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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The allegations of abuse in sport are serious – but we must guard against hysteria

This week in the media, from Castro and the student rebels, hysteria over football coaches, and Ed Balls’s ballroom exit.

From the left’s point of view, the best that can be said of Fidel Castro, who has died at 90, is that – to echo Franklin D Roosevelt on the Nicaraguan dictator Anatasio Somoza – he may have been a son of a bitch but he was our son of a bitch. Denying Castro’s dreadful record on human rights is pointless. According to the highest estimates – which include those who perished while trying to flee the regime – the death toll during Castro’s 49 years in charge was roughly 70,000. His immediate predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew, murdered, again according to the highest estimates, 20,000 but he ruled for a mere seven years. For both men, you can find considerably lower figures, sometimes in the hundreds. It depends on the politics of the estimator, which shows the absurdity of such reckoning.

 

Murder is murder

What is certain is that Batista ran a corrupt regime with close links to the American Mafia and presided over outrageous inequalities. Even President Kennedy, who ­approved a failed military invasion of Cuba in 1960, said that, on Batista’s record, “I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries”. Castro, on the other hand, created a far more equal society where illiteracy was almost wiped out, and free health care brought life expectancy up to levels comparable to those in the US and western Europe. You could say that the numbers saved from early deaths by Cuban medicine under Castro easily exceeded the numbers that faced firing squads.

But nothing excuses torture, murder and political imprisonment. There isn’t a celestial balance sheet that weighs atrocities against either the freedoms from ignorance and disease that the left favours or the freedoms to make money and hold private property that the right prefers. We should argue, as people always will, about which freedoms matter most. We should be united in condemning large-scale state brutality whatever its source.

 

Spirit of ʼ68

Though his regime became an ally (or, more precisely, a client) of the Soviet Union, Castro wasn’t a communist and he didn’t lead a communist uprising. This point is crucial to understanding his attraction to the mostly middle-class student rebels in Europe and America who became known as the ’68ers.

To them, communist rulers in eastern European were as uninspiring as the cautious centrists who hogged power in Western democracies. They were all grey men in suits. Castro had led a guerrilla army and wore battle fatigues. As the French writer Régis Debray explained in Revolution in the Revolution? – a book revered among the students – Castro’s band of revolutionaries didn’t start with a political programme; they developed one during “the struggle”. Their ideology grew organically in the mountains of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra.

This do-it-yourself approach seemed liberating to idealistic young people who didn’t want to bother with the tedious mechanics of bourgeois democracy or the dreary texts of Marxism-Leninism. They had permission for “direct action” whenever they felt like it without needing to ­formulate aims and objectives. They couldn’t, unfortunately, see their way to forming a guerrilla army in the Scottish Highlands or the Brecon Beacons but they could occupy a university refectory or two in Colchester or Coventry.

 

Caution over coaches

Commenting on Radio 5 Live on the case of Barry Bennell, the Crewe Alexandra coach convicted in 1998 of sexual offences against boys aged nine to 15 (the case came to fresh attention because several former professional football players went public about the abuse), an academic said that 5 per cent of boys reported being sexually abused in sport. “That’s one boy on every football pitch, every cricket pitch, every rugby pitch in the country,” he added.

This is precisely the kind of statement that turns perfectly reasonable concerns about inadequate vigilance into public hysteria. The figure comes from an online survey carried out in 2011 by the University of Edinburgh for the NSPCC. The sample of 6,000 was self-selected from emails to 250,000 students aged 18 to 22, who were asked about their experiences of physical, emotional and sexual harm in sport while aged 16 or under. “We do not make claims for the representativeness of our sample,” the researchers state.

Even if 5 per cent is accurate, the suggestion that abusers stalk every playing field in the land is preposterous. After the Jimmy Savile revelations, just about every DJ from the 1960s and 1970s fell under suspicion – along with other prominent figures, including ex-PMs – and some were wrongly arrested. Let’s hope something similar doesn’t happen to football coaches.

 

Shut up, Tony

Brexit “can be stopped”, Tony Blair told this magazine last week. No doubt it can, but I do wish Blair and other prominent Remain supporters would shut up about it. The Brexiteers have spent 20 years presenting themselves as victims of an elite conspiracy to silence them. Committed to this image, they cannot now behave with the grace usually expected of winners. Rather, they must behave as though convinced that the prize will shortly be snatched from them, and treat any statement from Remainers, no matter how innocuous, with suspicion and resentment. Given enough rope, they will, one can reasonably hope, eventually hang themselves.

 

Strictly Balls

Perhaps, however, Nigel Farage et al are justified in their paranoia. As I observed here last week, the viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, in the spirit of voters who backed Brexit and Donald Trump, struck more blows against elite experts by keeping Ed Balls in the competition even after judges gave him abysmal ratings. Now it is all over. The BBC contrived a “dance-off” in which only the judges’ votes counted. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage