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Oliver Letwin's non-apology for his racist remarks isn't enough

David Cameron's policy chief must do more than merely regret "any offence caused" by his 1985 memo to Margaret Thatcher. 

Oliver Letwin has a special talent for creating negative headlines for the Conservatives. Today they concern remarks that he made 30 years ago. The latest declassified files from the National Archive reveal that David Cameron's chief policy adviser declared in a memo to Margaret Thatcher (who he was then advising) that the 1985 inner-city riots were caused by the "bad moral attitudes" of black people and that assistance for unemployed youth would end up "in the disco and drug trade". Rarely in recent political history has there been a more unambiguous demonstration of racism.

Along with fellow aide Hartley Booth, Letwin wrote: "The root of social malaise is not poor housing, or youth 'alienation', or the lack of a middle class. Lower-class, unemployed white people lived for years in appalling slums without a breakdown of public order or anything like the present scale; in the midst of depression, people in Brixton went out, leaving their grocery money in a bag at the front door; and expecting to see groceries there when they got back.

"Riots, criminality and social disintegration are caused solely by individual characters and attitudes. So long as bad moral attitudes remain, all efforts to improve the inner cities will founder." 

The memo added: "David Young's new entrepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade; Kenneth Baker's refurbished council block will decay through vandalism combined with neglect; and people will graduate from temporary training or employment programmes into unemployment or crime." 

As soon as the remarks were revealed, it was clear that, at the very least, Letwin would have to apologise. Labour's Tom Watson rightly said in response: "Oliver Letwin's comments are evidence of an ignorant and deeply racist view of the world. He obviously cannot justify his opinions but he must explain himself and apologise without delay. A great many people will be asking whether, as a government minister, he still holds such offensive and divisive views."

Letwin (who, with unfortunate timing, has just been appointed to lead the government's flood defence review) did indeed apologise, or rather didn't. Rather than straightforwardly apologising for his words, he merely apologised "for any offence these comments have caused", deploying the classic phraseology of the non-apology. It was the reaction, not the deed for which he was sorry (though he conceded that "parts" of the memo were "badly worded and wrong"). 

After Cameron used his most recent Conservative conference speech to promise a renewed assault against racial inequality, Letwin's non-apology should not be deemed sufficient by the Prime Minister. The gravity of his offence demands a far greater reckoning. If Letwin is unable to provide it then many will legitimately ask whether he deserves to retain his position. 

P.S. In 2011, I collated the remarkable array of gaffes and insults for which Letwin has been responsible. They include pledging during the 2001 election that the Tories would cut taxes by £20bn (forcing him to go into hiding), telling a private meeting in 2004 that the NHS would cease to exist under his party, warning in 2011 that the country was facing a growth crisis, allegedly remarking in the same year that "we don't want more people from Sheffield flying away on cheap holidays" and also declaring in 2011 that the coalition would "run out of ideas" by 2012. 

Letwin's next public appearance is due at Bright Blue on 21 January when he will deliver an (awkwardly titled) address on "opportunity for all". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.

Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.