If the UK does end up breaking apart at some point in the future, we can blame Oliver Letwin

It turns out that he effectively rescued the poll tax for Margaret Thatcher

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In the dog days of this year, as of all years as they dribble on a stagnant tide of fake merriment towards the next, three lonely beacons do what they can to dispel the midwinter darkness.

First, I would like to congratulate the compilers of the New Year’s honours list on another splendid reflection of all that is best about British life. However, since they have seen fit to award Esther Rantzen a damehood, any such praise would carry the bitterly sarcastic edge.

Since we will come to the second of the trinity (the World Darts Championship) elsewhere on this page, that leaves only the Cabinet papers from 1985 as newly released by the National Archives.

As ever when such documents are declassified under the 30-year rule, there is much to delight, alarm and bemuse. Students of Margaret Thatcher will be struck by her bespoke reinterpretation of Stalin’s old saw that while a million war casualties are a statistic, one death is a tragedy. On the one hand, we find her militating (in vain) to acquire stockpiles of the nerve gas sarin, for potential retaliatory use against the USSR. On the other hand, she personally intervened to prevent Clive Ponting, the General Belgrano whistleblower, losing his civil service salary. This would be “a bit rough”, she suggested/commanded in a note, as “he and his family have to live on something.”



Such revelations of her human side, though disconcerting, must always be acknowledged if only for their rarity value.

Yet for once with archive material from that era, Mrs Thatcher is not the headline act. With the 1985 papers, the old girl is reduced to a supporting role beneath the credits. The star of the show is Oliver Letwin, now an influential if obscure minister who attends the Cabinet, and then a precocious young Downing Street adviser.

Just when it seemed the poll tax would be buried beneath the predictions of Nigel Lawson (and others) that it would prove an unworkable catastrophe, Letwin latched on to the notion of testing it out in Scotland.

With this daring, Entebbe-style rescue of the poll tax, which he termed a “trail-blazer”, Mr Letwin not only planted the acorn that would grow into Mrs Thatcher’s demise after a relaxing 11 years in power. He also lit the slow fuse that will eventually become the inferno that consumes the union.

Call them effete, but the Scots never got over being used as the pit canary to test the sarin-like qualities of that uniquely poisonous instrument of taxation. The trail from that scorched earth policy to the conflagration to come, whenever Scotland next votes on independence, is easily traced. If the SNP holds the balance of power next year, we must assume that Alex Salmond will demand that it be sooner rather than later as the price for supporting a Labour-led government.

Being a sovereign of unimpeachable good manners, the Queen is unlikely to chastise Mr Letwin should they find themselves making Privy Council small talk. You can’t picture her scolding the poor sap with “Ah, so you’re the guy who fucked up my country.” But if Her Britannic Majesty should come over a touch Hilary Mantel, we may imagine her fantasising about protecting her realm with a little regal time travel in a short story entitled “The Assassination of Oliver Letwin”.

Perhaps it is unfair to blame Letwin – the courteous, bumbling figure once famously robbed by a pair of burglars he let into his home at 5am when they asked to use the toilet – for the march of history. A Marxist historian such as Ralph Miliband would certainly think so. Even if the late Ralph shared the suspicion that such a character should be kept far away from the levers of power, he could hardly say so in the circs.

To the naked eye, after all, Letwin looks uncannily like a proto-Ed Miliband.

Gauche, abstracted and accident-prone, both men are the sons of immigrant Jewish ideologues (American ultra-right wingers in Letwin’s case), who were raised in Hampstead, went straight into politics after Oxbridge, and never spent a day in what we like to call “a proper job” in their lives.

One stands on the privatising, free marketeering right, and passionately believed in a property tax to penalise the poor. The other is a lonely inhabitant of the neo-semi-Socialist left, and currently peddles a property tax designed to punish the rich. The ideological contrast could not be neater or cruder as both loyally follow the paths laid down by their parents. You cannot fault them for filial piety. You can wonder, yet again, whether intellectual technocrats of this breed are brilliantly well suited to the demands of front line politics.

How Oliver Letwin survived the uber fiasco of 2001, when he was driven into pre-election hiding after promising £12bn more in tax cuts than the Tory manifesto, is anyone’s guess. This gentle laureate of mishap has the political antennae of a Venezuelan llama. His only useful function is to serve as a reminder that little is more dangerous than a clever fool. As this election year dawns, here’s touching wood that Ed Miliband, if he is given the chance, fails to replicate his Bizarro World alter ego in that.


An ideal fan for the ginger stepkid of sport

Tremendous excitement suffused Alexandra Palace in north London on Monday night when Sky’s cameras picked out the elfin features of Prince Harry among the crowd at the PDC World Darts Championship (the proper tournament; not the British Darts Organisation version for Men Who Try Hard But Aren’t Very Good At Darts, soon to begin on the BBC).

Harry has in fact been before to an event that these days is a magnet for those who like appearing publicly in both drink and fancy dress (though Nazi uniforms seldom feature in Wayne Mardle’s pick of the day’s most hilarious costumes). Yet darts, being the ginger stepkid in the family of sport, is entitled to celebrate any famous fan with breathless delight.

When the Sky team somehow penetrated the Prince’s cunning disguise of a grey hoodie (if he made a tactical error, it was leaving the hood down), I feared the worst. Given the renewed speculation about Major James Hewitt, a chorus of “Who’s ya father? Who’s ya father?” seemed guaranteed. In the event, not a paternity-related whisper ensued.

Happily, concerns that the darting audience has been gentrified by the influx of Sloanes were assuaged when the crowd reasserted its grip on Wildean wit with a sustained chorus of “Fe-ee-eeed the Scousers, let them know it’s Christmas time”. Unthinkably, and for the first time since his death, it was less a sadness than a relief that the glorious Sid Waddell, the son of a miner, was not in the commentary box to hear them.