Friday 1 January 2016

Letwin Or Let Live?

The recent Apologia Of Oliver Letwin for words uttered and written in 1985 about the riots in London that had occurred has had major media coverage in that by 2015 they are seen in a different light by a new generation. 

He did not think of this at the time and probably did not imagine that documents written then would surface only thirty years later when he was still in politics, now as a senior Conservative Member of Parliament.

Long ago, possibly, fifty years at the time when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister and claiming to have a new techie' government for a new age, I began using "The Department Of Bright Ideas" as a means of defining all the schemes, wheezes and plans that were certain to fail or cause unintended consequences that were adverse.

From the evidence Olly was one of those people who were full of very bright and clever ideas that turn out to be disasters in waiting.  I believe it was him who thought up the initiative in the 1980's to try out what became known as The Poll Tax on the Scots first.  He deserves a hundred lashes for that one at least.

The problem was that he had the ear of the Prime Minister, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, who really should have seen him coming.  But faced with a lot of senior Tories who were more than an awkward squad she became too reliant on a group of advisers and too willing to try out their bright ideas.

She once said of Lord Young that she admired him because he gave her answers when others could only ask questions.  Given some of Young's prize turkeys down the years she really should have asked a lot more questions or allowed others to do it.

Olly's basic problem was that he was a very bright boy.  With two academic parents, leaders in their fields and with Eton and Trinity on his CV he could talk the talk and write convincing stuff, at least persuasive to those who existed in the air of Westminster.

What caught my eye was that Mum was literary executor to Michael Oakeshott, Professor of Political Science at LSE, who had the dire misfortune to have me on his books once.  He did not quite grasp my theory that Socrates was the great fly half of ancient Greek thought.  He turned down Mrs. Thatcher's offer to be a Companion of Honour.

To return to 1985 and the riots in parts of London what was little understood among senior politicians of all stripes and civil servants for that matter was that the situation on the estates in question was the product of rapid economic and related social change in which those at the bottom of the heap were becoming long time losers with nowhere to go. 

The police saw networks of dangerous and violent gangs, which did exist in those areas and were a cause of trouble.  The academics saw an arena for new theorising and the politicians saw a lot of very bad media news.  It seemed at the time to be a new and unknown threat.  But this had happened before. 

The study of economic and social history will tell of many phases in the past where great change allied with poverty and the movement of people led to conflict, violence and major challenges to the authorities.  Crowded slums with unemployed males create criminal gangs. 

Problems like that of 1985 had happened many times in history with different peoples and with different trigger events in London.  But at Downing Street something had to be said and done fast.  The trouble with Olly is that he and others saw only the moment and the opportunity.  He did not see or understand the realities of the varied local situations then. 

Apologies are now in fashion, sadly trying to understand realities, risks and dangers are not; just as in the 1980's.


  1. You have nailed down for me at least the perniciousness of being economically and socially disadvantaged. It made me initially think that my political thinking which is right leaning has been wrong and I should now think left wing. Then it struck me that the left as well intended as they are put in policies and practices that rarely make the situation better for the poorest in society indeed often make it worse. An example is the fact that the highest crime rates in the USA are in places where the Democrats are in control.

    The answer and the only answer came to me to the problem and that was not to indulge, appease and throw money at it as the left would have us do. No but to work harder to create a vibrant economy with a sustainably high growth rate so slowly but surely these people would be drawn into it and benefit from it.

  2. "The academics saw an arena for new theorising"

    As always. Social problems seem to attract the wrong kind of academics too.