The Unbearable Lightness of Ideology

Once upon a time Oliver Letwin was just one of a battalion of 1980s political ideologues, on the right and left, who would just dig in deeper when their half-baked theories came under attack.

Today he has to dig himself out, his historical prejudices embarrassingly exposed by the release of UK government papers after 30 years in the secret files. Honestly though, should we care? As The Independent writes, “at the time 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”.

Thirty years on, Letwin’s mental mix-tape of ideology and racism is weirdly anachronistic; a Kajagoogoo track on a Radio 6 Music playlist. But in the 1980s so-called Special Advisors or ‘SPADs’ like Letwin were new and shocking to political observers, not only for their youth, but also for the way they rode the authority of their patrons to drive ideology behind the scenes.

The model came from the US: Nixon’s youthful pet lawyer John Dean, nicknamed the ‘Pilot Fish’ after creatures that ride the slipstream of killer sharks. Pseudo-moral certainty fuelled the SPADs’ impact and arrogance. They were the commissars of Margaret Thatcher’s revolutionary ideology, and in Letwin’s case it seems, white English racial superiority as well.

Older Tories hated them. 1980s Tory Party Chairman Cecil Parkinson, a Lancashire grammar school lad, complained to me about the ‘bright tykes’ of Central Office running riot with ‘hare-brained schemes’ in his time. Youthful ideologues, their prejudices unchallenged, locked into a bubble of self-regard inflated by friends and colleagues of identical political opinion.

It was as hard to ignore them socially as it was politically. I spent a hideous New Year’s Eve at the Knightsbridge home of a colleague, daughter of a Tory media grandee. The Tory SPADs were there in force, in pre-arranged uniform of bowtie, dinner jacket and Dr Marten boots, sneering and jeering, pointedly singing Rule Britannia instead of Auld Lang Syne at midnight, January 1, 1985.

The revelations of that year show just how aggressively people like Letwin used ideology behind the scenes to force revolutionary change on the Conservative Party of the 1980s. Letwin, we discover, dismissed proposals by Employment Secretary Lord Young to foster a “new group of black middle-class entrepreneurs” in the inner cities, and Environment Secretary Kenneth Baker’s case for refurbishing council apartment blocks.

He was particularly hostile to the idea of so-called ‘One Nation’ Tory politics espoused by Thatcher’s great rival, Michael Heseltine, who had dealt with an earlier outbreak of inner city violence in Brixton and Toxteth.

As a London reporter in the 1980s, riots and urban deprivation was my specialist beat. Editors gave early breaks to the very, very small number of ethnic minority journalists then working the UK media. We were expected to go where white journalists quite literally feared to tread.

I lived on the old Stonebridge Estate in Harlesden at the time, so the Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham held few shocks for me. In fact “the Farm’ had long been held up as a model of community engagement. Young and Baker’s black entrepreneurs were already at work there, setting up and running small businesses, from greengrocers to furniture sales.

Under the matriarchal authority of a hard-edged middle-aged Jamaican woman called Dolly Kiffin, the estate had turned around enough that year to warrant a visit from Princess Diana. But Kiffin relied on a group of tough, committed lieutenants to enforce community authority on the estate.

When they went to Jamaica on an exchange visit, the local order weakened, outside drug dealers made a bid for the estate. This triggered a confrontation with the local CID, who led the fight against organised drug crime in Tottenham, but who independently shared Letwin’s hostile view of the black community.

As with Letwin’s racist rejection of Young and Baker’s vision of community investment, the CID was contemptuous of the efforts of local uniformed police to work with Kiffin’s community, sabotaging the strategy behind the scenes.

Fuelled by the death locally of Cynthia Jarrett, the second black woman to die in a bungled police raid that year, a momentary window of opportunity opened for malicious intent on Broadwater Farm, and a local police officer, Keith Blakelock, was murdered in the country’s worst rioting in decades.

Young and Baker thought the answer was to revive the pre-riot strategy that had done so much to make the Farm liveable before. Letwin thought otherwise. The ideological war that followed — essentially over renovation funds — was echoed within the local Labour party, whose own Leninist ideologues had hoped to exploit the local reputation of the late Bernie Grant, a champion of community relations on the estate, then leader of the Labour-controlled local authority.

Out of that era came the polluted vision of ideologically-driven multi-culturalism. Kiffin and Grant demanded equality of respect, justice and opportunity as their fair due as citizens.

Instead, they and we got from Labour, multiculturalism as a means to corral and manage minority numbers to white leftists’ political advantage. From the Tory equivalent, co-option of minorities’ community values as their own, before dividing them into ‘good’ and ‘bad ethnics’ depending on their willingness to absorb Conservative government policies like sponges.

Yet even in the era of Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron, ideology of Letwin’s literal, manipulative kind seems more than just weirdly anachronistic, it looks simply unsustainable. It melts in the cold light of public exposure.

Over at Little Atoms, Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey have documented the efforts of Leninist activists to ‘organise’ the Labour Party, exposed after decades as both valueless and ineffectual. In turn, Letwin’s own boneheaded manipulations have been similarly dragged into the daylight by the 30-year-rule. Let the dead ideologies of left and right steam away, ignored.

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