Between a rock and a hard place

When he arrived as the 28th British Governor of Hong Kong in July 1992, Chris Patten had just lost a battle and won the war, chairing the Conservative Party to victory in the election at the cost of his own seat in Bath. Tomorrow, when he sails away in the Britannia, he will have won a battle - to give Hong Kong more democracy - but lost the war, since a vengeful China will immediately undo his changes.

If his aim was to ensure that a more democratic Legislative Council would serve out its term until 1999, even Mr Patten would admit he has failed. The question is whether he should have tried to challenge China at all.

Mr Patten has vociferous critics, including Sir Edward Heath and diplomats who negotiated the 1984 Joint Declaration, which promised Hong Kong "a high degree of autonomy" for 50 years after 1997. Lord Howe, then foreign secretary, said it had been a "tragedy" that the Chinese had been provoked, harming "the prospects of democracy".

Mr Patten's defenders argue that it is this group - most of them directors of companies doing business with China - which allowed Peking to undermine the Joint Declaration from the start. The previous governor, Sir David (now Lord) Wilson, persisted in trying to accommodate the Chinese even after the Tiananmen Square massacre, but was humiliated by them all the same. To have stuck with "convergence", says the Patten camp, would have outraged Parliament and public opinion in the US and elsewhere, and could have caused disturbances in Hong Kong.

More people registered and voted in 1995 than ever before, and they supported democrats rather than the pro-Peking lobby. "Patten did create a real opposition to the executive," says one supporter, and that may be more valuable than any institutional arrangement acceptable to China. After all, he is leaving a stock market, budget surplus and financial reserves at record levels.

A few critics claim Mr Patten should have given Hong Kong full democracy. But he knew the handover was unavoidable and the new regime less benign. Such a course risked destabilisation.

As he cruises to Manila, Mr Patten can console himself that Britain is leaving with as much honour as it deserves. An honourable failure, perhaps, but that is better than a futile gesture or a kowtow to tyrants.