The Battle For British Conservatism: Oliver Letwin, Hearts And Minds

Oliver Letwin acknowledges the fundamental challenge facing the Conservative Party, but in this case the devil lies not in the details but rather in the still-elusive big picture

Well, here it is – the first crack in the dam, the first “what’s gone wrong with the Conservative Party and what can we do to fix it?” book to hit the shelves has just been  published by Sir Oliver Letwin MP. Entitled “Hearts and Minds: The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present“, Letwin offers what will presumably be an insider’s take on when, where and how the Tories managed to lose their way.

(I have requested but not yet received a review copy – below are my reflections based on the book launch video recently uploaded to YouTube).

You can watch Letwin speak at the book launch, hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies, in the video above – and judge for yourself whether you think that Letwin is warm or cold when it comes to identifying the key issues and proposing a plausible way back for British conservatism.

I watched the video with fairly low expectations. Letwin is one of those Conservative politicians who traded for a long time on euroscepticism only to swing his support behind remaining in the EU for reasons which amount (as far as I can tell) to a failure of courage. He was devastated at the EU referendum result and tried to persuade David Cameron to remain in office in the immediate aftermath. And given that Cameron had glowing things to say about the book in his enthusiastic review, any account of past Conservative failures which pleases David Cameron (who presided over so many of them) must, to my mind, be pulling a fair few punches.

But I did not get that sense from Letwin’s speech. Admittedly Letwin kept it very high-level and deliberately eschewed talking about much of the content of the book. But he did echo themes which this blog has been shouting about for years when he said:

Between now and the middle of 2021 or so I think we have time on our hands, which we mustn’t misuse. And that actually means recapturing the intellectual initiative and not getting mired in administrative detail but going back to these fundamental principles and trying to show how they apply to the great issues of our age, in a modern medium and a way that feels relevant so that whoever is the leader as we go into that election – long after Theresa has taken us through Brexit – actually has something much better and bigger than just a set of policies dreamed up at the last moment for a manifesto. In the end, principles and ideas have to precede the practical policies and the selling of a message.

I agree with everything aside from the Tories having “time on [their] hands”. There is precious little time for a leisurely period of introspection on the part of people who generally speaking still will not admit to having done anything wrong (or at least admit only to tactical rather than ideological errors). The only thing which will likely save the Conservative Party in time for 2022 (barring another round of fratricidal blood-letting within the Labour Party) is if the Tories are taken over by a new force which is already at work re-establishing conservative principles and building policies from them while the dying husk of this present administration focuses on Brexit and tries not to drop the ball elsewhere.

Just as the Thatcherite insurgents took over the Conservative Party in the late 1970s, the Cameron clique captured the party in the mid 2000s and Jeremy Corbyn’s crew seized the Labour Party back from the centrists in 2015, any immediate Tory revival will only come about if a new group can get organised and push the old guard out of the way when Theresa May steps down or is deposed.

Letwin pretty much goes on to admit this, undermining his own initial optimism, when he says:

Of course I didn’t design things so I wouldn’t be in government now, I found myself rudely ejected from government, as I describe in the book. But actually, had I thought about these things more clearly I would have ejected myself because actually those poor people – my former colleagues, many of them great friends of mine – now find themselves imprisoned in the ghastly operation of trying to manage this country through Brexit, keep its finances in order, carry through all sorts of administrative actions which are very necessary but totally dull and fend off thousands of marauders and put out hundreds of forest fires, and therefore haven’t the remotest amount of time to think about these basic principles. That falls to the rest of us who are outside that machine and can actually do this thinking now, and that is our sort of duty.

The dreary job of managing the technocracy and steering the ship of state while being assailed from all sides is not conducive to bold, inspired policymaking, as Letwin acknowledges. That’s why radical, purposeful governments which command the kind of mandate required to push through their agenda rarely conjure themselves into existence while the party is still in power. This kind of introspection is usually prompted only by being in opposition with no expectation of returning to power unless something significant changes.

But on the positive side, because Theresa May is so singularly useless at picking out talent and surrounding herself with the brightest and best, several key conservative assets are currently languishing on the backbenches with nothing but time on their hands to work the issue – to commit to a real debate about what it means to be a conservative in 2017, and how to apply conservative solutions to 21st century challenges.

The likes of Kwasi Kwarteng, James Cleverly and George Freeman spring to mind, though there are doubtless some others. One does not necessarily have to agree with their every last public utterance or voting record, but these people at least look as though they may have some original ideas to contribute as well as personal career aspirations to advance. If Priti Patel could just get herself fired as International Development Secretary (a role in which her talents are wasted) then a potentially promising senior Tory would be freed up to join the revolution, too.

I shall read Letwin’s book with interest. The sense one got from the CPS book launch was of a group of rather self-satisfied veterans from Thatcher’s day, still dining out on the victories of an earlier era, who have not really had to formulate a new worldview or policy platform since the 1970s and are still unconvinced as to why they should do so now. Like ageing rock stars they go around belting out the old favourites to a dwindling band of nostalgic devotees while the rest of the world slowly moves on without them.

The accomplishments from the Thatcher years should be recognised and never diminished, but it is hard to imagine this Dad’s Army think tank saving the day for a second time, forty years later, without a significant injection of new blood (I don’t know enough about their newly appointed acting director Robert Colvile to know whether or not such a transfusion is likely).

And likewise, while Oliver Letwin’s book may well offer some diplomatically worded assessments of past Tory shortcomings, if he really does have the ideas needed to reinvigorate the Conservative Party one wonders why they were not flagged to Theresa May and Lynton Crosby before they ran one of the dreariest, most uninspiring general election campaigns in living memory.

Ever the optimist, though, I hope to be pleasantly surprised by what he has to say.


Oliver Letwin - Margaret Thatcher - Conservative Party

Oliver Letwin - Hearts and Minds

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The Daily Smackdown: Darcus Howe’s Authoritarian Attack on Oliver Letwin

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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