Surely it is not just the implied racism in the advice offered by Oliver Letwin (How Cameron adviser helped thwart plan to aid young black people after 1985 riots, 30 December) to the then Thatcher government that we should be concerned about, but also the implied assumption that they should see it as acceptable for the poor lower-class unemployed, presumably black or white, to be content to live for years “in appalling slums without the breakdown of public order”. Many still do, with little support from governments of any colour.
• The rest of Oliver Letwin’s comments (“lower-class unemployed white people have lived for years in appalling slums without a breakdown of public order”) are equally revealing. Although, as things stand, they do not “border on criminality”, perhaps they ought to.
Rev Gordon Webb
• Joseph Harker may be right to say that Oliver Letwin’s attitudes still survive in the Tory party, but he (and others) have missed an important point about the memo and its consequences (Opinion, 31 December). First, it’s not quite true to say that his attempt to block help to black communities succeeded; in 1986, with Ken Clarke as the minister responsible, eight task forces were launched. Brixton was not among them (though it did receive City Challenge funding in 2003), but the eight included Handsworth (Birmingham), St Paul’s (Bristol) and Chapeltown (Leeds) – all areas with substantial black, Asian and minority ethnic populations.
The real point, however, is that the scale of support offered even those areas that were supported was trivial: the Handsworth task force area, for example, with a population of about 90,000, received less than £5m over three years. The task forces were principally charged with the job of “bending main programmes” to the needs of these inner-city communities, something they were largely (and predictably) unable to do on any scale.
A black community leader in Handsworth (where I worked as an adviser to the task force) described the funding as like a sticking plaster on a gaping wound. Many of those first areas subsequently received funding from other programmes; but the design of mainstream programmes of employment, housing and educational support still fail to recognise or respond to the distinctive needs of these diverse communities.
• The views expressed by Oliver Letwin – and others in authority– were not rejected by the then government of Margaret Thatcher. But nor did the party of which I was a member challenge these views. This is why many of us, as black members of the Labour party, organised for greater involvement of black people within the party through black sections. Bernie Grant in Haringey, myself in Lambeth and Merle Amory in Brent were council leaders targeted and harassed by the Thatcher government and a biased press, including the BBC and the Guardian.
• It’s worth recalling that Oliver Letwin is still advising Cameron on, among other things, healthcare. The same Letwin who in 2004, when shadow chancellor, invited a group of businessman to his West Dorset constituency and, according to one who was present, astonished his audience by saying that within five years of a Conservative election victory “the NHS will not exist”. Hopefully Letwin’s advice doesn’t extend to flood defences and the environment.
• I have met Oliver Letwin once or twice and have found him to be a perfectly courteous person, but this does not detract from the question of his fitness for office. You report that he advised the then prime minister on how to respond to inner-city riots in 1985. If one did not know how Tory thinking worked, that Margaret Thatcher should have sought Oliver Letwin’s advice at all might be considered extraordinary. For who could be more inexperienced concerning the world of underprivileged people than a 29-year-old product of Eton and Cambridge? I note that, at about the same time, Mr Letwin is said to have advised Margaret Thatcher to introduce the poll tax first in Scotland, a policy which may eventually result in the break-up of Britain.
Humility is never part of a mindset which, irrespective of lack of experience or empathy, believes that it always knows what to do about social and political matters. Such assumptions of entitlement and superior understanding are inculcated by the public schools; they call it giving their pupils “confidence”. How far our social fabric is damaged by the promotion of these socially selected, ex-public school boys is a matter for debate.
Dr Alan Chedzoy
• So an American youth has come to the rescue of members of the British Cabinet (Oliver Letwin’s career has been saved again and again by privilege. Couldn’t he share it around? theguardian.com, 30 December) by conjuring up the perfect alibi for policies which have led to deepening social inequality (‘Affluenza teen’ on the run after his mother is held in Mexico, 30 December). Ethan Couch’s psychologist was able to convince a court of law that his client’s misdemeanours were the result of affluenza – “abnormal behaviour because of a privileged upbringing”.
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