There is no point in anyone trying to defend Oliver Letwin’s 1985 memo to Margaret Thatcher in which the then aide to the Prime Minister argued that white people were not prone to public disorder and that regeneration of inner city areas would only result in those from ethnic minorities setting up ‘in the disco and drug trade’. No-one has really tried, though Tim Montgomerie has rather kindly said that in his experience, the Downing Street policy chief doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. But it’s clear that at some point the gaffe-prone minister had a racist thought, and that he was comfortable enough with that thought to put it in a memo. Labour’s Tom Watson branded it ‘deeply racist’ before the papers had even been published.
That’s why the minister apologised as soon as the front pages covering that memo, released today under the 30-year rule, were published. Letwin had no choice but to apologise ‘unreservedly’. His comments would have been damaging enough had he merely worked as an adviser to Thatcher, but he has gone onto bigger things since, and a serving minister today cannot continue to serve without an apology.
Together with Hartley Booth, who was elected a Tory MP in 1992, Letwin wrote:
‘The root of social malaise is not poor housing, or youth ‘alienation’, or the lack of a middle class. Lower-class, unemployed white people lived for years in appalling slums without a breakdown of public order on anything like the present scale; in the midst of the depression, people in Brixton went out, leaving their grocery money in a bag at the front door, and expecting to see groceries there when they got back.
‘Riots, criminality and social disintegration are caused solely by individual characters and attitudes. So long as bad moral attitudes remain, all efforts to improve the inner cities will founder.’
‘David Young’s new entrepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade; Kenneth Baker’s refurbished council blocks will decay through vandalism combined with neglect; and people will graduate from temporary training or employment programmes into unemployment or crime.’
This is what Letwin said as soon as the memo became public:
‘I want to make clear that some parts of a private memo I wrote nearly 30 years ago were both badly worded and wrong. I apologise unreservedly for any offence these comments have caused and wish to make clear that none was intended.’
It’s not the most generous of apologies: ‘any offence these comments have caused’ is another way of saying ‘I’m not necessarily sorry for the comments, just if they’ve offended people’.
The only thing to take heart from the publication of this memo is that it shows how much politics has changed in the intervening years. Aides wouldn’t make such comments in private memos to their bosses now, not because they’d be worried they would leak but because it is unacceptable to hold such views today. It should have been unacceptable in Westminster in the 1980s, too, but perhaps such stereotypes didn’t seem outlandish to people who would have had very little professional contact with black people, given there were at the time no black MPs at all in the Commons. Westminster has changed – not enough, of course, but enough that it is not stuffed solely with white upper class men. Letwin will be unlikely to want to talk again about his ‘badly-worded and wrong’ note. But even more powerful than an apology would be an explanation of what changed his mind after 1985 to stop him writing further such memos.