17 January 2018

The radical compassion of Keith Joseph

By Oliver Letwin

In an extract from his recently published memoirs, “Hearts and Minds”, Sir Oliver Letwin remembers Sir Keith Joseph, who was born 100 years ago today, as a visionary who sought practical methods to help the poorest and most disadvantaged.

I have so many fond memories: Keith, with the courage of a lion, facing down Mrs Thatcher when he wanted to merge O-levels and CSEs into the modern GCSE, and she most emphatically did not; Keith, with the fastidiousness of a seamstress, delicately wiping away the spit that had descended upon his suit from Arthur Scargill’s thugs at a demonstration outside a party conference; Keith, with the modesty of a country vicar, introducing himself in the third person as “the holder of my office” (now, who could that possibly be?). So it rolls on: memory after memory of a man whose seriousness of purpose never wavered, and who understood politics not as a game of thrones but as a search for truth.

Of course, even Keith, certainly the least worldly politician I have known, recognised that if you don’t win the game sufficiently to be the government you can’t make happen what you think ought to happen. And I’m sure – though I never once heard him speak about it in private or in public – that he harboured (or at least had harboured) personal ambitions. But one could see, working with him day by day, that he was genuinely actuated not by the desire to grab a headline or trump an opponent or overtake a rival, but by a desire to improve the lot of his fellow citizens. Perhaps to some readers who didn’t know him, and who have acquired from the media a warped impression of politicians, this will seem a pious and implausible assertion. It is however, an unvarnished account of what I found as I sat there in that dreadful building with this remarkable, anxious, courteous, curious, subtle, eccentric, honourable man.

Keith’s seriousness of purpose did sometimes lead him astray. I recall an occasion on which I had to drive him to speak at Stowe School. The details of the journey are mercifully blurred in my memory; but the essential facts are that he was map-reading, we got hopelessly lost and we were very late – so late that we missed the dinner and kept the audience waiting for an hour or so in the auditorium before we arrived. Against this unpropitious background, Keith launched into a lecture about the origins of prosperity. His aim was to explain what economists call the “lump of labour fallacy”, and his method was to point out the fact that as human populations have grown over the ages work has been found for all: one person’s job does not deprive another person of their job – because, as he put it, “all producers are consumers and all consumers are producers”. To say that the boys of Stowe School were unenthusiastic about this late-night lecture is, I fear, an understatement. But it was part of Keith’s ineffable charm that he recognised absolutely that he had failed when he had failed. My efforts in the car on the Way back to comfort him with the thought that I, at least, had found the lecture interesting were met with a firm refusal: “Don’t even try,” he said, as he described to me his own experiences of working for a politician who had been an “outstanding speaker… outstandingly bad”.

And yet, as one looks back on it forty years on, I think one can confidently say that Keith, as a politician who occupied the connecting ground between theory and practice, did more to change the direction of British politics than most of those who were far more distinguished theoreticians and most of those who were far more accomplished practitioners. Certainly, he could not have achieved very much if Mrs Thatcher had not provided both the game-winning capacities and the administrative drive needed to implement the fundamental changes in the relationship between the state and society for which he argued. But, without his articulation of the argument, I am by no means sure that she would ever have succeeded.

What is most interesting, and what has been most misunderstood, about Keith as a pundit is the nature of the argument that he was making in the late 1970s and 1980s. It is popularly supposed that he was simply interested in rolling back the frontiers of the state. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Keith’s arguments for the “common ground” and the “social market” were aimed at establishing the contention that free markets, properly harnessed, are the most powerful engine yet invented by humanity for elevating the condition of the poor and the disadvantaged. In a way that presaged the later work of Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron, he sought to persuade a sceptical intelligentsia that state monopoly was a recipe not only for economic inefficiency but also for the protection of vested interest at the expense of the most disadvantaged. His ambition was to find the means of offering those without wealth the same opportunities to make choices and improve their lot as were taken for granted by those coming from more favoured backgrounds – hence his focus on what he termed the “cycle of deprivation” and the need to overcome that cycle, not least by enabling parents with low incomes to liberate their children from poor schools and with taxpayers’ money get them into better ones.

So, even though Keith didn’t have the temperament to drive through the voucher scheme, he was making the arguments that needed to be made, back then in the 1980s – and by doing so, he was helping to shape the future course of British politics, not only in the Conservative Party itself but also in what emerged out of the Labour Party in the 1990s. It wouldn’t be wholly unfair to say that Tony Blair, as much as David Cameron and now Theresa May, was an inheritor of Keith’s fundamental proposition that the social market, rather than 1940s Clause IV state-monopoly socialism, is the best route to elevating the condition of the least well-off and of the most downtrodden.

When I look back at the lessons I learned from that period working for Keith, I am surprised to find that they included most of the most fundamental tenets of what later became my own political life. I learned that the disagreements between the participants in democratic politics are usually about means and not ends; that it is therefore both possible and appropriate to conduct political debate in a liberal democracy on the basis of rational argument rather than tribal loyalties; and that political arguments have real staying power when they connect the goals we have mainly in common with meaures that genuinely tend towards the achievement of those goals, however controversial the measures may at the time appear. And, beyond all of those invaluable lessons about the conduct of political life (which have come, over the succeeding thirty-five years, to seem to me increasingly true and important), I think – in retrospect – that the seeds may also have been sown in my mind of the significance of the “social market” and of social justice, which was fundamental to Keith’s thought. I emphatically do not mean that I understood this at the time; indeed, Keith’s deep perception of the cycle of deprivation, of the extent to which some of our fellow citizens are imprisoned in circumstances that destroy or substantially impair their own life chances and those of their children, was largely and shamefully absent from my own thinking at that time. Nevertheless, in much later years, as the focus on these issues gradually came to form the core of my own view of that the Conservative Party needed to espouse and implement, I came progressively to understand the profundity of Keith’s point and to see that the free market economy is not sufficient, sustainable or defensible unless it also become a social market economy in which the prosperity engendered by free enterprise is harnessed in the service of promoting the life chances of the least advantaged.

Sir Oliver Letwin is MP for West Dorset