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.