At the end of every year, certain government documents are released to the public: documents which have previously been kept in the National Archives, to be made available after 30 years have passed. Two documents relased at the end of 2015, dating from Margaret Thatcher’s time in Downing Street, have caused a particular stir.
The first is a memo, sent by Oliver Letwin (currently a member of the Cabinet, then a Downing Street aide) to Thatcher regarding riots in Britain. In this memo, Letwin argued that white people who lived in areas of deprivation had not rioted, and that plans by the Conservative Lord Young to encourage black entrepreneurs would cause them to set up in the “disco and drug trade”. The second document revealed Thatcher’s initial opposition to an Aids awareness campaign, citing fears that its references to sex, and in particular anal sex, would cause offense, and that “adverts where every young person will read and hear of practices they never knew about will do harm”. Thatcher later agreed on the campaign referring to anal sex, but less than in the original plans.
It is important to consider both of these revelations; examining how a government has acted in the past, especially when members of that government are still involved in politics, is one way of judging how they might act today.
Letwin has apologised for comments he says were “badly-worded and wrong”. Whilst we should condemn what he said at the time, this should not make him an instant pariah. Before this incident, he was regarded as an intelligent and capable cabinet member. That much remains true. Letwin is not a cartoon villain; his views then were wrong, and he has not said otherwise. Our judgement of him should be based on how he acts now. The views expressed by Thatcher should be regarded in a similar manner. It was ridiculous to place fear of public offense, prudishness and homophobia above public health, particularly when the LGBT+ community were the most vulnerable to Aids, but Thatcher has since passed away, and it would be pointless to direct any anger at her over this now.
Really, neither of the revelations in these documents should come as a surprise. Racist and homophobic views were prevalent amongst the Tories during the 1980s. Indeed, one cause of the riots Letwin was responding to was their failure to deal with the problems faced by the black community. Furthermore, this was the same government that brought in Section 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools. Why should either of these revelations shock us?
There is one positive aspect that can be drawn from this incident: it has clarified how the prejudice expressed in both Thatcher and Letwin’s statements is no longer viewed as acceptable. Over the time that has elapsed, the face of Westminster politics has been changing, reflecting a wider variety of nationalities and sexualities; Sadiq Khan, for example, who is a muslim of Pakistani descent, is now running for Mayor of London. Would that have been possible 30 years ago? Politics is moving forwards. Progress, slow as it is, is winning.