Sir Oliver Letwin, performing one of his last engagements as MP for West Dorset (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty)

The intellectual who underrated the voters

Philosopher turned pragmatist, my great friend Oliver Letwin has been an enigma for much of his political career


For more than 40 years, Oliver Letwin has been one of my dearest friends. When we first met in the late 1970s, we disagreed about politics. I was on the left, he on the right. Our arguments went far beyond party allegiance. I remember defending legal positivism against natural law as he drove me back to London from Cambridge. I thought I was holding my own until we arrived at his parents’ elegant home in Regents Park.

Sitting me down at the kitchen table, his mother Shirley — a political philosopher of alarming intelligence — gave me a thorough grilling, followed by a tutorial that encapsulated Friedrich Hayek’s refutation of Hans Kelsen, along with arguments by other thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Leo Strauss and Michael Oakeshott.

It dawned on me that Oliver had been right and I knew nothing about the subject. I felt better when I realised that he had imbibed Hayek and Oakeshott from the great men themselves, former colleagues and guests in Shirley’s salon.

Oliver, then, is not merely an intellectual but a thoroughbred one: raised in the purple of the Chicago-Cambridge-LSE nexus that shaped and dominated Anglo-American political thought in the middle of the last century. Yet the Letwins were dons to their fingertips: their circle did include politicians such as Sir Keith Joseph and Enoch Powell, and journalists such as Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, but it was exclusively academic in its ambience. The only things that counted were those of scholarship and high culture. The practice, as opposed to the theory, of politics came a long way down the hierarchy of values.

Oliver was both a conservative and a Conservative. More significantly, he was also at home in the metropolitan – even cosmopolitan – world of ideas

Only with the advent of Margaret Thatcher did Westminster politics suddenly become a matter of consuming interest. Even the higher journalism, represented by journals such as Encounter in London or Commentary in New York, only just deserved notice. Only when Charles Moore, a much-fêted member of this milieu, took over as editor of the Spectator was it deemed serious enough to be worth reading. Circulation was irrelevant: a learned article in the Cambridge Review, which might with luck be read by a few hundred people, was far more deserving of discussion than a piece in a national newspaper that would then reach millions.

With hindsight, then, it is remarkable that Oliver went on to have a distinguished career, not as a professor but as a politician. At the same time as his doctorate in philosophy at Cambridge, he began working for Joseph and later for Mrs Thatcher at the No 10 Policy Unit. He was also recruited by the old City banking firm of N.M. Rothschild. Ultimately this triple-track career in philosophy, politics and economics resulted in three books: Ethics, Emotion and the Unity of the Self (1987), The Purpose of Politics (1999) and Privatising the World (1988).

Although he did spend time as a visiting Fellow at Princeton and at Darwin College, Cambridge, it has only been the political and economic aspects of his career, however, that have borne fruit. At a certain point in his mid-twenties, Oliver decided that he would never produce a major contribution to academic philosophy. Thereafter he threw all his considerable energies into the task of applying theory to practice. As he could not revolutionise British philosophy, he would revolutionise Britain instead. As Marx had put it in his Theses on Feuerbach: “The point is not to understand the world, but to change it.”

As a moral philosopher, Oliver was an Aristotelian in his broad outlook, tempered by the sceptical empiricism of David Hume and interpreted through the postwar linguistic prism. He was certainly no kind of Platonist, except in one respect: he might not have seen himself as one of the guardians of the politeia, or republic, but he did — and does — believe in the role of intellectuals in politics.

Though his parents were extremely suspicious of German thought in general and Max Weber in particular, Oliver has actually always shared the great sociologist’s view of politics as a vocation, whose ethos must be guided by a sense of responsibility rather than abstract ideals regardless of consequences. For Oliver, politics is “civilisation in the service of itself” and hence ultimately the defence of that civilisation. In The Purpose of Politics, Oliver contrasts “the politics of the absolute”, which threatens to destroy that very civilisation by attempting to subordinate it to some higher goal, with “transcendent politics”. By this he means, not a Kantian
vision of world government and perpetual peace, but limited intervention that is guided by the imperative to restore order when a nation has descended into chaos.

Shirley Letwin

Politics is, moreover, “a constructive art” rather than a “visionary science”. The desirability of virtue is in tension with the indispensability of freedom; that of beauty likewise. The pursuit of virtue and beauty must therefore be relegated to the private sphere, with certain important exceptions, above all in cases where the state intervenes to preserve the moral or aesthetic inheritance of the past.

This distinctive view of politics as a duty to defend civilisation — not even qualified by “Western” — rather than, say, the
nation state, defines Oliver as a descendant of that distinctively modern figure, the uomo universale of the Renaissance. He had learned from Oakeshott to be wary of any form of “rationalism in politics” and to be alert to “the voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind”

He had also learnt from his parents. His father was an LSE economist who taught him the meaning of private enterprise and public prudence — though Bill Letwin was hopelessly improvident in his private finances. His mother initiated him into that uniquely English doctrine on which she wrote the most authoritative book: The Anatomy of Thatcherism. He was, then, both a conservative and a Conservative; more significant than his position on the centre-right, however, was the fact that he was at home in the metropolitan, even cosmopolitan world of ideas. In David Goodhart’s terminology, he was an Anywhere, not a Somewhere.

Oliver’s family had emigrated from Ukraine, so it was bound to sting when old Tories like Macmillan poked fun at Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet: “More old Estonians than Old Etonians.”

There is of course a long and contentious history of the role played by intellectuals in the political realm. It is a history freighted with antisemitism; and the Letwins were Jewish. More often than not, those whom Nazis and Stalinists alike denounced as “rootless cosmopolitans” were Jews. A less loaded phrase comes from another refugee at the LSE, Karl Mannheim: “free-floating intelligentsia” (die freischwebende Geistigkeit).

Oliver is so thoroughly assimilated that he has never to my knowledge made any public reference to his Jewish heritage and seems allergic to any notional attribution of Zionist sympathies. Yet the Chicago milieu from which the Letwins emerged had included some of America’s most remarkable Jewish intellectuals, from Milton Friedman to Saul Bellow, and their aura still permeated Shirley’s salon.

I recall a magical evening when the great literary critic and essayist Erich Heller was there. A German-speaking Czech-Jewish émigré, whose journey in life had gone in the opposite direction to Shirley Letwin’s — namely from Cambridge to Chicago — Heller not only hailed from the lost world of Franz Kafka but wrote luminously about the ruined Europe still haunted by the German Geist.

His title of his most celebrated book, The Disinherited Mind, sums up the experience of all those refugees who escaped or survived Europe’s civilisational collapse. Oliver grew up with a heightened sense of the fragility of civilisation and the importance of passing on the cultural inheritance that his parents had decided should be his: that of England.

Those European Jews who had escaped death still faced being despised and disinherited. Oliver’s parents’ families had emigrated to the United States from Ukraine, so it was bound to sting when old Tories like Macmillan poked fun at Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet: “More old Estonians than Old Etonians.” No wonder Bill and Shirley made sacrifices to send their only son to Eton and Cambridge. But Shirley was still proud of her heritage. That was why she made Madame Max the heroine of The Gentleman in Trollope, her tribute to her adoptive land. The imperative to act like an English gentleman, even if one were female and Jewish, guided her conduct and has guided her son’s ever since.

His ability to conjure up pizzas at the right moment was a stroke of genius

In his political career, therefore, Oliver has always sought to keep the show on the road, do the decent, civilised thing and never allow the end to justify the means. His ethical standards have always been of the highest. Perhaps the only exception was a No 10 Policy Unit memo co-authored by him after the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985. It resurfaced in 2015 under the 30-year rule, voicing its opposition to training programmes that would merely “subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops” or help black “entrepreneurs [to] set up in the disco and drugs trade”. Oliver apologised immediately. The irony of this incident is that he, more than most Tories of his generation, had tried hard to preserve the essentials of Thatcherism while jettisoning its uglier excrescences.

During the Blair era, Oliver was a leading “moderniser”, though as shadow chief secretary at the treasury and later shadow chancellor he remained a fiscal conservative. During the 2001 election he speculated aloud about much deeper cuts in public spending than was countenanced by the Conservative manifesto, and was banished to his constituency in West Dorset for the rest of the campaign.

He was perhaps overimpressed by Gordon Brown, a fellow intellectual who left a disastrous legacy, but he was ahead of the curve in deciding that if the Tories could not beat the Blairites, they should join them on the centre ground.

When David Cameron and George Osborne took over the party in 2005 after its third defeat in a row, Oliver made himself even more indispensable. He was not merely the cleverest person in the stupidest party but the Tories’ éminence grise. Danny (now Lord) Finkelstein dubbed him “Gandalf”. When the 2010 election ended in a hung parliament, it was Oliver who banged heads together and worked out a coalition agreement with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.

Fixer: Oliver at work on the coalition formation, May 2010  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, he was put in charge of the cabinet office, with a roving brief across the government. The policy wonk had morphed into the master of the mandarins. A classic example of his modus operandi was the Leveson inquiry into the press, which resulted in stalemate between the parties. It was Oliver who, in a fraught session lasting until 2.30am, persuaded Labour and the Lib Dems to accept a compromise, based on a Royal Charter rather than statutory regulation. He was criticised for allowing a member of the Hacked Off lobby group to be present, but his ability to conjure up pizzas at the right moment was a stroke of genius. This backroom deal drained the poison from a hitherto toxic issue.

It was not so easy with Brexit. This is not the place to rehearse his well-known role in the war of attrition between government and parliament. His attempts to broker “indicative votes” to discover a consensus were ultimately fruitless. He then threw himself into a more successful attempt with Yvette Cooper to prevent a no-deal Brexit, which earned him few friends on the Leave side. Finally, the Letwin amendment, passed by 322 to 306 votes, prevented Boris Johnson from passing his newly- negotiated Brexit deal into law. Historians will perhaps be kinder to Oliver than the senior member of the European Research Group who told me: “Letwin is psychotic.”

What was missing from Oliver’s otherwise uniquely brilliant makeup, perhaps, was a modicum of common sense. He had once allowed strangers into his house on the pretext that they needed to use the lavatory. They turned out to be thieves. He was also observed throwing private documents into a park bin. Both incidents provoked ridicule in the media and reinforced Oliver’s reputation as an absent-minded intellectual.

Without Oliver’s amendment in October 2019, which forced the prime minister’s hand, the present general election might not have been necessary. By making common cause with the “rebel alliance” and a rogue Speaker, Oliver not only sabotaged the Brexit that had been mandated both by the 2016 referendum and the 2017 election, but risked handing office to a Labour Party dedicated to the destruction of everything he means by “civilisation”.

Oliver might justify his conduct over Brexit as an example of “politics as a constructive art”, intended to reach a gentleman’s agreement. Jeremy Corbyn, though, is no gentleman.

Oliver has paid a price for his quixotic rearguard action against his own party. He lost the whip and his reputation for loyalty. It was not so much the European cause that motivated him, as a mission to save both party and country from their own folly. Oliver’s intellectualism led him to forget that in politics we must always beware of those who claim superior knowledge. He himself had once written: “We lack, in short, the confidence of Plato in the availability of Guardians of sufficient wisdom.”

At the climax of his career, Oliver decided that he had a duty to overrule the demos. It is the inevitable fate of intellectuals in politics to end by overestimating their own wisdom and underrating the common sense of the people.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover