Hearts and Minds: The Battle of the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present By Oliver Letwin
350 pp Biteback Publishing (2 Oct 2017) £20
Reviewed by John Gaye of the Sherborne Literary Society
I should start this review with a declaration of interest: although I do not live in Sir Oliver Letwin’s West Dorset Constituency, I have for many years admired him as a diligent and caring constituent MP and as a thoughtful and sensible influence on the Conservative Party. So his recently published book, Hearts and Minds, was always going to be of interest. It did not disappoint.
The book is both an autobiography and an account of Tory thinking since the days of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership. Although it is often said that there is little ideology within Conservative Party thinking, and that is why they can be more pragmatic in their policies while in government, this particular book shines a light on the basic principles, indeed ideology, underlying their decisions while in power.
But just as importantly it provides, where appropriate, a mea culpa for where things have not gone well. Letwin delves into why planned outcomes were not achieved despite the best efforts of the politicians’ planning. It is refreshingly honest in its forensic investigations over the politics of the last 50 odd years. It also provides a really good insight into the personalities of many of those who were instrumental in guiding the activities of the Coalition and I particularly enjoyed his honest appraisal of the very decent motivations behind his colleagues in the Lib Dems with whom he had to negotiate each and every policy decision.
Oliver Letwin was only elected as an MP 20 years ago but he has been surrounded by politics all his life. His parents were academics, originally in Chicago, and often hosted many of the leading advocates of free market thinking around their dining table, at which the young Oliver heard and learnt much. Given that this was in the 50’s and 60’s it was inevitable that the one unifying element was their dislike of both fascism and communism. This coalesced into the basic ideology of support for the various ‘freedoms’ and the development of the theory of ‘free market liberalism’. And this fortunately was also the basic ideology of the Thatcher regime, in which he cut his teeth as a political advisor.
Looking to the future of the Conservative Party, he maintains that this is still the way forward, albeit rebranded as ‘social market liberalism’, which provides the prosperity, social justice and security for all elements of society. He is highly critical of the most recent general election where he felt the party lost its way by not focusing on the many benefits of its core beliefs while worrying about what Corbynistics was offering the electorate.
This book is a very honest appraisal of both his political life and that of the Conservative Party over the last 50 odd years. Most importantly, not being a devotee of political tomes, I found it very easy and fascinating reading.