Chris Patten was Hong Kong's greatest Governor as well as its last one. Raymond Whitaker welcomes Jonathan Dimbleby's study of a decent, clever man
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Consider the paradox of a democratic politician, rejected by the voters, who then finds himself an unelected plenipotentiary with dictatorial powers over 6.3 million people. Even more paradoxical is the use he intends to make of his power: to surrender as much of it as possible to those under his control in the knowledge that, at the end of his term, they are to be handed over to a dictatorship far less benign than his own. But the greatest paradox of all is that he hopes these suspicious and xenophobic despots will at least acquiesce in his aims.

If Chris Patten has a fault, it is that he can be a little too self- consciously clever - "insouciant" is how Jonathan Dimbleby describes him more than once. When he arrived in Hong Kong five years ago as Britain's 28th and last Governor, he undoubtedly relished the intellectual challenge of the "big job" that had been found for him after winning the 1992 election for the Conservatives but losing his own seat in Bath. In the territory he would be Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor and all the rest of the Cabinet in one; he gave no sign that he considered himself inadequate to the task.

Nor was he daunted by the background to his appointment. The Government wanted to reassert control over policy towards China, having discovered that the Foreign Office sinologists who had been in charge seemed to see their job in terms of always giving in to Peking. The result was that progress towards democracy in Hong Kong had been fatally delayed - the book's main new assertion is that not only did the sinologists secretly agree this with China, they distorted the results of an opinion survey in Hong Kong to make it appear that that was the popular will as well. As the price of another secret deal, this time to allay Chinese objections to the colony's new airport, John Major found himself having to become the first Western leader to visit Peking after the Tiananmen massacre and shake the hands of the Chinese leadership.

Major decided that a politician rather than another diplomat was needed to oversee Hong Kong's transition to Chinese rule, and his good friend Chris Patten unexpectedly became available. The last Governor refused the customary knighthood and eschewed the plumed hat and comic-opera uniform his predecessors had worn, but those were merely symbols of his main intent: to educate Hong Kong in democracy and public accountability, neither of which had previously been thought necessary, and to give the territory as much as he could of both in the time left.

Dimbleby had close access to the Governor throughout his term, on the understanding that nothing he learnt would be reported until after it had ended. The author admits that his identification with his subject is near-complete; apart from a couple of chapters to explain how Britain acquired and ran Hong Kong, and how the 1984 Joint Declaration on its eventual return to China was negotiated, there are few interruptions or applications of hindsight to the narrative. Much of what Patten says for the later record was said unattributably to others (including me) at the time: rather than major revelations, we discover how it felt to deal with the problems as they came up.

The Governor must have expected the opposition of the business community, whose short-sightedness and inability to understand the connection between civil liberties and their profits is a constant theme. Business, after all, was going to find that its interests no longer automatically came first. He might have anticipated the neurotic uncertainty of his political support - in the absence of proper elections, and therefore accountability, it was not surprising that local politicians could be maddeningly inconsistent and irresponsible. But nothing in Patten's experience prepared him for dealing with China.

"If he was prone to overestimating the strength of his hand," Dimbleby writes in one of his rare criticisms of the Governor, "it was because he found it hard to credit that the gerontocracy in Beijing would, in the end, act so blatantly against China's own interests. To this extent he suffered from a form of intellectual schizophrenia, apparently convincing himself that a regime which he judged to be generally vindictive, irrational and incompetent would none the less act in this respect with goodwill, common sense and at least a modicum of competence." How wrong he was: any insouciance Patten might have felt was soon knocked out of him.

What made him angriest, however, was the behaviour of the Foreign Office sinologists. In their disdain for public opinion, which had no bearing on whether or not they retained their positions, they seemed to have more in common with the Chinese leadership than with the Governor. Nobody told him about a crucial set of negotiations with the Chinese that would have affected the way he went about his reforms, and Patten discovered that his bitterest critic, Sir Percy Cradock, the proud architect of the Joint Declaration as well as most of the subsequent climbdowns from it, was still being briefed by his former colleagues after his retirement, even when he appeared to be making private visits to Peking to advise the Chinese on how to counter the madman in Hong Kong.

In the end, Patten needed fortitude as much as intellectual stamina. The need to keep to previous agreements with China - at least, the ones he knew about - forced him into such contortions that was open to the charge that his efforts to democratise the colony so late in the day were not worth the abuse they had brought upon him ("Triple Violator" was his own favourite epithet). The faithful record of these manoeuvrings might test the patience of some, but the final presentation of the reforms to the colonial legislature is gripping. Patten was challenging Hong Kong to take responsibility for itself, in the teeth of Chinese hostility, and accepted that he would have to quit if he failed. A killer amendment lost by one vote; in the end the reforms passed.

Much of the rest is a dying fall. By September 1995, when Hong Kong had the freest elections in its history, few beyond Patten believed that China would not wipe out the result as soon as it took over. Most of his remaining battles were against his own side: to secure visa-free access for Hong Kongers to Britain after the handover, for example.

The book leaves Patten waiting out the last few days before the handover, impatient to move on. Having stayed to the end, refusing the many entreaties from his colleagues to come home and save them, he is aware that he may have lost the chance to re-enter British political life. But as well as changing Hong Kong, Hong Kong has changed him. The mildly corporatist Tory has been convinced by his experience that the state must take a smaller role in its citizens' lives, the uncomplaining enterprise of ordinary Hong Kongers has won his admiration, and the struggle of ideas against the last Communist superstate has left him with little appetite, according to his confidant, for the shallow parochialism of domestic politics.

Dimbleby's judgement, as a friend and admirer of Patten, is that he succeeded as far as he could. It was a mistake to believe that China would ever let him get away with his reforms, but they did implant a political culture in Hong Kong which is far more likely to preserve its way of life than the "smooth transition" beloved of the diplomats. By vigorous and open opposition to China, rather than constant private surrenders, he engaged the attention of Britain's democratic allies and kept their respect, while the economic disaster predicted by his critics failed to materialise.

The sinologists and their many allies, such as Sir Edward Heath and Lord Howe, would have waved goodbye to Hong Kong's people with fingers crossed behind backs, assuring them that their best interests had been taken into account without ever troubling to seek their opinion of the matter. Patten at least got us out with a measure of dignity and honour. He is still only 53, and hopes and believes that one more "big job" will come his way, but it is quite possible that his career will be judged mainly on what he did in Hong Kong. In that case, as Dimbleby's eloquent memoir shows, he will deserve credit as a decent as well as a clever man.

! 'The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong' by Jonathan Dimbleby, Little, Brown pounds 22.50