Letwin’s Les­son

Poverty, moral­ity and the East End

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - HISTORY DAVID ROB­SON

FOR OLIVER Letwin, the na­tional archive’s release of three-decades-old gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments is like Yom Kip­pur. It hap­pens ev­ery year and there al­ways seems some­thing to say sorry for. Ac­tu­ally, as an athe­ist of Jewish ori­gin, Letwin pre­sum­ably doesn’t do Yom Kip­pur, and nor does he quite say sorry. He says “I apol­o­gise un­re­servedly for any of­fence th­ese com­ments may have caused and wish to make clear that none was in­tended.”

What are we talk­ing about here? We are talk­ing about ad­vice he gave to the Prime Min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher in the af­ter­math of ri­ots in Lon­don’s Brix­ton and Tot­ten­ham, Liver­pool’s Tox­teth and Birm­ing­ham’s Handsworth in 1985. He ar­gued that white com­mu­ni­ties would not have ri­oted as those black com­mu­ni­ties did, and that min­is­ters’ strate­gies to im­prove con­di­tions and sup­port en­ter­prise were worse than use­less: “So long as bad moral at­ti­tudes re­main, all ef­forts to im­prove the in­ner cities will founder… [em­ploy­ment sec­re­tary] Lord Young’s en­trepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade; [en­vi­ron­ment sec­re­tary] Ken­neth Baker’s re­fur­bished coun­cil blocks will de­cay through van­dal­ism com­bined with ne­glect and peo­ple will graduate from tem­po­rary train­ing or em­ploy­ment pro­grammes into un­em­ploy­ment or crime.”

How can he write: “no of­fence was in­tended”? Very hard to say, ex­cept of course that it was a se­cret doc­u­ment in­tended to be read by very few, and al­most cer­tainly by no black peo­ple. So where’s the of­fence? In his sort-of-apol­ogy Letwin also said that some parts of the memo were “both badly worded and wrong.” Why badly worded? When politi­cians say they have ex­pressed them­selves badly they al­most al­ways mean they have ex­pressed them­selves too well.

“Lower-class, un­em­ployed white peo­ple lived for years in ap­palling slums with­out a break­down of pub­lic or­der on any­thing like the present scale,” said Letwin’s re­port. How poignant then that Letwin should have been a lead­ing pro­po­nent of the pol­icy that led white peo­ple, em­ployed and un­em­ployed, of all classes to con­trive the very break­down of pub­lic or­der that led to the fall of the prime min­is­ter. Last year the na­tional ar­chives re­leased 1985 pri­vate pa­pers in which he ad­vised Thatcher to test out the Poll Tax in Scot­land be­fore in­tro­duc­ing it in Eng­land. Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer Nigel Law­son called the poll tax “com­pletely un­work­able and po­lit­i­cally cat­a­strophic”. Letwin, Thatcher’s close ad­viser, was one of its cham­pi­ons. The poll tax ri­ots of 1990 were mas­sive and vi­o­lent, an ex­pres­sion of the wide­spread na­tional sen­ti­ment: “up with this we will not put”

Letwin was very young when he wrote th­ese re­ports, aca­dem­i­cally bril­liant, 29 or 30 years old, the son of Jewish-Amer­i­can rightwing in­tel­lec­tu­als. His fa­ther, a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, was of the Chicago school of con­ser­va­tives, among them Mil­ton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, free mar­ke­teers who were very in­flu­en­tial with Thatcher. Her men­tor Keith Joseph, who em­ployed the young Oliver as an ad­viser, was an­other of their cir­cle. That was Letwin’s po­lit­i­cal back­ground. One might won­der whether grow­ing up in a Nash Ter­race in Re­gent’s Park, ed­u­ca­tion in the rar­efied at­mos­phere of Eton, Cam­bridge and Prince­ton, and a PhD in Phi­los­o­phy, was the ideal equip­ment for en­tirely com­pre­hend­ing the harsh re­al­i­ties of life on the Broad­wa­ter Farm es­tate in Tot­ten­ham. But that might seem like stereo­typ­ing.

On Mon­day evening, in a tele­vi­sion pro­gramme cel­e­brat­ing 40 years of the Prince’s Trust we saw Charles, who be­lieved in so­cial in­ter­ven­tion and sup­port when oth­ers didn’t, talk­ing with Gina Mof­fatt, a black woman the Trust sup­ported when she came out of prison af­ter a six-and-a-half year sen­tence for bring­ing a hefty amount of drugs into the coun­try. “I must have been the worst per­son in Tot­ten­ham,” she said. Now she’s the happy and very en­gag­ing owner of sev­eral busi­nesses with a very healthy turnover.

Letwin, who th­ese days is heav­ily re­lied upon for wis­dom by David Cameron, long ago mel­lowed into a rather com­pas­sion­ate Con­ser­va­tive, a cre­ator of The Big So­ci­ety. In 30 years’ time, when 2015 se­cret pa­pers are re­leased, he may have to ex­plain why he over­ruled civil ser­vants to give more mil­lions to the Kids’ Com­pany char­ity as it col­lapsed.

Most of us could look back at things we said, wrote or did decades

They ad­mired those who lived in the ghetto but also viewed them with an­tipa­thy

ago and feel they were wrong and that we cer­tainly wouldn’t do them now. For some of those things, we cas­ti­gate our­selves; for oth­ers, for­give our­selves; and maybe we even give some thought to why we thought like that and what we think we’ve learnt since.

Letwin’s memo was hardly in the up­per reg­is­ters of tox­i­c­ity. It pro­voked some head­lines and po­lit­i­cal noise for a couple of days. But ask your­self this: if some­thing of sim­i­lar hos­til­ity and dis­mis­sive­ness was writ­ten about Jews how would you feel? That hardly re­quires an imag­i­na­tive leap. No peo­ple on earth have had more crit­i­cal, bel­liger­ent, an­tag­o­nis­tic, poi­sonous things writ­ten about them than the Jews and no peo­ple on earth have been closer read­ers and an­a­lysts of what our ad­ver­saries said and meant.

For in­stance, Beatrice Pot­ter (later Beatrice Webb), one of the founders of the Fabian So­ci­ety, wrote about the Jews of the East End ghetto at the end of the 19th cen­tury with a mix­ture of ad­mi­ra­tion and an­tipa­thy. She ad­mired what she saw as dis­ci­pline and com­mit­ment to ed­u­ca­tion and to fam­ily life — strong moral qual­i­ties. On the other hand, she did not ad­mire what she saw as self­ish­ness and self-ab­sorp­tion and a re­sis­tance to union­i­sa­tion and col­lec­tive ac­tion. ‘‘The strong­est im­pelling mo­tive of the Jewish race,” ac­cord­ing to Pot­ter, was “love of profit as dis­tinct from any other form of money earn­ing.”

J. A. Hob­son, writ­ing soon af­ter­wards about the prob­lem of sweat­shops also found things to ad­mire and to dis­like. The Jew was ‘‘quiet, sober, thrifty, quick to learn and tol­er­a­bly hon­est, […] ad­mirable in do­mes­tic moral­ity and an or­derly cit­i­zen’’ but, on the other, he was ‘‘al­most de­void of so­cial moral­ity… The su­pe­rior cal­cu­lat­ing in­tel­lect which is his na­tional her­itage, is used un­spar­ingly to en­able him to take ad­van­tage of ev­ery weak­ness, folly and vice of the so­ci­ety in which he lives.”

Doubt­less, there is some insight here but there is also an­tag­o­nis­tic gen­er­al­i­sa­tion equal and op­po­site to that ap­plied to the in­ner-city blacks of the 1980s, who were char­ac­terised as to­tally de­fi­cient in pre­cisely those re­spects in which the Jews were seen as over-en­dowed.

In 1906, af­ter a ma­jor in­flux of Jews from Rus­sia, the so­cial­ist news­pa­per The Clar­ion spoke of “a poi­son in­jected in the na­tional veins, they were un­savoury chil­dren of the ghetto, their num­bers were ap­palling and their at­ti­tudes un­clean.”

This type of abuse has been more or less re­peated about ev­ery sig­nif­i­cant group of im­mi­grants who have ar­rived here be­fore or since.

Re­search pa­pers on polic­ing the Jewish East End sug­gest that though there was crime there wasn’t “a crim­i­nal class”. There was quite a lot of ju­ve­nile crime but grow­ing up took care of it. One po­lice­man put it this way: “You sel­dom get an old Jew as a thief. With an English­man, once a thief, al­ways a thief.”

In his book, East End Gang­land, James Mor­ton writes that Jewish gang crime did not loom large though a posse of about 40 Rus­sians call­ing them­selves the Bes­sara­bian Tigers or Bes­sara­bian Fight­ers wielded power in Whitechapel at the turn of the cen­tury. They ran pro­tec­tion rack­ets against Jewish shop and café own- ers, en­forced with con­sid­er­able violence, and the Rus­sian lo­cals’ in­grained fear of the po­lice meant it was vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to get ev­i­dence for pros­e­cu­tion. An­other source of in­come was black­mail­ing the fa­thers of brides just be­fore up­com­ing wed­dings, threat­en­ing to put about scan­dalous sto­ries about their daugh­ters.

There were gang fights against an­other band of Rus­sians, the Odessians but far more rooted were the com­mu­nity’s po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious di­vi­sions. On Yom Kip­pur 1904, an­ar­chists and other anti-frum­mers, hav­ing re­cently at­tacked Jews leav­ing shul, drove a food van down the street. The shul­go­ers stoned it and the an­ar­chists threw stones at the shul. In the sub­se­quent court case the stipen­di­ary mag­is­trate said: “It is dis­grace­ful that a class of per­sons who for cen­turies have been dis­tin­guished as the vic­tims of the fiercest per­se­cu­tions should, when in the one free coun­try of the world, turn upon those who dis­agreed with them upon re­li­gious points and stone and per­se­cute them.”

Ge­orge Or­well, in an ar­ti­cle about English an­ti­semitism, points out that even in jokes about Scot­tish and Jewish mean­ness the Jew come off worse: “A Scots­man and a Jew go into a free meet­ing. Then they dis­cover there’s a col­lec­tion. The Jew faints, the Scots­man car­ries him out.” The Scots­man at least gets some credit for phys­i­cal strength and tak­ing con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion.

Oh, and have you heard the one about the Jewish ad­viser who per­suades the Prime Min­is­ter to test out the Poll Tax on Scot­land?


Poverty pic­tured. Fac­ing page: Jews in the East End in the 1920s Above: the volatile Brix­ton of Thatcher’s era

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