Chris Patten talks at Tablet event hosted by Rathbone Greenbank

On 14 November, Rathbone Greenbank hosted an event organised by The Tablet, the long-established Catholic weekly journal. The evening’s guest speaker was Chris Patten (the Rt Hon. the Lord Patten of Barnes), former Conservative politician and last Governor of Hong Kong, who spoke passionately about his views on identity politics and the dangers of nationalism.

Patten began by explaining how he regards the transformation of the post-war political world. The spirit of global cooperation and responsible statecraft that marked the rejection of the extreme nationalist quarrels of the early 20th century is being displaced by the development of identity politics, in his view. ‘Community’ is now being defined in narrow and exclusive terms by leaders fixing their standards to religion, ethnicity or language – what Patten called the ‘panthers’ of identity politics let loose on the world.

Patten argues that identity is far more complicated; that the question of who we are should be more an exploration of our own complex individuality than a search for descriptive labels. His own identity - the ‘complexities of being Chris Patten’ - supports this assertion. Despite the popular image of the Tory grandee, Patten is the product of Irish migrants, raised and schooled in suburban Greenford, west London. Despite his Catholic upbringing and the lasting impression of the church and its teachings, Patten considers historian and academic Christopher Hill, a confirmed Marxist-atheist, to have been his moral tutor.

His experiences of early and later-stage education helped generate a sceptical attitude towards ‘big schemes’ and generalisations; life was a series of predicaments to negotiate without recourse to a grand plan. They reinforced an underlying sense that he felt it was absurd to pigeonhole identity or fail to distinguish an argument from a quarrel. They also helped to build an artistic and cultural framework, the legacy of which Patten carried forward into his political life and experience of identity politics, both at home and abroad.

He talked about reorganising the police force in Northern Ireland to counter claims of sectarianism. Patten believed that the root cause of Catholic and Protestant antagonism wasn’t religion but the question of ruling power. So too with the conflict in the Balkans, where he believed that divisions of ethnicity and language masked the fact that the real issue at stake was majority political control of the fractured Yugoslavia.
Patten’s time in Hong Kong also highlighted the cultural nuances of identity politics, where it was put to him that human rights and civil liberties weren’t universal; that the use of violence by the state, for example, was somehow more acceptable in the Asian sphere than in the West. Patten therefore determined that any political transition of Hong Kong would have to include the promotion of universal rights.

Patten reasons that all is not well in our political world today, believing that in the second half of the 20th century, economic and xenophobic nationalism was put aside and welfare capitalism, political freedom and responsible, cooperative government was embraced. With the US in the lead, institutions were rebuilt and new ones established with universally acceptable and inclusive values. With the fall of communism, Patten feels that while we may not have witnessed the definitive ‘end of history’, we did see the conclusion of the last great polarising ideological argument of our time.

In his view, identity politics now challenges this. Under its current president, the US is retreating from its historical lead and undermining the institutions it had the greatest hand in founding. The values of cooperation and partnership are being eroded and political dialogue is faltering.  What he finds most worrying is the rise of identity politics based on the nation state, which invariably relies on a demonised ‘other’ to define itself: nationalism is a distortion of the patriotism it claims to reflect when its only appeal to the population is to come together against something or someone else.

He asserts that true patriotism doesn’t require xenophobia to give credit to its arguments; that it doesn’t have to glamorise its own institutions, sentimentalise its own history or adopt an extreme, nonsensical view of going it alone in the world. True patriotism brings with it a generosity of spirit and recognises that any problem within the state is better resolved working with others.

Alluding to the kind of cooperative and open-minded economic management and political dialogue we need to uphold in the face of identity politics, Patten drew on the observation once made by the great academic and parliamentarian, Rab Butler: “Untouched by morality and idealism, economics is an arid pursuit, just as politics is an unprofitable one”.