“He doesn’t understand the poor”: The working class teacher who tried to turn Iain Duncan Smith left wing

Glyn Banks taught English at the HMS Conway school, when Iain Duncan Smith was a 16-year-old student there. He recalls how rightwing the Work and Pensions Secretary was even as a teenager.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Glyn Banks was a “typical Sixties radical hippie”. Or at least that’s what he says the public schoolboys he taught thought of him.

At the age of 21, when he had completed his degree at Bangor University, Banks went to teach English O Level and A Level classes at the HMS Conway Merchant Navy Cadet School in 1971.

Glyn Banks in 1970. He began teaching at the HMS Conway school the following year. Photo: Glyn Banks

Although he was only a few years older than the sixth formers, Banks’ upbringing was a world away from that of his pupils, one of whom included the current Work and Pensions Secretary and former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was 16 at the time.

I am speaking to Banks over Skype from Finland. The moment Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, he decided to move there – as it was “still a socialist country” – and has been there ever since. “I said I don’t want to live in Britain with Thatcher in, so I came here.”

He grew up in a small village in north Wales, is a Welsh speaker, and describes his background as working-class.

“My mother was a single mother, she had four kids, we depended on the gasman – he’d come and empty the gas,” he recalls. “I remember coming home from school and there were shillings and things on the table. And there wouldn't be food for the weekend, you know? . . . I'm not saying I was desperately poor, but we had to make ends meet.”

He attended the local mixed comp. Nearby was the HMS Conway school, a former 19th-century wooden battleship that was  decommissioned and ended up as a purpose-built naval training school on Anglesey. Its pupils, or “cadets”, were taught in view of joining the Merchant Navy officer class.

The cover of The Cadet, the school magazine. Photo: Glyn Banks

Banks, now 66 and retired, calls his six-month stint at the public school back in 1971 a gap year job. It gave him board and lodging and enough money to save up for a car to drive himself to Oxford for a teacher training course the following summer.

“I’d never taught before,” he chuckles. “The school must've been desperate! The Head of English had to leave at the last minute . . . I lived in the area and had a degree in English, so I fitted the bill.”

When Banks arranged for his lower sixth class to go to the cinema on one of their Saturday afternoon trips to the local town of Bangor, Duncan Smith’s politics were brought sharply to his attention.

The film they saw was Z – a political thriller alluding to the real-life story of the murder of a leftwing Greek politician – which was released in 1969, following the military coup in Greece a couple of years earlier. In the film, the authorities are portrayed as brutal and corrupt. Banks chose this particular film to “educate” the boys.

Z came out following the military coup in Greece. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“I thought it was a very good film, and in my naivety, I thought the kids would sympathise with the workers. No way!” Banks recalls. “They came back and I chatted with them and they – and especially Duncan Smith – were saying, ‘no, the military and the police were in the right’. It was in the middle of the coup at the time, and it just shook me. I thought ‘am I missing something?’”

Banks describes being initially “gobsmacked” by the teenagers rooting for the authorities. He recalls that the school “was really an eye-opener for me . . . I hadn't really been aware of the class divide so strongly”.

He adds: “Duncan Smith’s father was a fighter pilot. I soon realised their parents [meant] it was natural they would side with the ruling class.”

Iain Duncan Smith pictured (right) with the school running team in 1969 or 1970 (around the age of 15). He was a prefect, hence his blazer, and was good at athletics, once breaking the school javelin record. Photo: Glyn Banks

Here he is, closer up. Photo: Glyn Banks

Aside from Duncan Smith’s reaction to the film, Banks did not discuss politics explicitly with him. But he does remember his student’s enthusiasm when studying C P Snow’s Corridors of Power. 

“I think he liked that! It was about politics and government,” says Banks. “The overall ethos of the school was military and Duncan Smith was a cadet captain, like a prefect, and he liked to rule, I think. He went in to the Army of course eventually . . . I'd say the whole values in the school were militaristic and status quo, and so on, and the other teachers were definitely rightwing, certainly.”

But Banks, who used to read the Morning Star each morning while his fellow schoolmasters devoured the Daily Telegraph, fought against the school’s ethos with the literature he chose to teach.

“I was kind of introducing leftwing literature, if you like,” he tells me.

Examples include Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave (which was made into the well-known 1969 Ken Loach film, Kes), which is the story of a young working-class boy with a troubled upbringing who finds solace in a kestrel. “I wanted them to know how the other half lives, you know,” says Banks.

Banks tried to teach his pupils working-class literature. Photo: YouTube screengrab

“I also did [Alan] Sillitoe The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which is a classic, because it’s a public school versus this working-class lad. And he won.”

Banks attempted to teach poetry by working-class poets. “I did the typical thing, [Roger] McGough and [Adrian] Henri and so forth, but they rejected it mainly as typical Sixties hippies, nonsense, and so on.”

He had more luck teaching the anti-establishment Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s poetry to the boys, including his cult anti-capitalist lament, Howl.

“I would do Ginsberg in class,” laughs Banks. “You know, like America. And I remember one of the first lines was "America, go fuck yourself". And they loved that!”

Duncan Smith clearly didn’t end up with the leftwing sympathies Banks had hoped to inculcate in his students. Quite the reverse. He is now one of the cabinet ministers most loathed by those who oppose the Conservative government’s increasingly severe welfare reforms.

An article in the school magazine by Banks mentioning Duncan Smith's sporting skills (click to enlarge). Photo: Glyn Banks

Banks remembers him as an ordinary student, “fairly nondescript in class”, one who broke the school javelin record, and who he once caught smoking on the grounds after hours. How does he feel about this fairly unremarkable schoolboy’s transformation into the face of the government’s most controversial cuts?

“I don’t think he’s evil. He just doesn’t understand what it’s like to be poor, or how to survive,” says Banks. “He was a good lad. I know he’s been demonised now for various reasons, and I’m not condoning him in any way, but he was OK.”

Banks poses in his gown today. Photo: Glyn Banks

But he does regret not having had more of an impact on Duncan Smith’s politics now he has seen his actions in government. “In retrospect, knowing what I know now, I wish we’d had a discussion about things,” Banks muses.

“But I didn't know enough myself to debate or discuss. I don’t mean preaching, but teachers can have an effect on their pupils. You know that – when you remember a teacher. But I don’t think he’d remember me for that! It probably wouldn’t have made any difference, but think I could have opened their eyes a bit to alternatives . . .

“I don’t think they would have listened to me anyway . . . I suppose the school created those kind of people. It's a lack of understanding, or sensitivity, to real people.”

Banks’ conclusion about his former student? “I think he thinks he’s done the right thing. But he just doesn’t understand. I come from a very Welsh working-class-type background, and he’s out of touch. Really.”

A note from the headmaster that includes a thank you to Banks for filling in at the school (click to enlarge). Photo: November 1971 issue of the school magazine, The Cadet/Liverpool Maritime Archives

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

Free trial CSS