Peter Oborne

The Thing About…

What Next? Surviving the Twenty-First Century


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 490pp £25 order from our bookshop

If you go into the Garrick Club on any weekday from noon onwards there’s a fair chance you’ll run into Ken Clarke, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, at the bar. He’ll be sounding off, giving his views about the great issues of day, backed up by ample reminiscences of when he himself ran the country.

Ken Clarke is pretty good value, so long as you don’t mind hearing the same anecdote repeated time after time. Essentially this book is Chris Patten, the former Cabinet minister, sounding off. He has views on a whole range of subjects, and information to impart.

The title – What Next? – is misleading. Patten is not a prophet. There is little attempt to reinterpret conventional wisdom, let alone the world. One of the great questions about the twenty-first century is whether the United States of America will collapse as a great power. Patten does not attempt to answer it. Another is whether radical Islam will take over large parts of the world, an assumption that lies at the heart of British and American foreign policy. Patten does not try to answer that either.

This book is really a series of discrete, fairly well-researched essays about some of the more enduring themes of the first decade of the twenty-first century. A number of them are interesting. Patten is not an original thinker, but he has a good eye for telling detail. Even on subjects I thought I knew a fair amount about – for instance, terrorism – I learnt a great deal that was surprising or interesting. For example, I had no idea that the fanatical Japanese terrorist group, Aum Shinrikyo – perpetrators of the sarin attack on the Tokyo metro – purchased a sheep farm in Australia to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, had access to trained scientists and a $1 billion budget, yet reassuringly met with very little success. Nor did I know the terrifying fact that in 1995 Chechen terrorists left a dirty bomb in a Moscow park – then decided against detonation.

Patten has a good eye for a quote. In his section on environmental degradation, he produces this corker from Mahatma Gandhi (or Mohandas Gandhi, as Patten calls the great man in a bid to confuse the reader): ‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the west’, adding that ‘if an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.’ The reader senses that the more fluent and well-informed passages owe a great deal to Patten’s researchers, in particular Emily Paddon and Andrew Baker.

The tone of the book is uneven. Quite often Patten lapses into the demotic, becoming folksy with the reader. So the book is full of verbless sentences that were barely acceptable when Patten used to draft political manifestos but read very oddly in a volume of this type. Elsewhere the language of the technocrat makes an unwelcome appearance: the ugly word resile, surely applicable only in European Union press releases, appears too often.

Patten is capable of rambling away like the worst kind of saloon bar bore. The discussion on page 442 on American–Chinese relations is filled with the pieties often favoured by politicians after they reach a certain stage of self-importance, designed to eliminate rather than provoke thought, and inexcusable coming from the Chancellor of Oxford University. The section on financial markets and the economic crisis is particularly poor.

It is obvious that neither Patten nor his researchers have any idea what they are talking about when they deal, for instance, with the rise of private equity companies over the past decade. Patten haughtily observes that they ‘do not really add to or subtract from the rage about big capitalism’. This might go down well at Oxford high tables but Patten would be advised not to try out this line with the thousands at the AA, Birds Eye and numerous other workers who have lost their jobs thanks to private equity.

It is woeful to dismiss private equity companies so lightly: they are an important and destructive new form of corporate ownership, profoundly undermining the benign shareholder capitalism of the late twentieth century, as the BBC Business Editor Robert Peston has recently exposed in a brilliant book. Likewise, Patten’s breezy assertion that ‘the principal regulator of any production line or enterprise remains the nation state’ would come as a sharp surprise to any British businessman, well aware that Brussels rather than Westminster has made most of the key regulatory decisions ever since the introduction of the European single market agreed by the Thatcher government.

I’d guess that many of Patten’s errors of this kind are caused by prejudice as much as ignorance. He asserts, for instance, that ‘Chile recovered its economic vitality’ after President Pinochet retired. Actually the truth is more complicated – and more interesting. The strict monetarist policies pursued by Pinochet’s finance minister Hernán Büchi ensured that Chile was far and away the most well-run and dynamic economy in Latin America during the 1980s, always a difficult pill for critics of Thatcherite economics to swallow.

Patten brazenly asserts, without qualification, that Britain ‘lionised’ Reginald Dyer, the butcher of Amritsar. This is the standard anti-imperialist view one would expect from the Chancellor of Oxford University. Again, the truth is more interesting. It is true that Dyer had fanatical supporters in Britain, notably the Morning Post newspaper. But Patten is grievously misleading his readers by failing to note, in addition, that Dyer was stripped of his command, condemned by the resulting inquiry, damned by mainstream politicians, and died in near disgrace soon afterwards. Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, called it a ‘monstrous’ event. Indeed the Amritsar massacre caused such horror that it may have shortened the British presence in India.

Despite many such errors of fact and judgement – perhaps inevitable in a wide-ranging and ambitious volume of this sort – this is an enjoyable book. Never profound, erratically written, only rarely straying beyond the orthodox, often well-informed, with a sharp eye for surprising detail, it rattles along at a decent clip, and the standard of entertainment is well above that of Ken Clarke at the Garrick Club bar.

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