While the world was mourning, or at least fervently discussing, JD Salinger, a far less famous but more influential figure breathed his last: British diplomat Percy Cradock. He typified a generation (or two) of senior UK officials, statesmen and bureaucrats who saw their primary responsibility in the 1960s-80s as expertly and calmly managing Britain’s decline from pre-World War II superpower to a barely significant has-been of a country like, say, Spain. Despite the extreme modesty inherent in this aim, they carried out their work with all the arrogance of their 19th Century predecessors who had carved out the empire on which the sun never set.
Their defeatist mission was rooted in reality. From 1947, when the UK’s lack of resources forced the US to step in to aid and protect Greece and Turkey from the Soviet threat, it was obvious the UK was no longer number-one, or even a convincing joint number-two. By the 1970s, US or US client forces had replaced the British in the Far East and the Gulf, and whatever global influence the UK retained was largely due to ‘soft power’ – typically historical ties – or perceived closeness to the US.
But the grey bureaucrats and politicians of those years saw it as their duty to pre-empt the historical trend and prepare the UK for, and indeed actively steer it to, an even lowlier status. The resignation to membership from 1972 of an increasingly bureaucratic, centralized and philosophically alien European community was the prime example. Better off in than out: it was not so much withdrawal from imperial overstretch as a fear for future viability as a nation-state.
Margaret Thatcher, elected prime minister in 1979, was skeptical of this belief, just as she was with the consensus among the mandarins and establishment that welfarism and labour unions’ political power were unavoidable components of the social contract. It was at this time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that the future of Hong Kong came up.
Percy Craddock, according to the more hagiographical interpretation, used his ‘old China hand’ expertise and ruthless pragmatism to get the UK and Hong Kong a good deal in the face of Chinese insistence that the colony be handed over in 1997, especially given the unrealistic expectations of the nationalistic Thatcher, emboldened after giving the Argentine junta a bloody nose over the Falkland Islands in 1982. A less sympathetic view would portray him as a conceited, all-seeing mandarin who knew better than a mere politician about his country’s interests or values, and who even saw his own side as the main worry.
It is possible that in the first few years of Deng Xiaoping’s rule in the late 1970s, Beijing would have been open to leaving Hong Kong under some form of British administration after 1997 – provided the British didn’t force the issue. It is hard to imagine such a cautious approach from the assertive China of today, so it is no loss that the UK did demand that Beijing make its plans for the city clear.
To cut a long story short, Cradock and the Foreign Office’s other Sinophiles (plus UK trade officials and interests, ready to sell Hong Kong out for commercial deals) promised to hand China a Hong Kong as it was in the early 1980s: a business centre that came with a population that was largely invisible except in terms of economic production. For all practical purposes, they shared their Communist counterparts’ disdain for representative government. They joined the mainland officials in their mouth-frothing and ranting when, in the early 1990s, politician and non-Chinese speaker Chris Patten became governor and started acting like a modern, accountable city mayor who listens to the voters.
To hear them tell it, everything would have been fine, and Hong Kong would today be a happy place of eager, obedient and unquestioning workers who ask for and expect little from government and care nothing for politics, had it not been for the evil Patten coming in and ruining everything. Maybe Cradock and his colleagues endorsed or encouraged Beijing’s assumption that this was a permanently apolitical town as a cynical ploy in order to hurry the negotiations up and get 1997 over with. Maybe they believed it. Either way, they have a lot to answer for when we look at the broken, colonial-style government and often bitterly divided community we see in Hong Kong today.