Road to damascus

    Famous parents; the Scots Guards; a company director. It is not
    surprising that Iain Duncan Smith ended up as a Conservative MP. In
    2001 he was elected the party’s leader and served for two troubled
    years.

    Today he is no longer leader of the UK’s parliamentary right wing.
    Instead he has formed a centre to promote social justice. What on
    earth has happened to him?

    Duncan Smith’s childhood (see below) may have given him a belief in
    helping your neighbour but it was little in evidence during most of
    his tenure as leader of the opposition, a position he used to
    attack government centralisation and public expenditure. He failed
    to improve the Conservative’s poll ratings and was subjected to
    stinging criticism from within and repeated calls for his
    resignation. Then in 2002, he grabbed the headlines by spending
    some time in one of Britain’s most deprived areas, Easterhouse in
    Glasgow.

    How did this come about? A number of his aides, particularly Tim
    Montgomerie, were exponents of “compassionate conservatism” which
    accepted a Christian obligation to help the needy. In more
    pragmatic terms, they argued that the Conservatives had to shake
    off the harsh image that had cost them votes. They therefore
    persuaded Duncan Smith to take the Conservative message into
    deprived neighbourhoods.

    The minister of Easterhouse Baptist Church, Sandy Weddell, hosted
    the visit. Initially he took Duncan Smith to a local project,
    Family Action in Rogerfield & Easterhouse (Fare). As a member
    of its committee, I observed that Duncan Smith’s readiness to
    listen impressed local residents. He expressed admiration for the
    services on offer and surprise that community projects received so
    little funding from statutory bodies. Above all, he noted that Fare
    was run by residents, including unemployed people and single
    parents, the very kind who had been condemned by
    Thatcherites.

    IDS promised to come again, and did. He toured Easterhouse and
    subsequently went to other deprived parts of the UK. Thereafter his
    speeches gave prominence to poverty and the press wrote about his
    “Easterhouse conversion.” A month later, he published a book which
    stated that care of the poor “should be our top
    priority”.1 The Conservative conference of 2002 was the
    first one to give prominence to poverty, social problems and
    community action.

    Was this conversion simply politically expedient? Or was it a
    result of a genuine change in him? I believe it was the latter. He
    said to me, “Politicians tend to live in the narrow world of
    Westminster. We meet think tanks, discuss theories, and trade
    insults in the Commons. None of this helps the poor. When I visited
    Glasgow, I saw the poverty, the crime, the drug abuse among a
    swathe of forgotten people. I felt I had to do something. I
    realised that residents had given up on national politics and were
    seeking their own solutions. I came away a changed man.”

    Duncan Smith lost the leadership of the Conservatives in November
    2003. He could have retreated into a few lush directorships, a seat
    in the Lords, the chair of some prestigious agency. Not so. “When I
    lost the leadership, I met with Tim (Montgomerie) and told him ‘I
    can’t lose the social justice agenda, that’s the reason I now exist
    in politics. How can we continue it?’ Tim came back with the idea
    of a Centre for Social Justice.”

    The centre, with three staff and Duncan Smith as chair, was
    launched on 29 June. Its draft brochure lists three core goals, “to
    reward poverty-fighting projects which really work”, “to help
    people live independently of the state” and “to equip a new
    generation (of Conservatives) to fight poverty”.

    It comes over rather more dynamically in Duncan Smith’s
    conversation. “The purpose is to keep the Conservative party
    focused on deprived areas,” he told me. “But the Centre must not be
    a distant think tank. It will have staff who are practically
    involved with poor people and it will recognise that communities
    already have answers. It must be prepared to produce ideas that
    traditional Tories may not like. For instance, I met elderly people
    in deprived areas whose problems cannot be solved by better
    environments. They may need higher pensions.”

    The Centre for Social Justice is an important initiative. If it
    succeeds in promoting ideas within the Conservative party to
    counter social deprivation, and if Duncan Smith attracts more
    Conservative politicians determined to counter poverty, then it
    will be breaking the party mould. But its strategies have
    limitations.

    For a start, it never defines poverty. What is the basic income
    beneath which no citizen should drop? Once this is stated, how can
    poverty be abolished? Duncan Smith and his colleagues appear to
    think that the best approach is to provide families with the skills
    to find decent jobs. But in times of recession even those with
    skills may be unemployed. Further, there are some citizens who
    cannot fit into the free market economy. In short, poverty can be
    overcome only if the state ensures that all people have an adequate
    income.

    Another limitation is that Duncan Smith and his colleagues are too
    influenced by the US. The brochure carries a photo of Duncan Smith
    with President Bush. On trips to the US, they have been impressed
    by voluntary bodies that work with lone parents, drug abusers and
    delinquents. They indicate that these kind of agencies should have
    priority in Britain. Yet these financially well-supported agencies
    can pick and choose their recipients.

    Simultaneously, they play down the fact that poverty in the US is
    at developing world levels and that crime, unemployment and drug
    abuse rates remain high. Far from importing policy from across the
    pond, the Centre for Social Justice should be telling the US to
    improve its state services.

    Afinal limitation, and it’s early days yet, is that the centre has
    not delivered original proposals that will win the approval of poor
    citizens. My suggestion is that it should argue for the abolition
    of Social Fund loans for essential domestic items for claimants,
    and for a return to grants. Also, if, as Duncan Smith promises, the
    centre provides a means of financially backing locally run
    community projects – and not just the powerful national voluntary
    societies – then it will have two radical proposals which New
    Labour refuses to support.

    Duncan Smith now possesses a compassionate determination. Recently
    he was interviewed by David Frost, who wanted to focus on the party
    leadership and Europe while Duncan Smith kept returning to social
    justice. Herein lies his dilemma. If he makes social justice a
    major Conservative theme, he may well alienate some supporters who
    are not interested in poverty.

    If he advocates policies that entail higher public expenditure then
    he will be at odds with Michael Howard and senior Tories who want
    less expenditure and lower taxation. But IDS will not easily
    abandon his new mission, which suggests he will soon be stimulating
    yet more internal conflict within the Conservative party.

    1 I Duncan Smith & G
    Streeter (eds), There Is Such A Thing As Society,
    Politicos, 2002

    Making of Duncan Smith

    Iain Duncan Smith’s father was a second world war fighter pilot,
    and his mother was a ballerina before starting a family. Iain was
    born in 1954. He recalls “a very happy childhood”. He says that
    after his father left the RAF he did not settle into the cut-throat
    competition of private business and was not interested in politics.
    However, he was always ready “to help war-time colleagues who had
    fallen on hard times.” This commitment to helping others, together
    with his mother’s practical Christianity, made a big impression on
    the young Iain. In 1975, Duncan Smith joined the army. He served in
    Northern Ireland where the Troubles stimulated his interest in
    politics. He left the army and, after management posts, was elected
    to the safe Conservative seat of Chingford and Woodford Green in
    1992. He is married to Betsy. In the Commons, Duncan Smith made his
    mark as an anti-European and became leader of the Conservative
    party in 2001. He was replaced as leader by Michael Howard in
    November 2003.   

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