Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives in Downing Street. Image: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear