Not Quite the Diplomat, by Chris Patten

Home truths from abroad
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

However, world leaders whose name begins with "Ch" or "Sh" - Cheney, Chirac, Sharon - are advised to steer clear, because Patten pulls few punches. The EU commissioner for external relations from 1999 until 2004, he is kind about fellow Tories but rude about Labour ministers. Yet he does not discuss the disasters of British foreign policy in the 1980s and 1990s: the support for apartheid, the use of overseas aid to boost arms sales, the crude interference in the 1992 American election, or the rise of Eurosceptic fundamentalism - which John Major feared and fudged rather than fought.

The most egregious failure of British foreign policy in this era was over the creation of Islamist jihadism. In the 1980s, Britain openly supported jihadi terrorism in Afghanistan. For my 10,000 Muslim constituents, the 1990s was a period of rising anger at the failure of the Conservative government to lift a finger to stop the massacre of Muslim Europeans in the Balkans. Money was raised, British Muslims went out to fight as a kind of latter-day international brigade, and a second front of jihadism was opened in Europe.

Patten might usefully read Hansard of 18 June 1995, when Malcolm Rifkind reported to the Commons about the alarming rumours of something terrible happening in a place called Srebrenica. As a newly elected MP, I sat in the House, my head sunk in shame, as I listened to a British foreign secretary wringing his hands and explaining why nothing would be done to stop the cold-blooded murder of fellow Europeans.

The third era, since 11 September 2001, is with us now. But it is time that the Conservatives acknowledged responsibility for their support of jihadism in the 1980s, and their failure to stop the killing of European Muslims in the 1990s. British bishops and Liberal Democrats who want to apologise for the overthrow of tyranny in Iraq should ask where they were as jihadism was endorsed, or let rip by the West, in those decades.

Foreign policy failures came home to roost as more than a million asylum seekers fled the Balkans. Today, every MP at constituency surgeries has to deal with asylum-seeker problems which stem from the disaster of Britain's (and Europe's) handling of the Balkans after 1990. Patten tried to put this right when he became the EU's foreign-affairs commissioner in 1998. He sought to bring in human rights considerations as a condition of agreements between the EU and other countries. Even if he admits the language rarely delivered change, the effort to bring an ethical dimension into EU policy was and is worthwhile. He is appalled at the failure of European leaders to raise the disaster of Russian behaviour in Chechnya. And he rightly argues that what the Arab world needs is more open trade, more investment, more access for its products in Europe.

Patten showed how European foreign policy is necessary and can work. Everywhere, he and his co-worker in shaping EU policy, the Spanish socialist Javier Solana, added value. They stopped Macedonia plunging the Balkans into a new war in 2001. They tirelessly worked with the Palestinians to find a route to peace with Israel, and were tough on Likud politicians.

But the most important problem discussed in Patten's book is the dominance of the United States in all foreign-policy issues that matter in today's world. Patten believes that the US has strayed from its path of supporting human rights, democracy, European integration, the social market economy and support for Karl Popper's open society after 1945. For a time, he sounds Old Labour: he approvingly quotes Tocqueville's admiration for 19th-century American egalitarianism. When Patten first went to America in 1965, after student days at Balliol, Oxford, an American CEO earned 20 times the pay of his employees. Today, an American CEO earns 107 times the average pay. Can any society really grow on the basis of such inequalities? Some 25 per cent of all Americans in the New Orleans area live below the poverty line.

This is as much the heritage of the Clinton era as the fault of the Bush administration. As Jean Marie Colombani, editor of Le Monde, pointed out recently, Europeans should pause before wallowing in Schadenfreude over Katrina's aftermath. He noted that 10,000 elderly French citizens were allowed to die in the August heat wave last year because of the inefficiencies of French health care and social services. No politician has paid a price. And the sudden death of so many Europeans in the space of barely a fortnight was hardly mentioned by the BBC.

Patten's discussion of America is a lament. Why has the US let down this liberal, tolerant, internationalist, Catholic Conservative? Yet America simply promotes its own interests as members of Congress, the Supreme Court, state legislatures and the White House define them. The task for Patten's successors is not to moan about America but to make Europe work. Many years of growth at 3 or 4 per cent a year, with policies to promote jobs and fair pay, a demonstration that Europe can find solutions to the problems of the environment, plus proof that Europe will embrace Muslim Turkey and find ways of engaging with the non-EU Mediterranean world: that will do far more to change US policy than elegant or angry essays.

Patten has two great tasks left in public life. The first, as Chancellor at Oxford, is to help make universities in Britain world-class. The second is to help the Tories see sense on Europe. To achieve the former, he will have to take on more than a century of vested-interest bureaucracy and the huge middle-class perk of getting the poor to pay, via taxes, for old Etonians to enjoy low-cost education at Christ Church and Trinity. To achieve the latter, he will have to pray that the Tories keep losing elections until they realise that Europhobia wins headlines in the Rothermere press but turns off voters.

If he achieves either, he will deserve the nation's thanks. And this elegant, warm, clever and readable book shows that, even if he cannot do everything, Patten has done much that is good. British and European politics is the richer for his presence in our public life.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and was Minister for Europe 2002-2005. He now represents Britain on the Council of Europe