Under my byline

Readings from history

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 18 October 2008

You’ve got to know the past to get a grip on the problems of today’s global world, says Chris Patten

What Next? Surviving the Twenty-First Century
Chris Patten
Penguin/Allen Lane
xii + 491

It’s only when Chris Patten stands up to see me off that he reveals his true shape. Seated on an overstuffed sofa he looked a large man, with that characteristic big, pink British face atop a pinstriped shirt. Now, however, although he’s shorter than I expected, he looks more lordly. Perhaps that’s because he has the familiar round-shouldered frozen half-shrug of the substantial Briton, and perhaps it’s because he is portlier now than when he was governor of Hong Kong and affectionately known as Fei Peng: Fatty Patten. Either way, the stature suits his title, which was improved in 2005 by royal fiat to Baron Patten of Barnes.

Lord Patten is in India to promote his new book, a 500-page investigation of the global moment in which he focuses on the chief problems facing our world since 9/11 and what we ought to do to deal with them. A rough summary includes: terrorism, nuclear and small-arms proliferation, the troubles of resource-rich but democracy-poor states, drugs, organised crime, water conflict, epidemic disease, financial precariousness and climate change. Two threads tie all this together: the role of the nation-state in our times, and globalisation, which makes problems global as well as opportunities.

It is by no means a dull or superfluous book, and part of the bounty between the covers is indicated by the title: What Next? That phrase could convey everything from eager anticipation to hopeless defeat, but “I meant it to be realistic,” Patten says, explaining: “Do you ever watch that American TV programme, West Wing? One of the characters, he’s been shot, and he wakes up in intensive care, and the first thing he says is ‘What’s next?’ I wanted to try to describe what I think the world actually might do next, and what could happen next and what we should try to make happen next.”

Patten’s argument is founded on history, which is a source of both optimism and doubt. “I think unless you know the past, you can’t understand the present,” he says. “Here we are today, trying to close down the drugs business in Afghanistan, and less than two centuries ago Britain was trying to force China to go on buying opium. I think it’s very important to understand your own history and the history of the issues that you’re trying to deal with.”

The consequences of historical ignorance, to Patten, are plain. “I don’t think there are many political leaders today who understand history. I don’t think Mr Blair knew any history at all. I don’t think he knew the history of the Middle East, where he came such a humiliating cropper, and I don’t think he knew much about the history of Britain.”

The solutions to all of the problems, says Patten, are well known, we just haven’t made a serious start on solving them. “I wanted to… show that on the whole, with the probable exception of climate change, most of these problems have their roots in experiences we’ve had in the past, and I thought that far from being catatonically gloomy about the future, we should recognise that the future is in our own hands.”

To be sure, some of the issues seem very dire. Patten describes a sinister corner of the former Soviet Union named Transdniestria, a bit of Moldova run by a Moscow-backed strongman. As European Commissioner for External Relations (after his Hong Kong tenure), Chris Patten tried to find ways to stop the territory being used to funnel drugs, arms and prostitutes into Europe. His suggestions in this book? “Swallow hard,” embrace Moldova, trade with it, and be sterner towards Russia.

Such toughness is hard to expect from most states or communities, but it illustrates Patten’s conviction that, even when a problem is global, the solution can be found primarily in domestic policymaking. “I think even where people distrust their politicians and don’t have very much faith in national institutions,” he says, “they have more faith in national institutions than in regional or global ones [such as the WTO, World Bank, EU], and they understand, I think rationally, that their country has to cooperate internationally.”

Every chapter in the book opens with a handful of quotes from Patten’s wide reading (there’s even a line from a Toyota ad). Lately, he has been reading Oxford historian Maria Mishra on Indian history since the “Great Rebellion”, and Ahmed Rashid on the ISI’s role in creating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, apart from a history of science in the British Enlightenment and the odd American thriller.

Patten studied history at Oxford himself, and he is now chancellor of the universities of Oxford and Newcastle. The last time he was in India two years ago, he was here to attract Indian students over there. And did they come? “Yes,” he says, “but I still want more.” His universities are now expanding their South Asian Studies programmes. “But we’ve still got three times as many Chinese students as Indians,” he says.

With his liberal arts university background, Patten remembers having to memorise large tracts of poetry. Learning by rote was important then, and it seems to have helped Patten become the writer, as well as thinker, he is today. “When I was doing my scholarship exam for Oxford, there were obviously lots of papers on history and French and Latin,” he says, “and then there was one general essay paper. You’d go to one of these huge medieval halls, big long tables with blocks of paper, and just a slip of paper face down. And you’d turn it over and there’d be one word on it which you’d have to write about for three hours: ‘Hypocrisy’.”

That is the mode of writing Patten still follows. “I write on the same blocks of paper with a thin-nibbed pen,” he says. “There isn’t very much difference between what I write in the manuscript and what appears in the book eventually… I write about 2,000 words a day. I try to stop at that point because I think if you write much more than that you start to become repetitious… When people say flattering things about my writing I become like a teenage girl who is flattered for the first time. [How I write] matters to me enormously. I think if you write clearly you think clearly.”

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