerous viruses into the body of the Conservative Party. But by and large history will give her the benefit of the doubt and she was always personally kind to me, despite knowing I didn’t agree with her on everything. Her team was very balanced. The most decent person I worked with was John Major. As time goes by he is shown to be right about the big issues of the day.

Hong Kong

Being governor of Hong Kong was the happiest time of my life. I had the daunting task of negotiating with China but the altogether more pleasant chance to be, as it were, mayor of a big, successful Asian city. People exaggerate how emotional I was when we left – but it was sad to leave such a great job and wonderful friends, and sad to be part of the end of not just British but European imperialism. I was aware of the historical nature of what was happening. So it’s not surprising that whenever anyone played Elgar’s Nimrod I got rather emotional.

The job I am proudest of is chairing the commission that reorganised the police service in Northern Ireland. We took the police out of the vicious political arguments and the violence and encouraged them to represent the diversity of the community. One reason for my strong views about identity politics is that so many of the issues I’ve had to tackle are examples of that – whether it’s the Balkans, the Middle East or Northern Ireland.

The one regret I have was my dad not living long enough for us to have a really good relationship. I must have come over as a bit of a smart arse, maybe a patronising smart arse. It happens with a lot of clever teenagers. But I learned from my parents, above all, the importance of family.

I hope it doesn’t sound corny but my most important influence has been my wife, Lavender. She is my best friend. My wife was orphaned and she felt much more strongly about making a lifetime commitment when we were younger than I did. I should have had more bottle and proposed. We have been married for 46 years. I am at my house in France this week with five of my grandchildren. I don’t know who said it first but I think you are only as happy as your least happy child. I suppose it’s true about grandchildren as well.

Donald Trump is, by a country mile, the worst president of the US in my lifetime

I would have liked to have seen Obama at closer quarters. He is an example of the best of America. The most attractive personalities in my political career were Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Colin Powell. The other person who impressed me was Bill Clinton. He had slightly teenage enthusiasms in terms of relations with other people, and I’m being very delicate here, but for political skills, he was brilliant.

I worry about the state of politics around the world. Donald Trump is, by a country mile, the worst president of the US in my lifetime. I just hope he doesn’t cause too much damage. I think there is a danger of the Conservative party being undermined by English nationalism. And I think there is a danger of the Labour party being submerged in a crazed nostalgia for 1960s socialism. Brexit is the worst political error made in this country in my lifetime. I hope we can redeem something from this awful mess.

First Confession: A Sort Of Memoir by Chris Patten is out now (Allen Lane, £20)

Chris Patten’s Letter To My Younger Self appeared in Big Issue 1269