Oliver Letwin, Hearts and Minds. Biteback, 2017
Subtitled The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present, this in effect is Oliver Letwin’s political memoir from the time he started as a researcher for Keith Joseph to the Brexit Referendum. He had a ringside seat from the highs of Thatcher’s achievements, through the despair of the Blair years and the Cameroon coalition, some of which makes it into the book.
Letwin gained a reputation as one of the Conservative Party’s thinkers. He left academia to work for Joseph following an invitation issued at his parents’ dinner table – in itself a telling demonstration of the existence of political cliques. He started working on the ill-fated education voucher scheme and flitted between the various policy units of the government, trying to challenge the view of the intelligentsia that a powerful and centralising state was a necessary part of government.
Therein lies the fundamental problem of the Conservative intellectual. Socialism requires, and has, a vast intellectual construct of learned philosophical works to support it, and it relies heavily upon it to sustain the adherents’ belief that it can be made to work despite the evidence. Free market capitalism has a lesser body of intellectual work supporting it, but the huge benefit of being able to demonstrate that it does work across the globe. The way for a conservative to win the argument is to point to the realities of life, not to engage in philosophical debate. Letwin, with his academic background in an era when an Oxbridge degree in politics, economics or some such subject is the de rigueur academic qualification of the ambitious MP, seeks to make the argument for socio-liberal conservatism, whatever that might be. He praises Iain Duncan Smith’s lifelong work on trying to get the Welfare State to work, and indeed identifies the challenges of state-run education, but can’t see that the problem is the state itself, even when this is demonstrated to him at the time of the Somerset floods (exacerbated in part by the Met Office computers not talking to the Environment Agency computers – a problem that he solved). The elephant in the room throughout his career is that the state does not work, and no one dares admit the possibility.
There are two occasions when the book shines light on political courage. The first is the invasion of Iraq (which Letwin supported but pathetically writes that if he knew then what he knows now he would not). The other is when he writes of his terror, as Shadow Chancellor, at facing Gordon Brown and his jeering henchmen and being unable to land a telling point. One has to question Letwin’s wisdom in selecting a career in politics (although it was a dual career, with time spent as a non-exec for Rothschilds).
The tale ends where it begins, with the Brexit vote. Letwin agrees with Cameron’s description of Brexit campaigners as ‘swivel-eyed loons’, which will not endear him to much of his potential readership. While the story of the last hours of Cameron is intriguing, surely any genuine intellectual would consider the potential of what would have happened had Cameron’s government backed out, or explained why it was never even considered.
And it is this abject failure that makes the book worth reading. Letwin’s career, thoughts and actions explain precisely how we have ended up in a political wasteland so dire that Corbyn and socialism seem attractive to the young. The Conservative Party’s problems are not its ideas, nor even its presentation of them; it is the people whom it selects as MPs.
Buy it. Read it. Weep.