The New Statesman Interview - Oliver Letwin

Blunkett's shadow admits "people do not pay us much attention" and sounds as if he wants to go home.

Oliver Letwin's office rings to say he is running five minutes late. The call seems courteous but unnecessary, unless the shadow home secretary fears that any minor delay on his part may signify a relapse into his Macavity habit. During the general election campaign, Letwin inadvertently disclosed that the Tories were aiming for a £20bn tax cut by 2006. Then he disappeared. Though the groomed farmland of his West Dorset constituency is not to be compared with an Afghan cavescape, the bunker-busters of the media failed to dislodge Letwin. Posters went up. Rewards were offered. The episode was, as he now acknowledges, a terrible blunder.

"I learnt two lessons from it. The first is that I shall never again in my life give any interview unless it's on the record. And second, if anything I say ever again becomes the subject of huge interest, I shall be in front of the television cameras in 30 milliseconds." So why did he agree to hide? Was it, perhaps, because William Hague ordered him to? "I am going to maintain a total silence," he says virtuously.

On the substantive point of a £20bn cut (as opposed to Hague's £8bn target), Letwin seems astonishingly unrepentant. When I ask why he mooted such an alarming plan, he says: "Oh. Well, I am surprised that you find it alarming. I think the mistake we made was to think that the people of Britain realised the truth: namely, that a very small part of our national budget is spent on things people notice - schools, hospitals and so on.

"We now understand that no one will pay the slightest attention to claims that it is possible to control the growth of public spending over time - which is all we wanted to do - unless we can first convince them that we can provide better schools and hospitals and roads and trains without spending a colossal extra amount of taxpayers' money. That is where we are now focused."

So the £20bn is still there for the saving, once state shrinkage can be sold to the public? Although Letwin allows that the old figure will have to be updated ("the £20bn is out of the window in the sense that it was [calculated] about a year ago"), he believes that the sum was never a mad aspiration, simply an idea rolled out before its time. "Oh, yes. Controlling the growth of public spending is of course a Conservative aspiration."

While bullish about Tory credo, Letwin is unexpectedly diffident over whether the current line-up will recover fast enough to implement it. "Last time round, we hadn't learnt how to engage in opposition. We were too inclined to spot an opportunity for grabbing a headline and too exposed to having to reverse the decision later." This Hagueish nemesis is presented by Letwin, who served in his shadow cabinet, as collective culpability. "All my political formation has been in government . . . I'm as guilty as anyone of not understanding what it is to be in opposition. What I hadn't come to terms with, but have now, is that what people most want to know about an opposition - as and when they're not inclined to vote for the government - is this: are these people in whom you would safely put your trust to let them run your country?"

Surely the voting public is some way from this epiphany? "Nowhere near, nowhere near," he cries. "We have a huge hill to climb. It is very large. We have to re-establish, with millions of citizens who are very disenchanted and very cross, our credibility as an alternative government. That isn't something we are going to be able to do in a week or a month or a year. It's something we have to try and do over four years."

Is even that achievable? "I don't know, I don't know. I hope it's doable . . . We have been in a long and bleak abeyance, and I want to see us come out of that. We have to realise that, in order to do so, we have to behave in the ways I have described (no more yah-boo politics) and realise that it's going to take time. And we have to recognise that it's difficult. The outcome is not preordained."

So it might take two terms? It might take another change of leadership? I expect a flat denial of both, but he says: "None of us, standing here today, is in a position to know how far or how fast we will advance. What we are in a position to know, I hope, is what kind of self-restraint, self-discipline and leadership of purpose we need to engage in order to get there."

For a senior member of the shadow cabinet to express doubts about whether the Tories can win the next election is unusual. For Letwin not to contradict the suggestion that Iain Duncan Smith may not be the anointed saviour seems even more bizarre. Does he aspire to lead his party? "No. I am an unusual politician in that respect. I am ambitious, and I would love to hold one of the major offices of state. I understand the quantum leap in demands.

"I find my present role on the verge of being too demanding. I actually like my family life. I like my social life. I have twins [Laura and Jeremy] of eight, and a wife [Isabel, a lawyer] whom I rather like. This is the limit of what I want to do. I don't want that kind of demand. I'm astonished there are people who do. I know from talking to Iain that he had to think very hard before taking it on. Just after William resigned, I had conversations with Iain which made it perfectly clear he was hesitating. I know he wavered for some days . . . I think I'm a useful commodity, because I have no ambitions in that direction."

Which is what they all say. Still, I believe him. In assorted ways, he is an unlikely politician. His mother, Shirley, an American political philosopher and a leading thinker of the Thatcher revolution, thought politics "a pretty lowbrow activity. She would have been very distressed to discover I was occupying myself with practical matters. Part of the reason is that I'm not quite up to the job of doing abstract things, as I discovered rather painfully." How? "Oh, by discovering that if I took all my philosophical works and burnt them, it wouldn't make much difference to anybody," he says with a high, hurt laugh.

While the sales of his books on ethics, economics and education do not imply Harry Potter for pointy-heads, he can well afford a disarming streak of self-deprecation. After Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, his first job, before a spell as a merchant banker, was a stint with his mother's friend Keith Joseph. He emerged inspired.

"I always feel Keith is looking over my shoulder. I often try and judge how I should behave by thinking of what he would do. He took positions he thought were right. It didn't always make him popular, and some people thought he was mad." Probably because of the way he used to sing in railway carriages, I say, but Letwin looks politely askance. "I don't deny he was eccentric. But I mean people thought he was mad not to take opportunities of low cunning."

While no one would accuse Letwin of the rat-like wiles eschewed by his guru, he seems a sinuous pragmatist. "Of course, otherwise I wouldn't be in politics." He started out as a Michael Portillo man, switching later to Duncan Smith, whose line on Europe meshed with Letwin's. ("I would never vote for entry into the euro.") Otherwise he remains hard to pigeonhole; billed variously as a right-winger and a born-again liberal.

He had not expected the home affairs portfolio, and he does seem slightly adrift or oppressed. When, at the start, I offer congratulations, he says: "Commiserations, probably. This job is difficult at the best of times, and in the current climate significantly more so."

In the main, he agrees with David Blunkett's anti-terrorist legislation, although he opposed the religious hatred clause and internment, preferring to enable a home secretary to send suspected terrorists back to their own countries to face retribution, the death penalty included. Assassination seems his favoured option for Osama Bin Laden. "There are times when an enemy is so dangerous that you are entitled to kill him."

In parts of his brief, he seems oddly lacklustre. On prisons and young offenders' institutions, there is "an enormous amount of work to do". On judges, he is less confrontational than Blunkett and thinks that a beefed-up parliament (but how?) would smooth the fracture lines between the executive and judiciary. If he lacks Blunkett's cauldron of ideas, he does exude a reasonableness lacking in some colleagues.

Naturally, he resents the idea that the shadow team is, pace Charles Clarke, a convocation of nutters. "Of course it isn't. Not that you'd expect me to say so if it was. But it isn't." Look at Michael Howard ("extraordinarily capable"), Michael Ancram ("solid and reassuring"), David Willetts ("one of the most moderate intellectuals"), Liam Fox ("absolutely sane"). "I could go on," Letwin says. (He does, a bit, but still we do not get to Bill Cash.) Anyway, the real problem may be that the Tories aren't half crazy enough. A yearning, endorsed by Letwin, for consensus politics, coupled with the unanimity of the war effort, has rendered the opposition uniquely effete. As he acknowledges: "There are penalties, and we accept them. People do not pay us very much attention."

It is 8.30pm when I leave the Commons. "Are you going home?" he asks, in a tone of such wistful envy that I wonder if he has the stamina for the long slog. He will be in his office until 2am, he says. Once so elusive, the Scarlet Pimpernel of politics must now be omnipresent. I'm not sure that Oliver Letwin has decided which fate is worse.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Who needs 12 when one will do?

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.