Poor Relations: The Former Tory Leader Iain Duncan Smith Talks about His "Damascene" Conversion and How the "Sharp Bits of Thatcherism" Hurt the Nation

By Derbyshire, Jonathan | New Statesman (1996), March 1, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Poor Relations: The Former Tory Leader Iain Duncan Smith Talks about His "Damascene" Conversion and How the "Sharp Bits of Thatcherism" Hurt the Nation


Derbyshire, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)


In his 2009 speech to the Conservative party conference, David Cameron acknowledged the contributions made by several of his shadow cabinet colleagues. George Osborne, Kenneth Clarke, David Willetts, Chris Grayling and Dominic Grieve were all warmly commended for their efforts in a range of policy areas. But the Tory leader reserved special mention for a man who does not sit on the Conservative front bench--his predecessor but one as leader of the party, Iain Duncan Smith.

Cameron recited a familiar litany of social dysfunction that "12 years of big government" had done nothing to remedy: poverty, crime, addiction, failing schools, sink estates and family breakdown. In the fight against these evils, his favoured shorthand for which is "Broken Britain", Cameron declared that "there's one person this party can rely on. He's the man who has dedicated himself to the cause of social justice and shown great courage in standing up for those least able to stand up for themselves: Iain Duncan Smith." If the Conservatives were to win the election, Cameron went on, their former leader would be "responsible in government for bringing together all our work to help mend the broken society".

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This was Cameron's way of acknowledging the influence that Duncan Smith has had on the shape of Tory social policy (not to mention the tone of its rhetoric on social issues) since 2005. The editor of the ConservativeHome website, Tim Montgomerie, who helped Duncan Smith to set up the think tank the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in 2004, says that his influence cannot be underestimated. "Duncan Smith and the CSJ have made the Conservatives think about poverty again in a serious way. After the creation of New Labour, both main parties were focused on the middle-class vote. It's good that there's now a political competition for the poverty vote."

Duncan Smith's hand, and that of the CSJ, was discernible in both Cameron's diagnosis of the ills afflicting Britain's poor and in the panacea he conjured up to heal them--"making the country more family-friendly" through such measures as a transferable tax allowance for married couples and the abolition of the so-called couple penalty in the benefits system. (CSJ doctrine has it that family breakdown is at the root of most social problems and that marriage, which it thinks the Labour government has "disincentivised", is a crucial bulwark against it. Indeed, it can sometimes appear as if there is no social problem to which, in the CSJ's view, marriage is not the answer.)

Conscience of the party

When, in January, Cameron appeared to retreat from his commitment to implement the marriage tax allowance, the Times reported that Duncan Smith had given the Tory leader "permission" to water down the proposals. I suggest to Duncan Smith, when I meet him at his handsomely appointed office in the House of Commons, that his writ inside the Conservative Party runs wide. He laughs at the suggestion, but doesn't exactly disabuse me. "It was David Cameron who first made a statement about marriage, and we [the CSJ] then promised we'd look at it after he got elected as leader."

He is keen to make it clear that he has long had the leadership's ear, and appears to imply that much of the rhetoric, if not the substance, of so-called progressive Conservatism comes from him. "My point to the Conservative Party has been that social justice is critical and that it should be an integral part of what we do. After the 2005 election, I wrote a paper in which I said that we have to re-engage that debate [about social justice]. And David Cameron read it and said, 'I agree with you, we can't just ignore this.' So that's where the whole argument about social justice came from."

Duncan Smith's anointment by Cameron as the social conscience of a "modernised" Conservative Party appeared to complete a remarkable transformation that had begun in 2002, the year before he stepped down as leader, when he visited the traumatised and catastrophically deprived Glasgow housing scheme of Easterhouse.

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