The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong
It is unusual in British political life for a high official to leave his position and immediately reveal in his own words or through an intermediary what in his opinion really happened while he was in office. Furthermore, unless he has been roughly dismissed, it is perhaps unprecedented for such an official to claim that almost everyone with whom he worked, and especially his superiors, betrayed him or failed to support him.
Chris Patten, the twenty-eighth and last governor of Hong Kong, has done precisely that, using his close friend Jonathan Dimbleby to tell how, when he struggled to bring what he always called “a modest degree of democracy” to Hong Kong’s 6.3 million people, he was obstructed by the Foreign Office and some of his old cabinet colleagues, and disappointed by his two closest friends in government, Prime Minister John Major and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.
Jonathan Dimbleby is a famous British television anchorman and the author of the biography The Prince of Wales, in which for the first time Prince Charles admitted adultery. In The Last Governor Chris Patten, by giving hitherto secret information to Dimbleby, has created a major political scandal in the UK, in which retired officials of the highest rank stand condemned of what Dimbleby terms “betrayal.” One of them, ex-Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, says that “Christopher Patten’s reputation…will suffer from his unwise decision to place the record of his governorship at the mercy of this celebrity journalist who smells ‘betrayal’ round every corner.”1
How has this extraordinary book come about? Dimbleby, a lucid and eloquent writer, says that, during Patten’s entire term in Hong Kong, “I had easy access to the governor and his team…. With the proviso that what he said would be embargoed until after the handover.” Patten, he says, “agreed in advance to discuss—for the future record—his strategy and his tactics at every stage of what was to become a serious and sustained diplomatic crisis, the consequences of which are still uncertain.” All of this, Dimbleby adds, “without benefit of hindsight.”
Having made this enviable but risky arrangement, Dimbleby was with Patten when he took the plane to Hong Kong as governor in the summer of 1992. In the television series which accompanied the book in the UK we see Patten and his wife and daughters looking out of the window of their plane as it prepares to land. Every few months for the next five years Dimbleby reappeared in Hong Kong for exclusive interviews and conversations with the governor and his staff, sometimes during their most dramatic crises. He managed as well to interview other senior officials close to Patten. Some of these told him remarkable things. Lord Hurd, the now-retired foreign secretary, admitted to Dimbleby that he “forgot” to tell Chris Patten, his close friend and colleague, that Britain and China had an agreement which, had Patten been told of it, would have forced him to modify part of his program to allow direct elections in…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.