Letwin: We aren’t ‘Atilla the Hun’

On one level it is surprising that Oliver Letwin isn’t more of a household name. The Minister of State for Policy has been right at the heart of many of the most important decisions made by the Tory party in recent years, perhaps most notably as a prime mover among the reformers wishing to soften the toxic image of the “nasty party”. After the Conservatives’ defeat in 2005, Letwin sought to influence the selection of their new leader, giving enthusiastic public backing to the then relatively unknown David Cameron. Because of this and other nudges towards the centre ground, not to mention his joint oversight of the coalition agreement with the Lib-Dem Danny Alexander, the present Government is one which can be said to bear the marks of Letwin’s handiwork, both in terms of policy and presentation. So it is perhaps not immediately obvious why he doesn’t share a place in the public consciousness comparable with that of some of his cabinet colleagues.

The hint of an answer came in a revealing comment at the end of our conversation: “I have never been very good at popularity contests”. I had asked Letwin whether he was active in student politics at Cambridge: “I can safely say not at all. I played no part in the student politics of the day. To tell you the truth, my interest in politics is really an interest in practical political action and the ideas that lie behind that. And I didn’t find much of either of those going on in student politics!” Letwin does not come across as a man who enjoys the limelight or courts publicity for its own sake. His student experience sets him apart from, say, Boris Johnson (president of the Union) or Tony Blair (actor, musician), both of whom are (or were) very good at “popularity contests”. Letwin, by contrast, is more of a thinker than a communicator. To put it bluntly, he seems better at alienating the public than endearing himself to it. A notorious example of Letwin’s relative lack of PR acumen was the statement in 2003 that he would rather “go out on the streets and beg” than send his children to an inner-city comprehensive in London. More recently he has come under fire for allegedly suggesting that he was opposed to people from Sheffield going on cheap holidays. Indeed, Letwin has been seen by his party as somewhat of a PR liability: in the run-up to the 2001 general election he tried to stay off the press radar because of hostility met when he revealed his intention to make drastic spending cuts.

Letwin, then, is comfortable when working behind the scenes in the crisis-free world of policy development. Here there is little day-to-day press scrutiny, little need to play the popularity game. It is a role to which Letwin is amply suited: having taken fellowships at Princeton and Cambridge, and with several publications to his name including the philosophical treatise “Ethics, Emotion and the Unity of the Self” (Routledge, 1987) he is certainly one of the more cerebral members of the Commons. Letwin’s wise man of Westminster image combined with his genial manner earned him the nick-name “Gandalf”. He is the wizard behind a new Tory philosophy, one that maintains the Thatcherite agenda of shrinking the State but balances that with an emphasis on building happy, cohesive communities and promoting good citizenship. This touchy-feely outlook surfaced again and again in our conversation.

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Having raised the subject of student protests, I asked Letwin whether the vehemence of public opposition to certain Coalition policies made him fearful of a resurgence of divisive class politics, or of a growing North-South split: “I don’t think so. There are, and there are going to continue to be, lively debates about all sorts of things including student finance. But I think people recognise, whether they are supporters of the Coalition Government or not, that it is a government that is trying to unite society not divide it. We are making enormous amounts of effort to cooperate with the Trades Unions and not to battle with them, we are trying to do everything we have to do to get the deficit down in a way that makes it least painful for the public servants that are involved. Across a very wide program we are focusing very heavily on trying to help the disadvantaged … the whole tenor of this government is about trying to make sure that there is more, not less, equality and mobility. Therefore I think it is very difficult for our opponents to characterise us as Attilla the Hun.” This last point was absolutely true. They characterise the government as “Tory scum” instead. I was surprised by Letwin’s answer. Flat denial that there is a risk of growing political division in the country suggests, if nothing else, that he doesn’t watch Question Time (which can get pretty heated). It probably is the case that we can expect to see more and more “lively debates” as the cuts start to bite.

I met Oliver Letwin only a few days after Cameron’s “only one black person at Oxford” gaffe. I was originally supposed to speak to him a lot earlier, but a COBRA meeting (so much more dramatic than “Cabinet Office briefing room A”) about Libya got in the way. I asked the Minister of State for Policy what Cameron meant – was he simply scoring a fairly cheap political point or does the government actually intend to do something about top universities’ “disgraceful” behaviour: “what David was saying, and I think it’s certainly right to say, is that … it’s implausible that there’s only [41] people who are in any sense of the term ‘black’ who have talents equal to many hundreds of others. That suggests that talent is not being sought out, not being encouraged, and is in some way or other, probably unintentionally, being discouraged. We need to change that.” Letwin seemed noticeably uncomfortable on this topic. I asked him whether he thought it was in any way the fault of the institutions themselves that black people were under-represented: “I don’t think attributing fault here is the issue. The issue is who can do something about it… one of the big reasons why we are making huge efforts to open up our schooling system and create more competition and more choice through the introduction of excellent new schools, is precisely to nurture talent. That’s something that the government is trying to do. But the deal we’ve struck with the universities is, if you are an institution that is sufficiently prestigious and desirable to be able to charge high fees, then the tit for tat is you have to make a particular effort to make sure that people who are not well off do apply.”

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Letwin explained that the government’s wider strategy with Higher Education, as with so many other areas, is to introduce market forces (albeit in a limited way, given the cap on fees) driven by individual choice: “part of what we’re trying to do is to create a system in which those who are engaged in teaching feel the need to provide something that students want.” Students, i.e. customers? “Yes! In a sense, the whole of society is the customer of universities. One of the things they’re doing is to immensely enrich our culture, and another thing they’re doing is to immensely enrich our economy. In that sense there is a social dividend, and society is the customer. But they’re also there for the education of the student, and it’s important that they should feel the need to attract the student.” Time will tell whether this program of introducing individual choice, set in motion by Blair but with it’s philosophical roots in Thatcherism – now reinterpreted for 21st century Britain by Letwin et al. – will be successful. In one area at least, viz. the NHS, it seems to have completely imploded.