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4 January 2016

Oliver Letwin's 'racist' comments were nothing of sort

Oliver Letwin
Oliver Letwin

At this time of year, journalists mine a new tranche of state papers released by the National Archives and provide interesting, surprising and - if possible - shocking extracts. This frequently highlights my identity crisis.

I'm both an historian and a journalist and love both professions, but they have radically different interests when it comes to the release of archival material.

As an historian, I want future researchers to have access to extensive and faithful records from the past that will help them to write the unvarnished truth. To that end, I'm happy to have papers kept secret for many decades.

As a journalist, I'm as keen as anyone to know what happened 30 minutes ago at a crucial Cabinet meeting and to enjoy the fruits of the reduction of the time limit for release of most public records from 50 to 30 and now down to 20 years.

As an historian, I deplore the Freedom of information Act (FIA); as a journalist, I love it.

This year, the big excitement was provided by quotations from a memorandum co-authored in 1985 by Oliver Letwin - then a young member of the Downing Street policy unit and now a Cabinet minister.

In response to the Broadwater farm riots, in which - at the hands of mostly Afro-Caribbean young men - more than 230 police officers were injured and PC Keith Blakelock brutally stabbed to death, Margaret Thatcher's Government was urgently looking for ways of addressing the grim reality of this ghastly 1960s housing estate and its shocking social problems.

Ministers were making suggestions about tackling bad housing and encouraging black middle-class entrepreneurship as a "force for stability".

Letwin was 29, the son of two brilliant Hampstead intellectuals, who, in his mid-20s, had gone straight to the Prime Minister's policy unit after his time as a fellow of a Cambridge college. He thought this ill-conceived.

"The root of social malaise is not poor housing, or youth 'alienation', or the lack of a middle class," read his memo.

"Lower-class, unemployed white people lived for years in appalling slums without a breakdown of public order on anything like the present scale."

It was "individual characters and attitudes" and "bad moral values" that solely caused "riots, criminality and social disintegration", and without addressing the lack of "personal responsibility, basic honesty" and respect for the law, the proposed reforms would get nowhere.

The memo was very ivory tower and its language has caused offence 30 years later, but that shouldn't make it scandalous.

Policy units exist to come up with all sorts of ideas, fashionable or not, and to challenge received opinion fearlessly.

Letwin now says his views were wrong and has apologised, but left-wing critics are accusing him of racism and of comments "bordering on criminality".

That is dishonest, anachronistic, unfounded, opportunistic rubbish.

He was kicking ideas about, which was his job, and his hounding will make public servants even more reluctant than they have already become to think freely on the record.

In his memoirs, Tony Blair frankly addressed the unintended consequences of his Government's introduction of the FIA, which removed even the limited protection of a timescale.

He castigated himself as an idiot: "You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop... I quake at the imbecility of it."

It wasn't, he said, that he wanted secret government to "hide the foul misdeeds of politicians".

The most important reason that the Act was dangerous "is that governments, like any other organisations, need to be able to debate, discuss and decide issues with a reasonable level of confidentiality".

Without confidentiality, people were inhibited "and the consideration of opinions is limited in a way that isn't conducive to good decision-making".

Blair learned the hard way that "in every system that goes down this path, what happens is that people watch what they put in writing and talk without committing to paper".

It was, he concluded bleakly, "a thoroughly bad way of analysing complex issues".

He was right. Pity ministers and public servants trying to have honest arguments these days, as well as the historians of the future, trying to get at the truth with sanitised documents.

Transparency is not always a virtue.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards