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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”