It is blunt criticism from former top diplomat Chris Patten, who has just published a new book in which he lets rip at the world’s most famous politicians.
Patten, who stood down as European Union external relations chief last year, ending more than a decade on the world’s public stage, pulls few punches in recounting behind-the-scenes tales of life at the top.
Not Quite the Diplomat is not only about indiscretions: The book sets out his views on everything, from Turkey’s EU hopes and the Iraq war to China’s rising world role and resurgent hopes for Middle East peace.
But colourful swipes and acerbic anecdotes litter the book, written from the comfort of Patten’s new home in his native England, where he is chancellor of Oxford University.
Clearing the air
“It says much of what I’ve wanted to say, but until now couldn’t say candidly, about Britain, Europe, America and our rapidly changing world,” writes the 60-year-old.
The avuncular former British Tory party chairman, who left for Hong Kong in 1992 after losing his parliamentary seat at home, spends much ink on questioning the record of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“Mr Blair, a usually likeable man, has convictions to which he holds strongly – when he holds them”
Like many critics of Blair’s obsession with media spin, he accuses the New Labour leader of changing his views to suit public opinion.
“Mr Blair, a usually likeable man, has convictions to which he holds strongly – when he holds them. His convictions change on issues … to reflect what he believes to be prevailing, convenient opinion,” he writes.
One notable exception is Iraq, where Blair defied massive public opposition to throw London’s political and military muscle behind US President George Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Patten concedes this was politically courageous. But he is sceptical about the fundamental reasons for going to war, claiming that Blair had decided to go to war as early as a meeting with Bush in early 2002.
“Britain went to war because America chose to go to war,” he says.
Of the Americans themselves, Patten – who held the EU post from 1999 to last October and was seen as a key Atlanticist in Brussels – singles out the neo-conservatives led by Cheney for his most withering criticism.
“Mr Cheney does not do style. He is two fingers to style,” he says, calling the US vice-president “aggressively nationalist, conspiratorial, the patron of the Washington branch of the Likud party”.
Bush comes off relatively lightly, on the personal front at least, although Patten laments the return to “gun-slinging” US policy.
He is less reserved about the new US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, saying that “for him there is no United Nations, there is only one nation that counts, America. Cooperation is for sissies”.
“Mr Bolton is the Pavarotti of neo-conservatism; his views have taken the roof off chancelleries around the globe,” he writes.
Patten was unimpressed with
The former EU official is no less critical of the chief opponent of the Iraq conflict, French President Jacques Chirac.
Specifically he laments France’s constant attempts “to turn the clock back almost whimsically to a golden age of French superior distinctiveness” in the EU.
“So long as its politicians led by President Chirac remain trapped in an ignorant and impoverishing hostility to the policies required to … compete successfully in the world, [France] will punch significantly below its weight.”
More broadly, he laments France’s – and Germany’s – role in the “wretched saga” of the EU’s aborted plans to lift a 16-year-old arms embargo on China, pushed by Paris and Berlin as they sought to curry trade favour with Beijing but shelved this year after stiff opposition from Washington.
“In the course of this policy ramble, Europe has lost face with China, America and Asia. Europe cannot conduct its relationship with China on the basis of ill-judged commercial aspirations,” he says.
China’s leaders, who spent years damning Patten in Hong Kong, are spared major criticism. On the contrary, former prime minister Zhu Rongji is hailed as “formidably impressive”.
Elsewhere in Asia, Pakistan’s President Musharraf fares less well. “Whatever you say about General Musharraf, he is not a democrat,” he says, adding that he “will not last forever”.
Patten recounts a “bizarre” trip to the reclusive Stalinist state of North Korea, where President Kim Jong-Il has “a bouffant hairstyle all his own, in which each hair seems to have been individually seeded in his scalp”.
“[The book] says much of what I’ve wanted to say, but until now couldn’t say candidly, about Britain, Europe, America and our rapidly changing world”
“We banqueted with Kim and a group of grumpy old men, with faces like Christmas walnuts … We were served much better Burgundy than we would have drunk in Brussels. Outside, the people starved.”
In Moscow, meanwhile, communism may be gone but President Putin is now in power, and Patten is not impressed with a man who is “very cold-eyed, with a good line in hectoring argument”.
At one meeting when Putin was prime minister, the Russian claimed that carnage at a Grozny market was an “own goal” by Chechen militants whose own arms were on sale at the bazaar but somehow blew up unexpectedly.
“I had never been so blatantly lied to at a meeting like this before. Normally, mendacity comes in better disguise,” he writes.
More recently Patten laments the time that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made a “toe-curling” defence of Putin’s Chechen campaign, during an EU-Russia meeting under Italy’s EU presidency in 2003.
On a lighter note on the EU stage, Patten confirms the widely-held – but not usually publicly voiced – view that Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende “really does look like Harry Potter”.
Back at home in England, Patten is clearly enjoying the newfound freedom to do and say things he could not during all those years in the international spotlight.
But his passion for public life is clearly not exhausted. He describes his latest book as “a farewell despatch … at least for the time being”.