A final snipe at the last Governor goes wide of the mark

What has infuriated the FO mandarins is the light Dimbleby's book about Patten sheds on the secret negotiations in the 1980s

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If nothing else, the highly publicised inquiry into whether the former Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, has breached the Official Secrets Act in helping Jonathan Dimbleby, author of The Last Governor, should do wonders for sales of the book. Its confirmation by Peter Mandelson, which dominated Sunday's television and radio bulletins, also conveniently diverted attention from an unusual spate of otherwise rather unfavourable publicity for the government. But neither consequence should obscure the fact that this is about something large and historically quite important: the fratricidal struggle within Whitehall and the very highest reaches of the Conservative Party to imprint on posterity competing versions of Britain's last great retreat from empire.

Ministers could scarcely have blocked this inquiry. But real as it is, it's a pretty odd one. Apparently sanctioned by the outgoing Permanent Secretary Sir John Coles, it had by yesterday made no effort to interview a man who you would have thought might be a prime witness, namely Mr Patten himself. Secondly, there is next to no chance of proving, short of Mr Patten announcing that he was in breach of the Act, a case against him in court. After all, Dimbleby is certainly - and rightly - not going to discuss his sources. The only conclusion, therefore, can be that this is little more than the latest guerrilla engagement in the fightback by the anti-Patten forces inside the Foreign Office.

This is a struggle that has created strange alliances of a sort which cut directly across the drearily familiar divisions in both British Conservatism and the Foreign Office. On one side, for example, are those great China hands Lord Howe, Sir Edward Heath, and in a supporting role Michael Heseltine, backed by a group of mandarins and ex-mandarins led by the redoubtable sinologist Sir Percy Cradock, the longest serving Joint Intelligence committee chairman under Margaret Thatcher. On the other, Chris Patten, and - more or less - Douglas Hurd, and, since 1992, Lady Thatcher herself (whose consistent backing for Patten's Governorship is not as fully acknowledged by Mr Dimbleby as it might have been). Both Sir Percy and Lord Howe yesterday were dismissive of the row over leaks - pointing out correctly that it was a distraction from the real argument over Patten's conduct as Governor.

At the heart of the dispute is the democracy question. And specifically whether Patten was right to fight successfully in 1994 for direct elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo) or whether, as the China hands claim, it merely served to infuriate the Chinese leadership and interfere with the "smooth transition" from British rule. Once upon a time we were told, with total confidence, that the "people of Hong Kong don't want democracy". That wholly untested proposition was exploded by the clear evidence that they did. So now the China hands' modified argument is that Patten's actions may have delayed the introduction of democratic elections in Hong Kong by the Chinese government. This ill-substantiated claim continues to be made. Yet Yet Patten's Governorship succeeded both in nurturing democratic politicians in Hong Kong, and ensuring that the US will watch its progress closely. What has infuriated the Foreign Office mandarinate is the ample and unsavoury light Dimbleby sheds on the secret negotiations in the mid 1980s, during which senior British officials bent over backwards to reassure the Chinese government that the proposal for direct elections from 1988 should not be read as a commitment. It was this clandestine backtracking which led to a secret deal to postpone the direct elections - other than for a handful of LegCo seats - provided that China committed herself to introduce direct elections some time after 1997. It was this deal which, in effect, Patten so embarrassingly "broke" when he introduced a bill for direct elections to LegCo in 1994. Almost unbelievably, it had survived a consultation exercise which the Hong Kong government, apparently under orders from the Foreign Office, quite simply gerrymandered. The result was a majority well in excess of two to one in favour of elections. But the Hong Kong government then hit on a wheeze which would have done credit to the most tinpot totalitarian state. Most of the signatures against were on pre-printed forms handed out by the pro-China groups. Most of those in favour were on petitions. So the Hong Kong government simply gave the pre-printed forms more weight than the petitions and cheerily announced that the survey had gone against direct democracy.

There is something grimly appropriate that all this should now be the subject of an Official Secrets Act enquiry. There have been dark mutterings in Whitehall that Dimbleby's book contained sensitive intelligence material. But what material? Nobody seriously believes, for example, that the British government knew only through intelligence that Peking was actively communicating with its supporters in Hong Kong. It was scarcely secret at the time. What has really angered officials about Dimbleby's book, surely, is not material in it that jeopardised national security at all; most of the revelations in Dimbleby's book are of information known both to the British government and an often far from friendly foreign power - but not to the British or Hong Kong people. (It would be nice to think that almost everything revealed in Dimbleby's book would be automatically available under the Government's promised Freedom of Information Act. That is far from certain; and depends in large part on how narrowly ministers draw the category of "advice to ministers" which they intend to exclude from the scope of the Act). No, it's appropriate because secrecy is a lot of what this chapter of British history is about. One of the most ringing passages of the book is the one in which diplomats like Sir Robin McLaren, then adviser to the Hong Kong government, recoiled from Margaret Thatcher's rather modest demand that they report the progress of negotiations leading to the 1984 Joint Declaration to the Hong Kong executive council. The current official secrets inquiry will surely soon be finished. A more fruitful follow-up might be an inquiry into what lessons might be learned from the way negotiations were conducted from 1979 to 1990.

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