Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
30 December 2015

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. 

By George Eaton

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.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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”). 

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

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”.