The fact that the views shared by Oliver Letwin with the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the aftermath of rioting in British cities in the 1980s – that spending money in black communities to boost local economies would be wasted on “discos and drugs” due to “bad moral attitudes” – were widespread in the Conservative Party at that time does not make them any more palatable. As the Labour MP Chuka Umunna rightly states, the prejudice his language displayed is “disgusting”, “appalling” and “positively Victorian”. But let us not shy away from the fact that it is more than that: it is racist.
Though the memo in which Mr Letwin made these claims is now some three decades old, there is a clear public interest in exposing the attitudes and values that once guided a still-serving member of the British Cabinet.
At the time of its writing, the Conservative Party – overwhelmingly male and privately educated, and at the time leading a House of Commons that was still exclusively white – was uniquely disconnected from the real world.
It is important to reflect on the progress that has been made in the intervening years. While concerns about embedded privilege in politics remain and there is a strong case for further change, parliamentarians across all parties are now far more representative of those for whom they stand. Such remarks would not be tolerated today.
The public has the right to expect an apology from Mr Letwin – not only for the intolerance he peddled with his dangerous remarks, but also for the poor advice he had for Mrs Thatcher. It is worth noting that one individual, Michael Heseltine, offered much better guidance to his boss in No 10. We must be thankful that his sensible calls for heavy investment in the city regions hit hardest by riots were heeded. We are still reaping the benefits of that investment today.Reuse content