The Greasy Pole column from the February 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Where’s fookin’ Menzies?... Come on, where is he?... just to let you know, I’m not fookin’ having’ it…’ was how Labour Deputy Leader John Prescott warned Tony Blair about the rumours that the Lib Dem Leader was to be included in the government. And some years after that… ‘the meeting was friendly enough. He ended up offering me just about every job that was going – including the Foreign Office – except the one that I held. I said no’ – which was not John Prescott but Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling discussing with Gordon Brown the Labour Leader’s plan to replace him with his favourite Ed Balls.
Eton And Cambridge
It is habitual for political leaders when they are imposing the disciplines of exploitation upon the rest of society to resort to an individual style of expressing themselves, in words as well as actions. An example is Oliver Letwin, who is now the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster with a history of episodes as Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Home Secretary, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Politics has always been part of the Letwin family’s expectations; his father became Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics and his mother has been described by a close friend as ‘humourless and energetic, argumentative and exceedingly right wing’. It was a family unlikely to place their child at a local state school so little Oliver had to learn about life and impoverishment at Eton. He then went to Cambridge where he joined both the Liberal Club and the Fabian Society – a conflict not made any more digestible by his apology: ‘I am sorry to have to tell you that this was because I was interested in the thoughts of Liberals and Fabians (and still am) rather than because I was ever a Liberal Democrat or a Fabian’.
Letwin’s first attempt to get into Parliament was at the essentially London Hackney North and Stoke Newington, against Diane Abbott who was even then a rebel notorious enough for him to protect his ambitions by moving in 1992 to Hampstead and Highgate, although that was where another charismatic woman – Glenda Jackson – was entrenched. After all that effort he was probably due for a better prospect and he was given the chance at Dorset West but by the time of his first contest there, in 1997, he had a reputation for serial blundering so that his first majority was down to 1840. Among the earliest of his gaffes in 1985, when he was in Thatcher’s Policy Unit, was to support the vote-haemorrhaging Poll Tax. Although he was liable to be on the receiving end of a barrage of eggs if he spoke up for it in public, Letwin recommended that Scotland should be a ‘trail-blazer’ so that the tax could be used throughout the country if ‘the exemplifications prove… it is feasible’. Another disastrous piece of his work at that time was his part in commenting on the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985, when PC Keith Blakelock was killed. The riots were sparked off by the death of Cynthia Jarrett while the police were searching her home in Tottenham and were a predictable outcome of the particular poverty and despair of that area of London. But Letwin was joint author of an assessment that the cause was ‘solely by individual character and attitudes… new entrepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade… refurbished council blocks will decay through vandalism combined with neglect…’ This report was at first restricted as private; when it was released in December 2015 Letwin admitted that ‘some parts’ were ‘badly worded and wrong’ and he apologised for ‘any offence these comments have caused’– the impact of which must have been diminished by the thirty year gap since the riots .
Another of his efforts at joint authorship was in 1988, with John Redwood, of a pamphlet which justified the subsequent privatisation of the NHS, by both Tory and Labour governments and preceded his proclaiming that ‘The NHS will not exist under the Tories’. But the results of his efforts as one of the key advisers to Tory governments have not always been as he wished. During the 2001 general election he advocated a £20 billion reduction of the proposed Labour government’s spending. This was regarded as regressive and socially harmful, to the extent that Letwin feared his standing was under threat. He went into a period which Alistair Darling recounts as ‘A hapless Tory shadow minister, subsequently a member of the Tory cabinet, had played into our hands in 2001 by suggesting that the Tories really wanted to cut £20 billion from public spending. He went into hiding. The whole election campaign was dominated by the media search for this man. Oliver Letwin was finally tracked down at a garden party dressed in a Roman toga. We could not have paid for such a boost to our campaign’. The incident was reflected during the election when Letwin’s majority was reduced to 1414, classifying the seat as marginal to a threat from the Lib Dems. In April 2011 he blurted to Boris Johnson that ‘We don’t want people from Sheffield having cheap holidays’- which may, or may not, have referred to Sheffield MP Nick Clegg.
Among his posturing and threats about the behaviour of others (provided they are not from the ruling elite) in October 2011 Letwin dumped a batch of papers, including personal and other security matters, in a waste bin in a public place, as exposed when he was photographed in a park close to Downing Street. This was at first excused on the grounds that he was in the habit of rising early, going to the park and dealing with some of his paperwork there. It did not take long for this defence to be shredded, when details of the contents of the documents, some of which were seriously sensitive, were revealed. A spokeswoman for David Cameron had to concede that ‘Clearly it’s not a sensible way to dispose of documents’. Except that it has not been just documents which Letwin has disposed of during his career in power.