Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives in Downing Street. Image: Getty
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Laurie Penny on welfare reform: Iain Duncan Smith had an epiphany, and it meant nothing

The religious language of sin and shame informs Tory welfare rhetoric, with its pulpit-thumping over "strivers" and "scroungers". But their overhaul has nothing to do with compassion or principle.

It is apparently known as the Easterhouse epiphany. One day in 2002, Iain Duncan Smith, then leader of the Conservative Party, now Work and Pensions Secretary, walked around the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow. He was reputedly so shocked by the deprivation he saw there, he decided that the welfare state needed to be destroyed, or at least completely rethought and rebuilt.
 
“I am happy to believe that Easterhouse was a critical moment for my policy,” Duncan Smith has said, “not because I hadn’t thought about this before – I had been beginning to find my way forward – but because I just realised there was something more to understand.” According to Iain Martin at the Telegraph, it was one of “the most remarkable and laudable conversions in public life for many a decade”.
 
In this conversion narrative of Conservative dogma, IDS is recast as a modern-day Siddhartha Gautama. Like the Indian prince who would one day become the Buddha, the Quiet Man descends from his palace of privilege to walk among the poor and needy, jolted by his encounter with inequality into a life of unstinting compassion. Except that nowhere is it written that the Buddha ever told a Treasury staffer that he would “bite [his] balls off and send them to [him] in a box”.
 
I have been attempting of late to write with more kindness. I have been trying to avoid spurious, ad hominemattacks and to argue with issues, not individuals.
 
So when I say that Iain Duncan Smith is a second-rate thinker and a third-rate leader who is wrecking civil society with his misguided moral crusade, I want you to understand that I mean it.
 
IDS, whose abbreviated name makes him sound like a chronic stomach complaint, is not the only Tory frontbencher to pretend to be on a quasireligious, reforming crusade. But he seems to approach his work with particular fervour and self-righteous indignation.
 
You can see it in his tantrums when someone questions his judgement in public. You can read about it in reports of aides, staffers and associates being reduced to tears or filing claims about alleged bullying on the job. When interrogated about the computer problems – or digital omnishambles, if you like – that has accompanied the introduction of the Universal Credit, IDS told parliament that the new benefit reforms aren’t really about practical matters, such as the proposed IT support system not working at all, but about “cultural change”.
 
The choice of wording is significant. It doesn’t matter whether or not Universal Credit will work in practice – and, indeed, its rollout has already been scaled back and delayed. What matters is changing the “culture”, from one in which everyone was entitled to a decent standard of living, and unemployment or illness did not have to trigger destitution, to one in which poverty and inequality are morally justified. After all, Universal Credit is intended to make “work pay” – whatever that means.
 
It is, we are told, all about morality, all about virtue and not at all about ability to work. The pittance on which people on unemployment benefit are expected to live – just 13 per cent of the average wage – is rephrased as care and concern, in the way Puritan leaders once proposed that whipping, ducking and dismemberment would not just punish sin but also save the soul.
 
IDS is, in fact, one of Britain’s most influential Roman Catholics. He surrounds himself with like-minded advisers, many of whom who are also deeply religious. The language of sin and shame informs Tory welfare rhetoric, with its pulpit-thumping over “strivers” and “scroungers”.
 
One doubts, however, that Jesus would approve of what the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is doing, given that the Nazarene was reputedly quite keen on feeding the poor. The benefit changes that began in April have already driven a threefold increase in the number of families relying on food banks. And yet, when the DWP redefines removing support from those who take home less than the minimum wage, including many of the 5.5 million Britons now on zero-hours contracts, as “support[ing] people to increase their earnings”, it is somehow taken seriously.
 
Somehow, it is now ethically acceptable for the top 1 per cent of earners to receive a tax cut worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, even as we are told that this country can no longer afford basic benefits.
 
We are told that the new puritan, anti-welfare evangelism is about compassion and about principle – a real moral crusade against “welfare dependency”. And if that were true, I could respect it.
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Meet the man forcing the Government to reveal its plans for Brexit

Grahame Pigney hopes to "peel away" the secrecy of negotiations. 

Not so long ago, the UK Government was blissfully unaware of Grahame Pigney, a British man living in semi-retirement, in France. But then came Brexit. 

Pigney, who had been campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU, was devastated. But after a few days, he picked himself up and started monitoring the news. He was alarmed to discover the Government thought it could trigger Article 50 without the express permission of Parliament. 

He wasn’t alone. Gina Miller, an investor, was equally incensed and decided to take the Government to court. Pigney (pictured below) set up a crowdfunding campaign to support the case, The People’s Challenge. So far, the campaign has raised more than £100,000. 

This week, the campaign scored its first major victory, when a judge overruled the Government’s attempts to keep its legal defence secret. The case itself will be held in October. 

At a time when the minister for Brexit, David Davis, can only say it means “leaving the EU”, the defence sheds some light on the Government’s thinking. 

For example, it is clear that despite suggestions that Article 50 will be triggered in early 2017, the Government could be easily persuaded to shift the date: 

"The appropriate point at which to issue the notification under Article 50 is a matter of high, if not the highest, policy; a polycentric decision based upon a multitude of domestic and foreign policy and political concerns for which the expertise of Ministers and their officials are particularly well suited an the Courts ill-suited.”

It is also, despite Theresa May’s trips to Scotland, not a power that the Government is willing to share. In response to Pigney’s argument that triggering Article 50 without parliamentary approval impinges on Scotland’s separate body of law, it stated bluntly: “The conduct of foreign relations is a matter expressly reserved such that the devolved legislatures have no competence over it.”

Although Pigney is one of the millions of expats left in jeopardy by Brexit, he tells The Staggers he is not worried about his family. 

Instead, he says it is a matter of principle, because Parliament should be sovereign: “I am not a quitter.” 

While Davis argues he cannot reveal any information about Brexit negotiations without jeopardising them, Pigney thinks the Brexiteers simply “haven’t got anything”. 

A former union negotiator, he understands why Davis doesn’t want to reveal the details, but finds the idea of not even discussing the final goals is baffling: “When I was a union member, we wouldn’t tell them how everything was going but you did agree what the targets were that you were going for.”

He said: “The significance of what happened is we were able to peel away a layer of Government secrecy. One of the things that has characterised this Government is they want to keep everything secret.”