Oliver Letwin blocked help for black youth after 1985 riots

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Oliver Letwin blocked help for black youth after 1985 riots

Postby admin » Thu Dec 31, 2015 1:05 am

Oliver Letwin blocked help for black youth after 1985 riots
Cameron’s policy chief makes apology over advice to Thatcher that assistance would benefit ‘disco and drug trade’ and Rastafarian crafts
by Alan Travis
December 29, 2015

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Oliver Letwin was a young adviser in Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street policy unit in the mid-1980s. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/REX/Shutterstock

David Cameron’s chief policy adviser has apologised after he helped to ward off cabinet pleas for assistance for black unemployed youth following the 1985 inner-city riots with the argument that any help would only end up in the “disco and drug trade”.

Oliver Letwin, then a young adviser in Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street policy unit, played a decisive role along with her inner cities adviser, Hartley Booth, in rejecting demands from three cabinet members that assistance schemes be introduced in the aftermath of the Tottenham and Handsworth riots in 1985. On Tuesday night he said he apologised “unreservedly” for any offence caused by his comments.

Downing Street files released on Wednesday by the National Archives include a confidential joint paper by Letwin and Booth in which they told 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 also warned Thatcher that setting up a £10m communities programme to tackle inner-city problems would do little more than “subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops”.

Their intervention followed a warning from the home secretary, Douglas Hurd, that alienated youth, predominantly black, in the inner cities represented “a grave threat to the social fabric” of the country.

The two persuaded Thatcher to dismiss suggestions from Hurd and two other cabinet ministers, Kenneth Baker and Lord Young, to tackle the problem, and instead insisted what was needed was measures to tackle absent fathers, moral education and an end to state funding of leftwing activists. Letwin is now the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and minister of state for government policy.

The cabinet debate over the government’s response to the riots had been sparked by a warning from Hurd on 23 October 1985 of a “thoroughly dangerous situation” in the inner cities.

Hurd told Thatcher in a confidential minute that the government might have to reconcile itself to the fact that “a number of our cities now contain a pool of several hundred young people who we have not educated, whom it may not be possible to employ, and who are antagonistic to all authority. We need to think hard to prevent the pool being constantly replenished.”

The environment secretary, Baker, wanted to refurbish rundown council estates and Young, the employment secretary, wanted US-style “positive action” programmes to overcome the barriers to jobs and business startups for young black people.

But Letwin and Booth would have none of it. “The root of social malaise is not poor housing, or youth ‘alienation’ or the lack of a middle class,” they advised Thatcher. “Lower-class unemployed white people had lived for years in appalling slums without a breakdown of public order on 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 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. David Young’s new entrepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade.”

Instead their prescription was to reinforce the family through the law and tax, to set up “old-fashioned independent religious schools” and to change attitudes to personal responsibility, honesty, and the police from an early age including a new moral “youth corps”.

In a statement on Tuesday night Letwin said: “I want to make clear that some parts of a private memo I wrote nearly 30 years ago were both badly worded and wrong. I apologise unreservedly for any offence these comments have caused and wish to make clear that none was intended.”

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Margaret Thatcher and Oliver Letwin in 1992. Photograph: The Independent/REX/Shutterstock

The newly released files also show that at the height of the Tottenham disturbances in 1985 Thatcher was told that rioters were arming themselves with napalm in preparation for a fresh outbreak of violence.

Police sources had told Booth in the days immediately following the riot on Broadwater Farm estate in north London that milk floats been stolen so petrol bombs could be stockpiled and “the ingredients of napalm … have been supplied to individuals in the Tottenham area”. Thatcher responded to his confidential note: “This is most disturbing. [underlined] Is everything possible being done to assist the police in their duties?”

Downing Street civil servants tried to cool things down by pointing out that all sorts of rumours flew around in such situations, but the prime minister insisted on a full Home Office report on the napalm allegations, as she called them. Eventually it was established they flowed from a one-off report of someone “buying small quantities of the key ingredients for napalm at a north London chemist”. Nobody had been apprehended and it had not been repeated.


The debate was played out in a series of Downing Street meetings on the inner cities which hammered out a programme for a series of eight private sector taskforces to bypass local councils so they could not be sabotaged or “undercut by hard left local authorities”.

Letwin and Booth saw success in their campaign when it was decided that areas such as Brixton should be ignored as ministers “were anxious to avoid giving the impression that riot was being rewarded”. Ministers also agreed that while it was right for Hurd to raise the problem it “would be counterproductive to be seen to be concentrating help on law-breakers or on black people specifically”.

Plans for eight urban development task forces went ahead but the Treasury was only willing to put £5m behind the exercise. In the winter of 1985/86 the real money had already started to flow from a consortium of US bankers and developers into building “a new financial centre” in London’s Docklands. It was to be Canary Wharf not Broadwater Farm nor Lozells Road in Handsworth, Birmingham, that was to benefit most from the riots of 1985.

A Cabinet Office spokesman responding to the disclosure of Letwin’s advice to Thatcher said: “Clearly the government at the time were proposing solutions to rebuild broken communities, given the serious issues of the time. We remain thoroughly committed to helping the most vulnerable and ensuring that nobody is confined by the circumstances of their birth.”

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[Diane Abbot, Labour MP] Oliver Letwin's comments are almost laughably ignorant. In 1981, Lord Scarman had done a definitive report which showed how the social and economic factors actually triggered rioting. So for Oliver Letwin to say that the rioting was caused by Black people's moral degeneracy, and for him to go on and say that if you try too hard just to go into business, we'd only go into discos and drug dealing is just quite appalling.

Even 30 years ago had he said those views publicly, people would have been shocked, and they were clean contrary to the Scarman Report which looked into urban disturbances in 1981.

I think that Oliver Letwin's views may still be reflected today in some Tory attitudes to innocent communities, particularly when it comes to housing. Oliver Letwin said you couldn't invest in council housing because people because people would only vandalize it. I think this is reflected in Tory attitudes today.


Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, said Letwin should consider his position in the government following the disclosure.

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. A great many people will be asking whether, as a government minister, he still holds such offensive and divisive views.”

Trevor Phillips, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “These remarks are pretty outrageous. I’m sure that Oliver’s learnt quite a lot since then. But if I may say it tells us something about the attitudes amongst the whole generation. I went to school in Haringey and Tottenham and I covered the riots at the time. The thing I should say is I don’t think these remarks would have raised a single eyebrow at the time.” He refused to give an opinion on whether Letwin should be sacked.

Where are the cabinet papers?

Cabinet papers do not form part of the annual new year release of confidential government files by the National Archives for the first time for more than 50 years.

The absence of cabinet minutes, memorandum and cabinet committee papers from the regular new year release reflects a lack of resources in Whitehall available to implement the transition from the 30-year rule for the release of government papers to the new 20-year rule.

This year’s release is made up of 21 Downing Street files, known as Prem files, covering the years 1986, 1987 and 1988. It is expected that further releases in 2016 will see the release of cabinet papers from 1987 and possibly 1988.

The government began its move towards releasing records when they are 20 years old, instead of 30 in 2013. In that year the National Archives received records from 1983 and 1984, and in 2014 records from 1985 and 1986.

“Two further years’ worth of government records are being transferred to us each year until 2022 when we will receive the records from 2001 and 2002,” says a statement on its website.

But it appears that the pressure of resources means that it is has not been possible for Whitehall to meet the expected timetable for the release of the cabinet papers for 1987 and 1988 in 2015. The customary new year release of cabinet papers, while not a statutory requirement, dates back at least to the Public Record Act 1958.

John Whittingdale, the culture secretary, and Oliver Letwin, who as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster is responsible for the Cabinet Office, both worked for Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street the 1980s – the period covered by the files now being released.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “It is simply untrue to suggest any wrongdoing here. This is an administrative change to improve the process so that more files are published more quickly and more frequently during the year. No minister has been involved in the changes to the process.”
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Re: Oliver Letwin blocked help for black youth after 1985 ri

Postby admin » Thu Dec 31, 2015 1:43 am

Oliver Letwin memo borders on criminality, says Darcus Howe
Civil liberties campaigner condemns comments about black communities made in 1985 as David Cameron’s policy chief issues an apology
by Frances Perraudin

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Oliver Letwin said in a statement that parts of the memo were ‘badly worded and wrong’. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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.

In a statement, Letwin said: “Following reports tonight, I want to make clear that some parts of a private memo I wrote nearly 30 years ago were both badly worded and wrong. I apologise unreservedly for any offence these comments have caused and wish to make clear that none was intended.”

Howe, who went on to become a writer and broadcaster, said he didn’t think David Cameron would remove Letwin from his post, saying he had “no trust in Mr Cameron on the issue of race at all”.

The former editor of the political magazine Race Today said the incident would provide an opportunity for the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to stand up alongside the black community. “There are people in the Labour party who don’t want to be seen backing black people because they may lose white votes. Not Corbyn,” said Howe.

“I was saying about two days ago to a friend that Corbyn is going to get a chance to stand up with blacks and he will. And this is his opportunity. So that the black community knows that this is not the Labour party of Blair and the two Miliband boys.”

Letwin’s comments were condemned by prominent Labour figures, with the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, saying they were 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,” said Watson.

The shadow international development secretary, Diane Abbott, who in 1987 became the UK’s first black female MP, tweeted asking whether Letwin was “proud to have blocked action against bad housing and to encourage entrepreneurship after 1980’s riots.”

The Labour MP Chuka Umunna said: “The authors of this paper illustrate a complete ignorance of what was going on in our community at that time, as evidenced by their total and utter disregard of the rampant racism in the Met police which caused the community to boil over – there is no mention of that racism in their paper.

“The attitudes towards the black community exhibited in the paper are disgusting and appalling. The tone of it in places is positively Victorian.”

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, who grew up alongside the Broadwater Farm estate, said the memo showed just how “out of touch those in power can be with the reality of what is happening”.

Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, described Letwin’s comments as “pretty outrageous” and said his apology was “not quite” enough.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think these remarks would have raised a single eyebrow at the time.”

[Diane Abbot, Labour MP] Even 30 years ago had he said those views publicly, people would have been shocked, and they were clean contrary to the Scarman Report which looked into urban disturbances in 1981.


Phillips added: “Now actually if Oliver really wants to be contrite then I think what we have to hear pretty quickly is something about today, how they are going to make good on the prime minister’s conference pledge to attack race inequality in Britain.”

Phillips said he did not believe Letwin’s comments reflected his true views.

“I don’t think that this reflects his attitude,” he said.
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Re: Oliver Letwin blocked help for black youth after 1985 ri

Postby admin » Thu Dec 31, 2015 1:55 am

Oliver Letwin’s memo on race is not ancient history. It’s current Tory policy
by Joseph Harker
December 30, 2015

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‘The beliefs held by Oliver Letwin in 1985 are still being enforced in government.’ Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

In October, prime minister David Cameron gave this endorsement to the Black British Business awards: “I am very pleased to reaffirm my support for the [awards] as they once again seek to identify and celebrate outstanding business men and women from the African-Caribbean community. As we seek to build a One Nation government it is vital that Britons in every community know that they can succeed regardless of background and where the only determinant for your success is your ability and desire to succeed.”

Who could disagree? Well, it turns out, his own chief policy adviser. For we now know that, after the widespread unrest in 1985 across Britain’s inner cities – from Tottenham to Handsworth to Brixton to Toxteth – the Tory cabinet minister Oliver Letwin, then a member of Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street policy unit, believed that any cash support for black businesses would merely end up funding drugs and dodgy sound systems.

Letwin, along with Thatcher’s inner cities adviser, Hartley Booth, co-wrote a confidential paper which successfully argued against cabinet members who believed black communities should have help to redress the poverty and lack of opportunities they faced. The riot-torn areas were, at the time, among the poorest parts of Britain.

Home secretary Douglas Hurd had warned of a “thoroughly dangerous situation” in the inner cities. Environment secretary Kenneth Baker wanted to refurbish rundown council estates; and Lord Young, employment secretary, wanted positive action programmes to overcome the barriers to jobs and business startups for young black people.

They weren’t the only ones calling for action, of course: the Greater London Council, then led by Ken Livingstone, funded ethnic minority and equal rights groups, as did several Labour-run local councils. In those days there were no black MPs, but several Labour MPs and civil rights campaigners also said the underlying problem was inequality and that resources were needed to tackle race discrimination and its fallout.

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Police officers in riot gear on the Broadwater Farm housing estate, Tottenham, in 1985. Photograph: Julian Herbert/Getty Images

Despite these efforts to put the rioting and unrest in a wider context, Letwin and Booth argued that “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. David Young’s new entrepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade.”

Of course, this was all 30 years ago. Letwin last night said his memo was “both badly worded and wrong”, and has apologised “for any offence these comments have caused”. So does it really matter any more?

Yes, absolutely it does. Because not only is Letwin employed as Cameron’s policy adviser, but there’s clear evidence that the beliefs he held in 1985 are still being enforced in government. In 2011, as riots again tore through the country, and as campaigners said this was a clear sign that poverty and inequality ran deep, the government responded as it did in Thatcher’s day, by claiming it was all the work of individual criminals – “those thugs”, as Cameron called them at the time.


Before any investigation into the causes had even begun, Cameron declared: “In large parts of the country this was just pure criminality.” And he continued: “Let’s be clear. These riots were not about race … These riots were not about government cuts … And these riots were not about poverty … No, this was about behaviour. People showing indifference to right and wrong. People with a twisted moral code. People with a complete absence of self-restraint.” His words could virtually have been cut and pasted from Letwin’s 1985 paper.

So in 2011, rather than looking at embedded structural issues, including the way black communities are policed – especially in the light of the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham – the response was to hand out massive penalties to those convicted, in order to dissuade anyone else from taking to the streets in future protests.

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David Cameron in 2011. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

And instead of supporting organisations that work towards equality – such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Runnymede Trust, Operation Black Vote and the Stephen Lawrence Trust – these organisations have seen their budgets slashed, and for some their very survival is under threat.

The main difference between Cameron and Thatcher is that the current prime minister likes us to think that he cares. In the same month as his warm words about the Black Business awards, he addressed his annual party conference: “Do you know,” he asked his party delegates, “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 callbacks for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful.”

He promised no action to address this, though, and didn’t mention that he’d pulled the rug from those organisations actually trying to tackle discrimination. With Thatcher, of course, from her response to the 1980s riots, to her stance on immigration, to her support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, she made no attempt to hide her views on race.

Cameron now has a choice. He can either keep Letwin in his cabinet, and make clear to all that he’s happy to have someone who so misunderstands black Britain among his closest advisers. Or he can make a symbolic break with the past and drive out Letwin and his thinking, while at the same time promising to give proper support to those trying to counter discrimination and racial inequality. I hope he chooses the latter. If not, it will be a moment where his mask has slipped and we get a clear view of what he really feels about Britain’s minorities.
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