Poverty, morality and the East End
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