Bruce Anderson: The rich, the poor and the Tories

Like Cameron, Letwin finds it intolerable that Britain should have such a large underclass

Share
Related Topics

Oliver Letwin has the most original mind in the Commons and no MP is less likely to use a cliche. In 2003, those qualities led a small number of people to wonder whether Mr Letwin might be the best choice to succeed Iain Duncan Smith. The language of British politics had become weary, stale and flat as if designed to incite a disillusioned public to impute dishonesty to all politicians. It seemed as if Letwin might be the man to put this right by forging a new political vocabulary.

But when the question was raised with him, Oliver Letwin was witty, courteous and doubly adamant: in his loyalty to IDS and in his refusal to accept that he was a suitable leader. On the latter point, he may be right. He has certainly found another role to which he is ideally suited: that of chief intellectual and strategist. He has already indicated that he will place no limits on his party's boldness in the search for new ideas.

Naturally, this has aroused controversy. Last week, Mr Letwin gave an interview, in which he said that the gap between rich and poor was too great and that assisting the poor out of poverty would be the first priority of the next Tory government. Mr Letwin was accused of rich bashing and old-fashioned socialist redistribution which even the Blair government had forsworn.

His remarks gave rise to confusion, dismay, even a little rancour - and Oliver Letwin was delighted. Many other politicians would have summoned a spin doctor to sedate the discussion. Mr Letwin sent for yule logs to build up the fire. He was determined to make a crucial point.

In 1964, Alec Douglas Hume was widely derided, rather like John Major in 1997. The Tory Party was discredited while Harold Wilson seemed young and dynamic: more parallels with 1997. But Sir Alec won 43.4 per cent of the vote, a figure that the Tories have only twice exceeded in the subsequent years. Over those years, political demography has moved decisively in the Tories' favour. Home ownership, share ownership, the decline of trade unionism and the manual working class; if Douglas Hume could exceed 40 per cent, his successors should have been well into the 50s.

The Tories' failure to exploit their demographic advantage is the most interesting phenomenon in recent British political history. Oliver Letwin believes he has an explanation. Throughout most of those years, the Tories have been seen as the party of the rich and greedy, only in politics to protect their friends' interests. So long as the Labour Party was led by Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock, this was not fatal to the Tories' prospects.

In most elections, the man with no heart will defeat the man with no head. But as soon as Labour could claim to be a party of the sensible centre, the Tories were in trouble.

Lots of comfortably off voters would like to cast their ballots in a way that makes them feel good about themselves. They want to express their concerns for the environment, small furry animals, lonely old grannies et al. They do not want to think of themselves as people who will vote solely in their own financial interests; they want to lay claim to a higher political morality. When Labour allowed them to do that without having to endure higher rates of income tax, they deserted the Tories en masse.

Oliver Letwin wants them back. This does not mean that he intends to "clobber the rich". But he believes the rich - by which he emphatically does not mean those who find themselves paying tax at 40 per cent - can look after themselves. They need nothing more than benign neglect. The poor need the help.

Like David Cameron, Oliver Letwin finds it intolerable that Britain should have such a large underclass. He knows the answer to the underclass's problems does not solely lie in more money. That could merely add to the dependency culture, and thus increase helplessness and hopelessness. Some of the answers to the underclass's misery lie in Thatcherite remedies, such as deregulation to encourage small businesses, and therefore new jobs.

Oliver Letwin would not claim to have the answer to the problem; if he did, it would not be anything like so serious. But he is determined to devote the Tory Party's intellectual and moral energies to the underclass question. David Cameron agrees. Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, Mr Letwin is not naive, nor incapable of political calculation. He is convinced that virtue will bring its own electoral reward. If the public see the Tory Party as a caring party, it will at last be able to exploit the demographic advantages which it has not been able to enjoy.

To those who were alarmed by the interview, he has only one message. You had better prepare yourself for many repetitions.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform