Nobody can call themselves a civil liberties campaigner while suggesting that unpleasant speech should be criminalised
It was only a matter of time before the frenzied condemnation, Tory-bashing and virtue-signalling which met the publication of a controversial Thatcher-era memo from Oliver Letwin and Hartley Booth turned into suggestions that law enforcement should get involved.
Step forward “civil liberties” campaigner Darcus Howe, who – seemingly forgetting what civil liberties are – decided to weigh in against Letwin.
The Guardian reports:
Civil liberties campaigner Darcus Howe has condemned remarks about black communities made in the 1980s by the prime minister’s policy chief after the Tottenham and Handsworth riots, describing the comments as “bordering on criminality”.
Oliver Letwin was forced to issue a statement apologising for any offence caused when a confidential memo from 1985 was released by the National Archives in which he blamed unrest on “bad moral attitudes”.
In a confidential joint paper, Letwin, who is now MP for West Dorset, and inner cities adviser (and later a Conservative MP) Hartley Booth, tell the then-prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, that “lower-class unemployed white people had lived for years in appalling slums without a breakdown of public order on anything like the present scale”.
The men warn Thatcher that setting up a £10m communities programme to tackle inner-city problems would do little more than “subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops” and that any help would only end up in the “disco and drug trade”.
“If a black man had said something quite like that he’d have been called into Scotland Yard and and he might be charged with incitement to riot. It is bordering on criminality,” said Howe, who was a prominent figure in black rights campaigns in the period the document was written.
Let’s be clear: Oliver Letwin’s words, and the sentiment behind them, were reprehensible. And yes, they were far from an isolated case, just as elements within the Metropolitan Police were once institutionally, unabashedly racist.
For all the necessary good that the Conservative government did to turn Britain around in the 1980s, we should not deny that some decidedly unsavoury elements – as typified by the arrogant, cloistered high Toryism displayed by the youthful Letwin – also rose to power on Margaret thatcher’s coattails. And yes, this included some high-handedly ignorant and unreconstructed ideas about race, as the Oliver Letwin memo reveals. On that much, there should be no argument.
But to draw such fresh outrage from a decades-old incident as some are now doing – or to make impetuous calls for Letwin to resign or even face criminal charges, as Darcus Howe is openly hinting – would achieve nothing, and change nothing about the past.
Oliver Letwin may be guilty of having held some unpleasant and ignorant views on race back in the 1980s, but there is no suggestion that he has at any time practiced discrimination on the basis of race, committed acts of violence or even said anything which might be considered a “hate crime”, even by Britain’s low standards of evidential proof.
Besides which, what is the statute of limitations on having once expressed some nasty – but at the time commonly held – political or social ideas when serving in public office? Are people to be permanently disbarred from public life for ever having said or thought the “wrong” thing? And are we so pathetically naive that we expect those politicians who pass our stringent tests to be anything other than those who are smart enough not to get caught, or to commit their deepest and darkest thoughts to paper in the first place?
The Left have a dangerous tendency to weaponise race and social issues, focusing so much on dealing out instant political death to anyone who treads on one of their verbal land mines that they fail to actually deliver the “social justice” they so ostentatiously seek.
And the hysteria surrounding Oliver Letwin’s 30 year old memo is just another example of seizing any opportunity to bash the “Tory scum” (how much more lenient would people be had, say, John McDonnell uttered a similar sentiment back in the early 1980s?) while failing to do any serious policy making of their own. After all, how much easier is it to cry “racism!” than it is to stand before the electorate with your own newly minted policies designed to deliver true equality of opportunity for all Britons?
But worst of all is the predictable irony of a so-called civil liberties campaigner making dark threats about criminalising speech. Any civil liberties campaigner worth their salt knows that the battle for free speech is won or lost at the margins – that the battle will be fought not over pleasant small talk about the weather, but over rude or intemperate speech which may be very offensive to some very vocal people.
Oliver Letwin expressed some truly unpleasant thoughts in his recently unearthed memo, and Darcus Howe is free to criticise him for it as much as he pleases. But if Darcus Howe or anyone else want to include threatening musings about “criminality” or being hauled in by Scotland Yard in their howls of outrage, they should take off the white hat of virtue first – and stop pretending to care about civil liberties.
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