Richard Heller: Ignore life's letter writers at your peril

I WAS not surprised when The Yorkshire Post recently exposed two Cabinet Ministers, Chris Grayling and Michael Gove, for inordinate delay in replying to letters from local MPs.

Theresa May's Cabinet ministers are poor at responding to correspondence.
Theresa May's Cabinet ministers are poor at responding to correspondence.

Gove, the Environment Secretary, was asked weeks ago for an urgent decision on flood defences for Leeds. His department eventually stated that a reply was being drafted for his deputy, Thérèse Coffey: let us hope that flood waters kindly spare the city long enough for the draft to be approved.

Grayling, the Transport Secretary, took more than 120 days to respond to North East MPs last autumn.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Theresa May’s government is the worst I can remember for replying to correspondence. It is a melancholy achievement by a government which needs all the friends it can get – in and out of Parliament.

I have written to every Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan in
the 1950s (I was a precocious little
nerk) and I can still remember the thrill of getting a reply on his behalf. My best experience with correspondence came from Margaret Thatcher: until Mrs May, my worst came from Tony Blair.

Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Cabinet are equally bad at replying. I feared that I had been blacklisted after some rude remarks about Labour’s policy towards Putin’s Russia (there isn’t one). So I wrote some sycophantic letters to Corbyn under a pseudonym but they got no reply either. Fair play: he treats crawlers no better than critics.

The Post’s comment editor Tom Richmond suggested deadlines for ministers to reply to MPs: five days for acknowledgement, a fortnight for interim response, 28 days for full reply. As a civil servant in the 1970s, I often helped to answer MPs’ letters, and these deadlines would have been generous. Parliamentary letters then attracted great attention. They arrived in a special pink file marked with an early date for reply. We needed very good reasons to miss this.

The draft reply would be perfected by layers of more senior civil servants, and possibly amended further through the relevant minister’s private office or even the minister – Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham, Mrs Thatcher’s Lord Chancellor, often made elegant personal additions in beautiful Elizabethan handwriting.

All this effort was an unwritten tribute to British democracy and an expression that any government’s first duty was to account to Parliament.

We also took care over replies to letters from mere members of the public. I had to deal with thousands, on different topics, during the 1970s. 
I was instructed that I was replying
on behalf of a minister, and was expected to meet the same standards for speed and courtesy. I had to sign such letters myself. Lately, this requirement has disappeared. I
receive anonymous official replies from some branch of a department. This suggests (probably rightly) that the reply is entirely automatic and that no human being has paid any attention to my letter.

Eventually, Someone In Authority decided that the civil service was over-concerned with correspondence and the fine art of drafting replies. This was replaced by a new emphasis on management: private business people and copious expensive consultants were enlisted to teach this to civil servants. Predictably the civil service became much worse at answering correspondence and writing intelligibly while offering little or no evidence of better management.

Modern government’s treatment of letter writers is matched by businesses and outside organisations – even campaigning bodies seeking to engage the public. Two honourable exceptions from my experience are the Church of England and the Britvic soft drink company, but hundreds of others appear to treat any letter as a tiresome interruption of business routine, to be answered (if at all) by some drudge exiled to the Siberia of Customer Relations.

Organisations often plead that they have far less time for letters than in the past owing to the modern deluge of communication by social media and email. They are still foolish to ignore letters. Most social media communications are instantly composed and instantly forgotten. They require little thought or content, and are ideal for expressing raw sentiment uncluttered by fact or argument, which makes Twitter the ideal medium for Donald Trump. Thought is possible in emails, but only optional. These can be composed in momentary joy or rage and copied freely to multiple people.

By contrast, letters require some effort. A letter-writer is virtually compelled to achieve coherence and is given multiple opportunities to improve the letter by the processes of composing, reading and preparing it for final despatch. Almost by definition, letter-writers are those most motivated to communicate to their addressee and those most likely to have something worth saying. For governments, letter-writers may be a small minority of voters but they are those most engaged in politics and very likely to influence the opinions of others. They are also a free source of talent and ideas.

From early times, American politicians have paid deep attention to correspondence. Thomas Jefferson as President used to answer letters by hand, even from scroungers and place-seekers. Harry Truman, an active modern President, often did the same. Bill Clinton had an awesome correspondence unit. I have seen replies from him preserved lovingly in many American homes, for all that his signature is an evident facsimile, because they showed that their owners’ letter to him had been read and understood. This was part of Clinton’s astonishing empathy with the American people, which saw him through crises which might have felled another President.

Theresa May is given to holding away-days with her ministers. They would all be far better occupied having an away-day with their letters.

Richard Heller was chief of staff to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman, both prolific letter-writers.