The Great Crapsby. Artwork by Dan Murrell for the New Statesman
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The Great Crapsby: Why Iain Duncan Smith isn’t all he seems

Like Fitzgerald’s doomed, self-fictionalising hero Jay Gatsby, the Work and Pensions Secretary has constructed a personal narrative for himself that doesn’t quite take in all the facts. 

It's a bold play for Iain Duncan Smith to reference F Scott Fitzgerald in the course of his tedious, risible political thriller, The Devil's Tune. A female character approaches a grandiose house: “Laura was reminded almost instantly of The Great Gatsby. She smiled at the absurdity […]” (Anyone who’s battled through this shockingly bad novel will feel the absurdity if not the smile.)

A bold play, but perhaps not a wholly inappropriate one, since at least one of Duncan Smith’s barely distinguishable characters owes a debt to Gatsby himself. Democratic presidential pretender Kelp is the epitome of the American dream, according to the novel – an ex-military man who has made his own myth and risen from dirt, with the help of some dubious money and connections. He's also a deeply crooked politician.

Iain Duncan Smith has his myths too. He's the “quiet man”, the man who had the “Easterhouse epiphany”, a man whose compassion for the poor drove him to found the Centre for Social Justice, where his honest intentions become honest research. He'd like it to be believed that he – like Gatsby – has hauled himself up from common stock, but that's not quite true. Nor are many of the other things that are widely believed about him, but he is like Gatsby in one regard: he's a great work of self-fictionalising. The end result, sadly, is no match for the luminous Mr Jay. Let us think of IDS instead as the Great Crapsby.

The narrative of the Great Crapsby is one of fall followed by resurrection, hinging on a single dramatic incident of enlightenment. Following his unlikely victory, Duncan Smith was a humiliation as Conservative party leader, his reign of just over two years was marked by embarrassment and ineffectiveness. His pitiful parliamentary performance won him the name “Iain Duncan Cough” in Private Eye, and having once betrayed Major, Duncan Smith reaped the disloyalty of his party in turn.

After he was deposed in 2003, it seemed plausible that he would vanish into the political scrub. Instead, he founded the Centre for Social Justice – the allegedly independent think tank that would do so much to promote and shape Conservative policies on welfare and society, and that established Duncan Smith’s credentials to take on the work and pensions portfolio.

Stories of the CSJ’s origins routinely mention something called the Easterhouse epiphany. “It was on the Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow where I began to appreciate the scale of social breakdown occurring in Great Britain,” writes Duncan Smith in one of the Centre’s publications; “The CSJ was born through a visit to Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow,” he says in another. In 2010, Tim Montgomerie described the Easterhouse visit as the moment “something suddenly clicked […] he realised here was his personal mission and a mission for the Tory party.

So far, so Damascene. (And it’s worth remembering that the apparatus of piety plays a large part in the iconography of IDS – he has claimed that “My Catholic background […] has become integral to everything I do.”) But – besides people saying that it happened – what evidence is there for this miraculous moment of enlightenment? Not, it turns out, very much at all.

In 1994, Duncan Smith (then working in the Department of Social Security, predecessor to the Department of Work and Pensions) wrote an editorial for the Mail (the text of which is copied here). In it, he decried the growth of spending on welfare since the foundation of the welfare state; he claimed that the benefits system had betrayed the intentions of the Beveridge Report, and was being defrauded and abused on a vast scale. Worst of all, he alleged, the welfare state had created a class incapable of self-help: “[T]he system discourages people from getting a job […] people become trapped, remaining dependent on the State rather than on their working abilities.” His answer? “There should be just one, income-assessed benefit.”

In 2010, Duncan Smith (now work and pensions secretary) delivered a speech. In it, he claimed the benefits system had betrayed the intentions of the Beveridge Report, that it was being defrauded and abused on a vast scale, and worst of all, that it was counterproductively “supporting – even reinforcing – dysfunctional behaviour.” His answer? Universal credit.

Over 16 years, there was only one appreciable difference in the rhetoric: in 1994, Duncan Smith claimed that it was particularly appalling to see welfare spending expand during a time of economic growth; by 2010, the argument for urgent action was that “the economy isn’t growing as we had hoped”. But that change is simply a matter of shaping the argument to the political conditions. Whatever Iain Duncan Smith discovered in Easterhouse in 2002, it did nothing whatsoever to alter his politics. His diagnosis and prescription for the welfare state has remained constant, from the Nineties to now. The “epiphany” is a useful fiction, nothing more.

It feels painful to impugn Duncan Smith’s honour like this, because the perception of him as a decent man is so strong, even among those who oppose his politics. In some ways, his ineptness as a party leader has come to be seen as evidence of his virtue: his failure as a politician is proof of his good faith. But a certain taste for self-fashioning has long been evident in him. In 2002, Michael Crick discovered what might kindly be called exaggerations in Duncan Smith’s CV. It stated that he had attended the Universita di Perugia. This was not true: instead he had been to a language school in Perugia, and had not received any qualifications. Duncan Smith is a Perugia man in precisely the same way that grifting Gatsby was "an Oxford man".

When he isn’t bloating his qualifications, Duncan Smith can be found putting on the poor mouth and talking up his experience of poverty. Having haplessly claimed that he could survive on £53 a week “if I had to”, Duncan Smith was forced to plead personal experience. After he left the army, he told the Mail, he lived illegally with his then-girlfriend, now-wife Betsy Freemantle, in a ragged bedsit. “They say love makes everything work,” said Duncan Smith, although presumably the fact that his partner is the daughter of a monied aristocrat and the recipient of an inheritance in her own right also went some way to making everything work. Whatever privations the Duncan Smiths may have experienced, there was always the comforting hand of wealth to keep them from plunging into the underclass. They now live – rent-free – in the Freemantle ancestral home.

So he may not know directly what it is to be truly poor, his defenders can say, but at least he has studied the issue through the Centre for Social Justice. Well, that depends on what it means to study something. The CSJ has published report on report, all of them with the curious effect of reinforcing its founder’s prior positions and supporting government policy. (The intimacy of the CSJ and DWP is underlined by the fact that, until late 2012, Philippa Stroud was both a special advisor to Duncan Smith at the DWP and paid by the CSJ to be co-chair of its board of advisers.) Few of us have the divine inspiration that lets our hypotheses precisely anticipate the results of our research, but Duncan Smith appears to be one of those saintly, second-sighted few.

Either that, or he has no respect at all for evidence. In 2010, Duncan Smith made a number of claims about the stymied brain development of children who “witness a lot of abuse", or whose mothers have "different, multiple partners", citing the work of Dr Bruce Perry. Perry protested that his work had been “distorted”: while Duncan Smith implied that children of chaotic or neglectful households were destined to criminality, Perry’s work had in fact been on children who suffered extreme deprivation, including being locked in a basement without human contact. Yet Duncan Smith maintained, implausibly, that he not misrepresented Perry’s findings.

This wasn’t an isolated case of over-enthusiasm. Here’s another: in April, Duncan Smith claimed success for the benefits cap before it had even been implemented, saying: “Already we’ve seen 8,000 people who would have been affected by the cap move into jobs. This clearly demonstrates that the cap is having the desired impact.” Again, the original research showed nothing of the sort. On 9 May, Andrew Dilnot of the UK Statistics Authority wrote: “[the statement] is unsupported by the official statistics.” Furthermore, Dilnot’s letter to the DWP points out there have been previous incidents of statistical abuse in the department, and requests “further assurance that the working arrangements within the department give sufficient weight to the professional role and public responsibilities of statisticians.”

It is one thing to be an individual fantasist, telling flattering stories about yourself. It is another to insist that government policy should be directed by fantasy. But the final tragedy of the Great Crapsby is that, for all the dull power of his imagination, reality stubbornly refuses to comply. The work programme, which Duncan Smith launched two years ago, doesn’t work. The hardest cases are neglected while private providers profit from shuffling the easily employable into jobs.

Universal credit – the single benefit that Duncan Smith has been arguing for since the 1990s – seems unlikely to happen in this parliament, after widely predicted problems with the computer system saw the trial reduced to a minute population that included only individuals with the simplest circumstances. In the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority review, universal credit was given an amber/red status, meaning “in danger of failing”.

The Great Gatsby had his vast wealth and a belief in the green light. The Great Crapsby has his vast wealth and an irresistible attraction to that red light of failure – not just his own personal screw-ups, but a belief that the poor must be made to fail and ground down as far as possible. How we must hunger for saints in our politics if we accept a man as good purely because he says he is good, while so much of what he does bespeaks falsehood and a perfect absence of empathy.

 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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Germany's election isn't about who will win, but who gets to join Merkel in government

Even small changes in vote share could affect who rules with the chancellor's CDU.

The leaves are falling and the ballot boxes are being given a final polish. It should be peak Wahlkampf. (Trust us Germans to have a word for "campaign" which sounds like something that should be barked by a soldier in a black-and-white film.)

Yet, instead of "peak campaign", with just days to go before polling day, we have an almost deadly dull one. Europe’s largest nation is being gripped by apathy. Even the politicians seem to have given up. Four years ago the then Social Democratic (SPD) challenger for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, was so desperate to grab attention that he posed on a magazine front cover pulling the middle finger.

Instead Chancellor Merkel’s strategy of depoliticising the economic and social challenges Germany faces, and being endorsed as the steady mother of the nation, seems to once again be bearing fruit. Her Social Democratic contender has simply not been able to cut through.

So much so that for most voters the differences in policy agenda between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and her main challenger Martin Schulz’s SPD are hard to detect. Not least because the SPD has spent the past four years serving under Merkel as the junior partner in a so-called "grand coalition". It doesn’t make it easy to distinguish yourself when you have just spent the last four years agreeing in cabinet.

This is dangerous and careless in an age of economic and political insecurities where voter volatility has reached new heights, and the radical right-wing AfD is forecast to get a vote share in double figures – a tally that would make it the third strongest party in the Bundestag.

It’s business as usual for Merkel who has copied the playbook that so successfully delivered three victories: picking no fights and managing expectations. Why change a winning formula? She wants to carry on chasing the political legacy of her hero Helmut Kohl by securing a fourth term in office.

Once again the "safety first" strategy is paying off. Her CDU/CSU is on course with the polls showing a solid 17 per cent lead over Martin Schulz and the SPD.

Merkel may be cruising to victory, but Germany’s proportional electoral system means that she won’t be able to govern alone. Which means the most exciting question in the German election isn’t who is going to win, but with whom is Merkel going to form another government. All eyes are on the different combinations of parties that would provide the chancellor with a new majority.

As it stands, it is very likely that for the first time ever, the Bundestag will be host to six political parties. More dauntingly, it will also be the first time since the Second World War that members of the radical right-wing will be sat in the chamber. Arguably, this political setback may be seen as a failure of moderate forces to find the right political solutions for the refugee and financial crisis – the AfD is essentially the offspring of both – but it is also part of a wider populist surge in Europe and North America.

This fragmentation of the party system in Germany will make it a challenging task for CDU/CSU to form a coalition. However, with the return of the liberal, and pretty unashamedly neo-liberal FDP, Merkel can potentially revert to a traditional centre-right ally. This would please those in her party who have been sceptical of her socio-economic move to the left, and blame her for the rise of the right-wing populists.

A report by the University of Mannheim provides us with a useful, if firmly scholarly, political version of those dating compatibility quizzes we all like to do in idle lunch hours. It finds that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP would be a natural match. They would agree on 20 out of 38 of the main policy issues in German politics. 

On which issues would coalition partners agree/disagree?

Only the other traditional “bloc coalition” between the SPD and Greens, which lifted Gerhard Schröder into the chancellery in 1998, would do better, matched on 24 issues overall. The study matches preferences on key economic, social, domestic and foreign policy of all major political parties and maps potential areas of conflict for all realistic coalition options. But polls currently show that neither of the naturally fitting centre-right or centre-left blocs would have enough seats to make a coalition work.

Which leaves three possible scenarios. The most intriguing would be the "Jamaica coalition" of the CDU, FDP and Greens (so called because the three party colours are the same as the Jamaican flag). Such an option has never been tried before at the federal level but is currently in power in Schleswig-Holstein. Alternatively, Merkel could follow the example of Saxony-Anhalt and try governing with her own CDU/CSU alongside both the SPD and the Greens. However, the new study finds that a three-way pact would be more prone to conflict and harder to negotiate than any of the two-party options.

More than two parties in a coalition would be an interesting novelty at the federal level, but disagreement on individual policy areas is expected to be considerably greater. The so-called "traffic-light-coalition" of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP would agree on 11 topics, yet disagree on 20 issues. And on top of issue-specific conflicts it would be more difficult to bridge ideological differences between parties at the different ends of the left-right dimension, as such between the SPD and FDP.

In the end it will all depend on how the numbers play out on election day this Sunday. The fact is that even minor shifts in voting behaviour from the current poll predictions would make a major difference to the options for government formation.

So, what should you look out for on election night? I would suggest keeping an eye on the liberals. What happens to the FDP’s vote share is crucial for whether they can return to their role as coalition queenmaker, after failing to jump the 5 per cent hurdle in 2013 and ending up with no seats. If the business-friendly liberals cannot deliver a majority for Merkel, the ball will be firmly back in the SPD’s court.

Gerhard Schröder used to say that a chicken is fat at the end (it makes more sense in German).

But if Schulz’s campaign does not pick up momentum in the closing hours of the campaign, and the Social Democrats' vote share collapses to around 20 per cent, its leaders will find it difficult to justify another grand coalition to SPD members.

They will likely be once again asked to endorse any grand coalition with the traditional conservative enemy in a one-member-one-vote ballot. Many inside the party fear that another four years as junior partners to the strategically astute Merkel could be the end of the road for the Social Democrats.

Florian Ranft is a senior researcher and adviser at Policy Network