1989 Interview with Chris Patten: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Shaping Environmental Policy: Conversation with Christopher Patten, Sec. of State for the Environment, Great Britain; 8/10/89 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Nanou Matteson

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Chris, welcome to Berkeley.

Thanks very much, I'm delighted to be here.

At Oxford, what did your studies emphasize?

I studied history at Oxford, but I spent a considerable amount of my time editing magazines, acting, playing a lot of cricket, and not doing very much politics.

What got you into politics?

America. I came here on a traveling scholarship after university and while I was over here, I got in the John Lindsey mayoral campaign in 1965, back in the Middle Ages. I'd been supposed to be joining the British Broadcasting Corporation as a graduate trainee after Oxford. But I had a few months to kill and having worked on an American campaign and got the bug, I went back to Britain and got involved in politics there. I said, "no" to the BBC, which they regarded as lèse-majesté, but nevertheless, it set me off on a political career.

And you ran for Parliament, in '74?

I ran for Parliament in 1974. Before that I'd had a spell in the Cabinet Office and the Home Office, which is our Interior Ministry. I had a couple of years as Lord Carrington's political secretary when he was Defense Secretary of State and chairman of the Conservative party. And I ran for Parliament the first time in February 1974, during the election which really turned on the miners' dispute. I stood in a pretty hopeless seat, a strong Labour seat in South London. And after that election, I had five years as director of the Conservative party's research department, at the end of Ted Heath's period as leader and then for Margaret Thatcher's period. And then I stood for Parliament for Bath in 1979 and I've been in Parliament now ten years.

Ten years! And what is the nature of the district that you now have?

I've got the city of Bath, hardly any countryside, almost an entirely urban seat. It's a fairly small constituency in UK terms, about 85,000 to 86,000, something like that, in terms of population. It's a very beautiful 18th century city -- university, big hospital, biggest employer is the Ministry of Defense, so a wide range of public-sector activities. And it's a very attractive focus for tourist. There's a big tourist industry and I think and hope that American tourists will continue to go to Bath in very large numbers, particularly after seeing this conversation.

In your political career, what sorts of things have you learned by being an MP that you never got out of books? Did your education contribute at all to your political career?

I don't think my education contributed very much to my political career, except that I learned to write at university and that has been of considerable help along the way. I've spent a good deal of my time employed as a political draftsman, either writing speeches in the past or writing pamphlets and manifestos more recently. It's not the most elevated trade, but it requires a certain facility with words and I think I learned that at university. I also did -- when I was a back-bencher MP, before I became a minister -- quite a lot of journalism, so that was a help too. I think that what most surprises anybody who goes into politics from even a modestly cerebral background is the vulgarity of much of the cut and thrust of politics. I think one is constantly surprised by how middle- or low-brow one has to be in order to be effective. That's, I think, more a comment on politicians than on the public because I rather share Adlai Stevenson's view that the average man is probably a great deal better than the average.

You mentioned that you worked in the Lindsey campaign, and you just quoted Stevenson. Why did you enter the Tory party?

I would have probably voted Labour, if I'd had the vote in 1964, which was at the end of 13 periods of Conservative government. I'd read at university some of the works of Tony Crosland, who was the main socialist-revisionist intellectual and wrote an extremely effective book on social democracy. But it didn't take very long of a Labour government to drain my persona of such social democratic sympathies as it might otherwise have had. Harold Wilson put quite a lot of people like me to the sword, or at least put our aspirations to the sword very rapidly. And I guess I became a Tory because I believe in balance, because I'm rather skeptical about people who think they've got all-embracing solutions, because I believe the market economy, and because I believe in trying to get a balance between individual freedom on the one hand and social responsibility on the other. And historically, the Conservative party, unlike, perhaps, a lot of Continental conservative parties, and unlike also perhaps, conservatives in the United States, has established a bridge between those two different things -- individual freedom and social responsibility.

In the Conservative Party, you have been considered what is called a "Wet." Explain what that means.

Well, I guess the derivation is schoolboy, schoolgirl abuse. People who aren't gung-ho in the playground for climbing over the barbed wire or going through the door marked "Beware, High Voltage," are very often called "wet" which suggests a certain wimpishness. And somewhere on the moderate, rather traditional end of the Conservative party, we're called "wet" by people further to the right for expressing concerns -- for example, in the early 1980s -- about the rise in unemployment, or about some of the other, doubtless inevitable, effects of the measures we had to take in order to abate inflation and change the balance between trade unions and the rest of society.

In your career in the party, you were a speech-writer for Margaret Thatcher. What sorts of tension did that pose with your coming from the "wet" side of the party? Or was it a mutual learning process?

Well, the Conservative party is broad church rather than a narrow, sectarian clique. And I think Mrs. Thatcher has always recognized that, both in those that she has appointed to jobs, and in those on whom she's drawn for ideas herself. As I mentioned earlier, I'd first been appointed as director of the Conservative research department when Ted Heath was leader of the Conservative party. I was retained in that job by Margaret Thatcher and, I suppose, it was in that period, from '75 to '79, that I worked most closely with her on speeches and so on. And I've done a bit of work more recently as well.

Next page: Joining the British Cabinet

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