Book review: Hearts and Minds

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 15 November 2017 in Culture

Oliver Letwin's book is a combination of personal memoir and an attempt to explain his part in the evolution of Conservative thinking.

Oliver Letwin is a Conservative Party national treasure. Intelligent, charming, witty, graceful and really non-combative, he is described as “gaffe- prone” in the Times Guide to the House of Commons 2017.

The son of Bill and Shirley Letwin, two articulate academics both of whom came from Ukrainian Jewish families who had emigrated to the US in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Oliver was brought up in an atmosphere of books and discussions with an array of intellectuals.

He had an impressive school and university background and alternated between working in the City and for the Conservative Party. He worked in Thatcher’s Policy Unit and was elected as an MP in 1997 and until 2015 for a very marginal seat. Oliver served as a front bench and Shadow Cabinet minister until 2010 and then as a minister in the Coalition government and then the Cameron government. Following the resignation of Cameron in 2016 he was sacked by Theresa May.

Your reviewer has known the author for twenty years as a Parliamentary colleague and observed his formidable reputation when both were special advisers in the Thatcher government. Oliver’s style has always been that of careful argument, avoiding the personal and seeking after a solution to a problem.

Hearts and Minds is a combination of personal memoir and an attempt to explain his part in the evolution of Conservative thinking and its application in opposition and government. It is a delightfully honest book, and Oliver honestly admits to what the Times referred to as his “gaffes”. But these so-called gaffes and at times mistakes are easily outweighed by his achievements as a practical politician.

Oliver barely has a critical word to say of anybody, and resurrects the reputation of Keith Joseph, defends the social conscience of Iain Duncan-Smith and the selfless leadership of Michael Howard.

This is a well written memoir/treatise and the reader can hear the voice of Oliver on every page. For several months he sat – Enoch Powell like – at the same desk in the Commons library working on his computer to develop his book.

In his chapter on life in the Cabinet Office, Oliver outlines why he was glad to have spent so much of his time in politics. Part of the answer was the joy of having had a role in the governing of the country. For Oliver, this meant to be one of those who help to translate certain ideas into practice in an effort to improve the condition of society.

But what comes through the pages of Hearts and Minds is Oliver’s ability to carry out substantial research to get at the truth of how to implement or change policy, and impartiality to motivate able people – politicians, civil servants and business types to enthusiastically help him. Both in opposition and then in government Oliver’s principal aim had been to help a succession of leaders to move the Conservative Party towards a particular ideological position – social and economic liberalism, tempered by a commitment to social justice and environmental stewardship, both globally and nationally.

What emerges from this book is that Oliver is a highly intelligent and charming man with a tremendous work ethic, but is more than just a political Whitehall warrior. A Londoner, he was selected for a beautiful Dorset seat which he came to love and to gather insights into what became the basis of the Big Society.

What will cause some teeth sucking amongst certain Conservative die-hards is his close working relationship with the Lib Dem ministers in the Coalition – he admits that his two closest political friends were the Lib Dems Danny Alexander and David Laws. For Oliver, having the policy and the strategic direction is crucial but also the requirement for continuous close working
relations with those who have to implement policy.

Oliver became David Cameron’s “odd job” man who was frequently called into resolve problems and seek solutions. He admits that he was part of what critics called the Cameron “chumocracy” that is was more than a collection of Etonian tofts. For today’s ministers and MPs, Oliver himself suggested just reading his short final chapter entitled “Where Next?”




Hearts and Minds is published by Biteback. Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.

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