Joan Smith: A man who does his thinking in the park is not all bad

To find a British politician comparable to Letwin you have to go back to the late Sir Keith Joseph

Share

I know I should think it's absolutely dreadful and call for an inquiry. But I love the idea of a government minister ambling through St James's Park on his way to work in Downing Street, discarding a memo here and a letter there. Even my elderly mother has a shredder these days, so the sight of Oliver Letwin tearing up pieces of paper in the old-fashioned way is curiously charming.

Yes, I'm aware of the risk of identity theft and I can imagine that an MP's constituents might not be very pleased if their correspondence turned up in a Westminster litter bin. But it's not exactly a hanging offence, is it?

Letwin is the Cabinet Office minister for policy, which means he's in the happy position of being paid to think. He's an intellectual, which is rare in public life these days, and I expect he takes a balanced view of the usefulness of most official documents to al-Qa'ida, always assuming that they have operatives sifting through litter in royal parks. It's hard to imagine David Cameron making such a gaffe, but then he's a PR man, who used to go in for man-of-the-people stunts like cycling to work from Notting Hill (the briefcase followed in an official car, remember).

Actors do better in politics than intellectuals, a circumstance proved by the contrasting fates of Ronald Reagan and Michael Ignatieff. While Reagan graduated from starring in not-very-good films to become president, the undeniably clever Ignatieff resigned as Leader of the Opposition in Canada after a catastrophic election defeat earlier this year.

I know diehard Brownites who swear that Gordon Brown's really a frustrated intellectual, but my view is that his judgement is too clouded by emotion to qualify. Robin Cook is the nearest thing Labour's had in recent years, displaying an independence of mind and enviable grasp of detail, but that didn't make him popular in the House of Commons.

To find a British politician comparable to Letwin you have to go back to Margaret Thatcher's mentor, the late Sir Keith Joseph, who attracted a similar reputation for being not entirely practical, shall we say. To be fair, I don't think either of them is as unworldly as the well-known historian who once sat on me at a party, apparently failing to notice I was already occupying the point he coveted on a sofa. But what Letwin and Joseph have in common is intellectual curiosity and a lack of concern about how they look to other people, which stands out at a time when politicians live in fear of upsetting constituents.

Joseph described himself as a "convenient madman" but today he'd be stuck with that dreadful label "blue skies thinker", and get the PM into no end of trouble. According to a former researcher, Joseph once commissioned a paper on the moral case for child labour, not because he approved of it but as an intellectual exercise. I also heard a story about someone inviting him to an editorial lunch and contacting his office to ask if he had any dietary requirements; the unexpected answer was that "the minister eats only boiled eggs".

Members of the public often complain that MPs are insincere and afraid of speaking their minds. But they don't much like it when politicians tell them they're wrong or come up with unorthodox ideas. Even a walk in the park can be dangerous, although David Cameron is probably wishing his erstwhile defence secretary had taken a morning stroll weeks ago and discarded his unofficial adviser in the nearest bin.

www.politicalblonde.com

twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
 

Costa Rica’s wildlife makes me mourn our paradise lost

Michael McCarthy
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence