The Oliver Letwin Story

Yesterday I listened to David Willetts on the radio defending his old friend and colleague, Oliver Letwin. Letwin’s report to his then boss, Margaret Thatcher, on the 1985 riots had been released under the Thirty Year Rule, and it’s been deemed ‘racist’ in language and tone, at least by contemporary standards.

Willetts’ defence, delivered in his usual calm, reasonable manner, amounted to this.  Times have changed, and so has Letwin and the Conservative Party. So, concluded Willetts, this was in fact a good news story showing quite how different, and more socially liberal, Britain had become.

Superficially this seems to be right.  When Willetts and Letwin were bright young things working on policy for Number Ten, the world was indeed different.  Letwin’s text makes the point that the white “lower classes” had lived in “slums” for years without rioting, so it was wholly reasonable to conclude that “lower class” black people rioted not because of their objective material circumstances, but because of something inherent in their blackness.

I agree with this – as far as it goes. The inherent thing in blackness is the experience of racism.  Letwin, however, is not one to see the obvious, even four years after Lord Scarman pointed it out in his report on the Brixton riots.  Letwin sees moral failure in the “idle quarshee”, as the great Conservative philosopher, Carlyle, once called the people of the Caribbean and Africa.

But this is less interesting than the contrast Letwin sees between black people and the white “lower classes”.

Leaving aside the curious terminology (“lower” than whom?  “Us”, of course.  By which he doesn’t mean me, or probably you), what is pertinent is the orderliness of the white working class.

In 1985 there was still a working class of the traditional kind, working in factories or down mines.  What need had such people for riots, when it was the high point of trades union membership?  Wages had risen steadily after the Second World War, and the ‘welfare state’ provided a level of social security whereby no one feared that misfortune – sickness, unemployment, poor educational prospects or bad housing – need pitch one into acute poverty and despair.  They were still “organised labour”, with a right to be consulted by government just as much as the CBI, and certainly more than bankers.

Over the following thirty years, as a direct and deliberate consequence of the Thatcher Government served by Letwin and Willetts, the organised working class (aka “lower classes”) has been replaced by the feared and loathed “underclass”, also known as the “white working class” by sentimental types. The condescension, however, remains.

The 1985 riots were not, actually, ‘black’ riots, though grievances around racism and the police were triggers.   There were some fine eyewitness accounts of the Broadwater Farm riot published at the time which echoed some of the observations also made twenty years earlier on the Watts riots in Los Angeles.  Riots are communal.  New Society magazine described elderly white women happily walking their dogs through the estate past burning police cars.  They were safe, because they understood that they were part of the community, and not the target.

Scroll forward to 2011.  The recent riots had a similar trigger to those in 1985.  The participants, spread more widely around the country were indeed visibly of all ‘races’.  And the Tory response was also much the same as in 1985 – punitive and moralising, with no inclination to see that however ‘lawless’ was behaviour, the symptoms were those of a problem that needed to be addressed at the level of policy and practice, not simply by pointing the finger and loudly apportioning blame.  Not much has changed at all.

The other thing that hasn’t changed – indeed it has got worse – is the role occupied by Letwin and Willetts at that time.

Although not called it then, they were SPADs – special advisors.  Young, bright, Oxbridge graduates with political ambitions, such as David Cameron, get recruited to do some of the thinking for their bosses and mentors.  For them, politics is primarily a game, unconnected to the lived experience of most of those they hope one day to govern.

So in this game Letwin was on Team Thatcher against Team Hurd, Clarke and Heseltine.  As a SPAD, he wrote what his boss wanted to read, giving her arguments she could then use as her own.  No doubt had he been working for Hurd, he’d have ploughed through Scarman and read the reports of the Commission for Racial Equality, and done an equally effective job.  Like writing a paper to read in a PPE tutorial, only with less pressure to have accurate references.  Whether he believed any of it or not is besides the point.

The passing of thirty years means that we can see Letwin’s sophistry for what it is.  But there are new Letwin’s today, some of them no doubt employed by Letwin himself.  They, too, are usually posh kids with little real life experience beyond their own social circles, who seek to ingratiate themselves with their masters in order to gain a boost to their political careers.  They are probably writing about the virtues of outsourcing to ATOS, or advocating the axing of librarians, or demanding that Virgin extends its remit to include mental health.  These are people who will only deal with ATOS if invited to sit on the board; who will only use the library at the family seat; and who, in psychological distress, will check in to The Priory.

I’m not happy about the Labour (or Liberal, or SNP, or whatever) equivalents, either. To have a political caste in what ought to be a representative democracy is unhealthy.

Letwin has had a long political career, all of it in the inner circles.  Is he wise, as a result?  Given to sound judgement? Understanding when it comes to the impact of the policies he proposes?

How can he be?  He’s been institutionalised since birth.