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Oliver Letwin’s ‘racist’ memo proves two things: politics change and people change

30 December 2015

5:33 PM

30 December 2015

5:33 PM

What Oliver Letwin wrote in that 1985 memo to Thatcher was ugly. But you know what is also ugly? The forced extraction of an apology from Letwin for the things he thought and said three decades ago, when the political world was a very different place. The attempt to drag Letwin’s name into the gutter for a memo he wrote in another era, when thinking on race and society was often a million miles from what it is today, has a nasty, mob-like, fatalistic feel to it.

As Letwin himself now says, his memo was wrong. He was wrong to write off the rioting in Broadwater Farm as simply a matter of ‘bad moral attitudes’, and to suggest that encouraging black entrepreneurship would inflame the ‘disco and drug trade’. But apparently it isn’t enough for him to say ‘I was wrong’; he must also self-flagellate, beg forgiveness for having caused ‘offence’ — the greatest crime of our times — and maybe even consider his political position over what Chuka Umunna describes as his ‘disgusting and appalling’ comments.

This is bizarre. Today’s trend for twitch-hunting anyone who tweets or Instagrams or whispers something off-colour is bad enough; but the retro-shaming of a man for something he wrote in 1985 is really out of order.

1985 was a different moral planet to the one we inhabit today. Songs about sex (Frankie’s ‘Relax’) were banned by the Beeb; today you can’t switch on MTV without seeing a barely-clad Lady Gaga whipping her backing singers with a bicycle chain. The word ‘coloured’ was widely used; today no one says that, certainly not in public. Gay people were still having a rough time. A QE2 sailing in ’85 became mired in controversy when it was discovered that someone with Aids was on board (‘Aids on the QE2’, thundered the Sun). Now, gay people can get married; wearing a red ribbon for Aids is de rigueur; and people who make homophobic comments are questioned by the police. (I really hope that in 30 years time we’ll look back on such state authoritarianism as also being ‘appalling and disgusting’.)

On the planet of 1985, the racial discussion was hugely different to the one we have today. Racism was commonplace; tensions between police and black people were always simmering. This is why the first political thing I did, in 1992 when I was 18, seven years after Letwin wrote That Memo, was get involved in anti-racist activism. I didn’t like the laws and attitudes I had seen as a teen in the 80s. More than 20 years later, it’s wonderful to see that Britain has moved on enormously.

To judge Letwin in 2015 for what he thought in that otherworldly era feels wrong, immoral even. Politics changes. People change. Letwin has clearly changed. The haranguing of Letwin today for his comments of three decades ago is a like a PC version of those reactionaries who think ex-cons should always be treated with suspicion, or better yet kept banged up: it’s fuelled by the same anti-human fatalism, by a view of racist attitudes in particular as a kind of black mark, an original sin, which people can never scrub clean. But they can, and they do, all the time. Humans change — it’s one of the best things about us.

People are, to varying degrees, influenced by the moral outlooks of their times. Just 50 years ago, a great many people thought gay sex was sinful and disgusting; you could be arrested for doing it. A hundred years ago, it was common to believe that black people were racially inferior to white people, and that eugenics should be used to weed the weak and imbecilic out of the human race.

Indeed, Harold Laski, chairman of the Labour Party in 1946, the era that many a nostalgic Labourite views as the high point of their party, argued that ‘the time is surely coming… when society will look upon the production of a weakling as a crime in itself’. Who doesn’t now bristle upon reading such foul, fascistic words? Should Labour apologise for them? Denounce its former chairman? Of course not. It was a different era. Views change, people change.

There are views we hold today which in 30 years will make people choke on their cornflakes. I’m hoping it will be the new elitist idea that ‘young white men’, especially working-class ones, are now the main moral problem, meaning they have become ‘the most derided group in Britain’. That’s the irony: what Letwin said about black youths is now said about white working-class youths, including by Letwin-haters.

Letwin was clearly influenced by the very 1980s view of young black men as a blob-like problem — a view then held by much of the police, the media and the political sphere (including some in Labour). And he now says he was wrong. That should be the end of it. But it isn’t, because the insatiable Orwellian shame machine needs feeding; the twitch-hunters have itchy fingers; they want a misspeaker to metaphorically pelt with rotten tomatoes, regardless of how long ago his misspeaking took place. Step up, Letwin: let yourself be punished for the crime of thinking what lots of people thought back when you were 29 years old.

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