First Confession

by Chris Patten, Allen Lane, £20

In December 1998, as a BBC reporter, I watched Chris Patten chair a hostile public meeting in the port of Larne as part of the public inquiry into policing in Northern Ireland. Larne is a Loyalist town: no place for a Catholic bigwig. I came away, that cold night, impressed by Patten. Here was a man steady under fire, with a sharp intelligence, courteous but tough. An impression confirmed by this biography, subtitled “A Sort of Memoir”.

In 1998, Patten had accepted the inquiry’s chair at the invitation of Mo Mowlam, the New Labour secretary of state for the province. He came to it fresh from his stint as the last British governor of Hong Kong – where he had incurred the displeasure of the Chinese through his efforts to leave at least some kind of democratic legacy when Britain withdrew. It tells you much about Patten that he became a “go to” man for both Tory and Labour governments when they needed someone with political nous, diplomatic skills and a thick skin.

This book has been criticised in some quarters for its lack of spicy political gossip but, as Patten explains in his introduction, tittle-tattle is not his purpose. Rather, he has posed the question “Who am I? What makes up my identity?” And the answer is rather fascinating.

Patten, now Lord Patten of Barnes, is a liberal Tory and a lifelong Catholic, and what he tries to do in this book is explain himself to us.

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