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

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

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

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

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

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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