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Introducing Chris Patten

Introducing the 2023 Gareth Evans Oration delivered by The Right Hon Lord Patten of Barnes CH PC, Australian National University, 14 March 2023

I am deeply conscious that people usually only ever get significant things named after them after they have passed life’s final checkout, so it’s a very great privilege for me to be able to actually enjoy this lecture, which ANU has so graciously established in my honour, and a particular pleasure to invite to deliver it my old and dear friend Chris Patten.

Chris and I were born within four months of each other, more years ago than either of us care to remember, and for the last thirty years or so our lives, both professional and personal, have been regularly intersecting.

I have to say, however, that our relationship didn’t exactly have the most promising start. The year was 1992, I was visiting Hong Kong as Australia’s Foreign Minister, and Chris was in his first year as the territory’s last Governor, a role that he was already performing with conspicuous success, supported by a family from central casting – his wonderful wife Lavender (with us here today I am delighted to say), three gorgeously photogenic daughters, and two loveable fluffy white Norfolk terriers, named, with a very English flourish, Whisky and Soda.

The day I arrived the story dominating the local press was that Soda had gone missing – search parties were out but he could not be found anywhere. Having a drink with journalists that evening – never a risk-free enterprise – I was incautious enough to speculate as to what might have happened: China’s leader Deng Xiaoping, being from Szechuan, was well known to enjoy a couple of puppies each day for breakfast. So 'Foreign Minister says Chinese Leader Ate Governor's Dog' was of course next day's story, not only in Hong Kong but back in Australia and halfway round the world…

Mercifully Soda was found before long, and the Pattens eventually forgave my indiscretion, helped by the fact that I was strongly and publicly supportive, then as I remain today, of Chris’s herculean efforts – superbly documented in his just-published Hong Kong Diaries ¬– to reinforce human rights and democracy protections before the 1997 handover. That support didn’t exactly endear me, incidentally, to my Prime Minister Paul Keating, who saw Chris as just being the last twitch of the British imperialist dinosaur – until a few years later Paul actually met him and discovered that this Tory grandee was actually a fellow tyke, not only a Catholic but one with Irish origins!

Before his five years in Hong Kong, Chris had a long and distinguished career in UK politics, including as Minister for Overseas Development, Secretary of State for the Environment, and from 1990 as Chairman of the Conservative Party, where he successfully orchestrated John Major’s rather unexpected electoral win, but at the cost of losing his own very marginal seat. Always ranked, including across the aisle, as among the most civilised and competent of politicians in a party and parliament which has all too often lacked both, Chris will forever be regarded, and rightly so, as the UK Prime Minister who never-was but should-have-been.

That was born out by his subsequent career, which has involved him leading the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Island, a crucial step in implementing the Good Friday Agreement; being European Commissioner for External Relations from 1999 to 2004, where we saw a lot of each other when I was living in Brussels heading the International Crisis Group, of which Chris later took on the role as Chair; being Chairman of the BBC Trust; and, since 2003, being Chancellor of Oxford University – a position from which, unlike here in Australia, incumbents have to be carried out feet first.

Through all these comings and goings Chris and I have remained great friends, each prepared to forgive the other’s wrongheadedness in joining and devoting our political lives to the parties we did. In my case, that friendship is based not only on my and my wife’s delight in Chris and Lavender’s company – not least over extremely indulgent dinners whenever we meet – but my profound respect for the principles and values for which Chris stands, and the steadfast way in which he has articulated and advocated them over the decades.

We are certainly in total harmony in our passionate belief in what universities should stand for, not just globally leading ones like ours but universities everywhere. Their distinctive value has never been, and must never be, purely vocational– even in the traditional professional disciplines like medicine, law and engineering. As Chris has written: ‘Universities of every sort, if in different ways, should introduce students to the joy and discipline of scholarship, to the challenge and excitement of personal intellectual achievement, to the social and historical context of knowledge and learning.’

When it comes to international affairs, we may differ a little – and this may or may not come out in our conversation a little later – in the way in which we address the challenge posed by China, with Chris’s rather more pessimistic position perfectly understandable the context of Beijing’s indefensible suffocation in recent years of those human rights and democracy protections in Hong Kong for which he fought so hard and which China was committed by treaty to preserve; and we may also differ a little in the extent to which we are prepared to nurture Washington’s aspiration for global primacy in perpetuity.

But I have no differences at all with Chris in his distaste for authoritarianism in any shape or form, his commitment to a civilised rule-based global order, his belief in the necessity for foreign policy to have a moral dimension, and above all his commitment to decency in the conduct of public affairs, both domestic and international – all of which I am sure we will see on abundant display in the Oration which I now have the greatest pleasure in inviting him to deliver.