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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle