The Great Crapsby: Why Iain Duncan Smith isn’t all he seems

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The Great Crapsby. Artwork by Dan Murrell for the New Statesman

 

Like Fitzgerald’s doomed, self-fictionalising hero Jay Gatsby, the Work and Pensions Secretary has constructed a personal narrative for himself that doesn’t quite take in all the facts. Look deeper, and you discover the powerful ideology and lack of empathy that motivates his politics.

BY SARAH DITUM PUBLISHED 29 MAY 2013 8:39

It’s a bold play for Iain Duncan Smith to reference F Scott Fitzgerald in the course of his tedious, risible political thriller, The Devil’s Tune.

 A female character approaches a grandiose house:

“Laura was reminded almost instantly of The Great Gatsby. She smiled at the absurdity […]”

(Anyone who’s battled through this shockingly bad novel will feel the absurdity if not the smile.)

A bold play, but perhaps not a wholly inappropriate one, since at least one of Duncan Smith’s barely distinguishable characters owes a debt to Gatsby himself. Democratic presidential pretender Kelp is the epitome of the American dream, according to the novel – an ex-military man who has made his own myth and risen from dirt, with the help of some dubious money and connections. He’s also a deeply crooked politician.

Iain Duncan Smith has his myths too.

He’s the “quiet man”, the man who had the “Easterhouse epiphany”, a man whose compassion for the poor drove him to found the Centre for Social Justice, where his honest intentions become honest research. He’d like it to be believed that he – like Gatsby – has hauled himself up from common stock, but that’s not quite true. Nor are many of the other things that are widely believed about him, but he is like Gatsby in one regard: he’s a great work of self-fictionalising. The end result, sadly, is no match for the luminous Mr Jay.

Let us think of IDS instead as the Great Crapsby.

The narrative of the Great Crapsby is one of fall followed by resurrection, hinging on a single dramatic incident of enlightenment. Following his unlikely victory, Duncan Smith was a humiliation as Conservative party leader, his reign of just over two years was marked by embarrassment and ineffectiveness. His pitiful parliamentary performance won him the name “Iain Duncan Cough” in Private Eye, and having once betrayed Major, Duncan Smith reaped the disloyalty of his party in turn.

After he was deposed in 2003, it seemed plausible that he would vanish into the political scrub. Instead, he founded the Centre for Social Justice – the allegedly independent think tank that would do so much to promote and shape Conservative policies on welfare and society, and that established Duncan Smith’s credentials to take on the work and pensions portfolio.

Stories of the CSJ’s origins routinely mention something called the “Easterhouse epiphany”:

“It was on the Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow where I began to appreciate the scale of social breakdown occurring in Great Britain,”

writes Duncan Smith in one of the Centre’s publications;

“The CSJ was born through a visit to Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow,”

he says in another.

In 2010, Tim Montgomerie described the Easterhouse visit as the moment

something suddenly clicked […] he realised here was his personal mission and a mission for the Tory party.

So far, so Damascene. And it’s worth remembering that the apparatus of piety plays a large part in the iconography of IDS – he has claimed that:

“My Catholic background […] has become integral to everything I do.”

But – besides people saying that it happened – what evidence is there for this miraculous moment of enlightenment? 

Not, it turns out, very much at all.

In 1994, Duncan Smith (then working in the Department of Social Security, predecessor to the Department of Work and Pensions) wrote an editorial for the Mail (the text of which is copied here). In it, he decried the growth of spending on welfare since the foundation of the welfare state; he claimed that the benefits system had betrayed the intentions of the Beveridge Report, and was being defrauded and abused on a vast scale.

Worst of all, he alleged, the welfare state had created a class incapable of self-help:

“[T]he system discourages people from getting a job […] people become trapped, remaining dependent on the State rather than on their working abilities.” His answer? “There should be just one, income-assessed benefit.”

In 2010, Duncan Smith (now work and pensions secretary) delivered a speech. In it, he claimed the benefits system had betrayed the intentions of the Beveridge Report, that it was being defrauded and abused on a vast scale, and worst of all, that it was counterproductively “supporting – even reinforcing – dysfunctional behaviour.” His answer? Universal credit.

Over 16 years, there was only one appreciable difference in the rhetoric: in 1994, Duncan Smith claimed that it was particularly appalling to see welfare spending expand during a time of economic growth; by 2010, the argument for urgent action was that “the economy isn’t growing as we had hoped”. But that change is simply a matter of shaping the argument to the political conditions. Whatever Iain Duncan Smith discovered in Easterhouse in 2002, it did nothing whatsoever to alter his politics. His diagnosis and prescription for the welfare state has remained constant, from the Nineties to now.

The “epiphany” is a useful fiction, nothing more.

It feels painful to impugn Duncan Smith’s honour like this, because the perception of him as a decent man is so strong, even among those who oppose his politics. In some ways, his ineptness as a party leader has come to be seen as evidence of his virtue: his failure as a politician is proof of his good faith. But a certain taste for self-fashioning has long been evident in him. In 2002, Michael Crick discovered what might kindly be called exaggerations in Duncan Smith’s CV. It stated that he had attended the Universita di Perugia. This was not true: instead he had been to a language school in Perugia, and had not received any qualifications. Duncan Smith is a Perugia man in precisely the same way that grifting Gatsby was “an Oxford man”.

When he isn’t bloating his qualifications, Duncan Smith can be found putting on the poor mouth and talking up his experience of poverty. Having haplessly claimed that he could survive on £53 a week “if I had to”, Duncan Smith was forced to plead personal experience. After he left the army, he told the Mail, he lived illegally with his then-girlfriend, now-wife Betsy Freemantle, in a ragged bedsit.

“They say love makes everything work,”

said Duncan Smith, although presumably the fact that his partner is the daughter of a monied aristocrat and the recipient of an inheritance in her own right also went some way to making everything work. Whatever privations the Duncan Smiths may have experienced, there was always the comforting hand of wealth to keep them from plunging into the underclass. They now live – rent-free – in the Freemantle ancestral home.

So he may not know directly what it is to be truly poor, his defenders can say, but at least he has studied the issue through the Centre for Social Justice. Well, that depends on what it means to study something. The CSJ has published report on report, all of them with the curious effect of reinforcing its founder’s prior positions and supporting government policy.(The intimacy of the CSJ and DWP is underlined by the fact that, until late 2012, Philippa Stroud was both a special advisor to Duncan Smith at the DWP and paid by the CSJ to be co-chair of its board of advisers.) Few of us have the divine inspiration that lets our hypotheses precisely anticipate the results of our research, but Duncan Smith appears to be one of those saintly, second-sighted few.

Either that, or he has no respect at all for evidence. In 2010, Duncan Smith made a number of claims about the stymied brain development of children who “witness a lot of abuse”, or whose mothers have “different, multiple partners”, citing the work of Dr Bruce Perry. Perry protested that his work had been “distorted”: while Duncan Smith implied that children of chaotic or neglectful households were destined to criminality, Perry’s work had in fact been on children who suffered extreme deprivation, including being locked in a basement without human contact. Yet Duncan Smith maintained, implausibly, that he not misrepresented Perry’s findings.

This wasn’t an isolated case of over-enthusiasm. Here’s another: in April, Duncan Smith claimed success for the benefits cap before it had even been implemented, saying:

“Already we’ve seen 8,000 people who would have been affected by the cap move into jobs. This clearly demonstrates that the cap is having the desired impact.”

Again, the original research showed nothing of the sort. On 9 May, Andrew Dilnot of the UK Statistics Authority wrote:

“[the statement] is unsupported by the official statistics.” Furthermore, Dilnot’s letter to the DWP points out there have been previous incidents of statistical abuse in the department, and requests “further assurance that the working arrangements within the department give sufficient weight to the professional role and public responsibilities of statisticians.”

It is one thing to be an individual fantasist, telling flattering stories about yourself. It is another to insist that government policy should be directed by fantasy. But the final tragedy of the Great Crapsby is that, for all the dull power of his imagination, reality stubbornly refuses to comply. The work programme, which Duncan Smith launched two years ago, doesn’t work. The hardest cases are neglected while private providers profit from shuffling the easily employable into jobs.

Universal credit – the single benefit that Duncan Smith has been arguing for since the 1990s – seems unlikely to happen in this parliament, after widely predicted problems with the computer system saw the trial reduced to a minute population that included only individuals with the simplest circumstances. In the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority review, universal credit was given an amber/red status, meaning “in danger of failing”.

The Great Gatsby had his vast wealth and a belief in the green light. The Great Crapsby has his vast wealth and an irresistible attraction to that red light of failure – not just his own personal screw-ups, but a belief that the poor must be made to fail and ground down as far as possible. How we must hunger for saints in our politics if we accept a man as good purely because he says he is good, while so much of what he does bespeaks falsehood and a perfect absence of empathy.

The New Statesman

Comments
  • GEOFF REYNOLDS May 30, 2013 at 10:32 am

    DWP failed employee with Asperger’s
    Printable version | E-mail this to a colleague | Add to Folder

    06/03/2013

    The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been ordered to pay a woman with Asperger’s syndrome a total of £70,000 after an employment tribunal found it to be guilty of disability discrimination.

    The Business Disability Forum has reported that the tribunal, held in Dundee, heard how the woman was asked to return to work but felt that a breakdown in trust and confidence led to high levels of anxiety which she was unable to overcome.

    The DWP was judged to have subjected the claimant to harassment due to her Asperger’s. The syndrome, which is a form of autism, shows no outward signs but can cause difficulties in social communication and interaction.

    Many people with Asperger’s syndrome have a variety of skills that enable them to thrive in a variety of roles. However, they are often disadvantaged when it comes to securing employment because of their difficulties with social skills.

    The National Autistic Society said that many employers do not realise that people with some autism spectrum disorders, such as Asperger’s syndrome, can be highly skilled and qualified as well as being extremely employable.

    The tribunal initially awarded damages to the claimant of £54,000 as compensation for constructive unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. In a further hearing, another £17,500 was ordered to be paid by the DWP for failing to comply with a re-employment ruling.

    Judge Ian McFatridge said that the DWP had “treated the claimant extremely badly”.

    “We were required to take into account the fact that the claimant is psychologically unable to return to work with the respondents and that this is something which has been brought on by the respondents’ treatment of her,” he explained.

    A DWP spokesperson said that it acknowledged the tribunal’s findings and works hard to ensure that it achieves its commitments to good practice in employing and working with disabled people.

  • MPH May 30, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Actually he’s much more like Tom in the novel:

    “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

    ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

  • Stepping Razor Sound Plate May 30, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    So all these disabled people are now in work !! Have you any proof of that IDS? or is it IDS is fiddling the Unemployment Figures as well.

  • Stepping Razor Sound Plate May 30, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Guilty of disability discrimination.

  • jeffrey davies May 30, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    I wonder if its real Guilty of disability discrimination. and hear his words but can ids make us all better I rather doubt it can he help us yes he can just like the Nazi party he,s destroying more of us daily but then social effecks don’t hold with him or his party of denial factory of we making them better yes they making us better better at killing ourselves better at starvation and yes better at shouting for those we loose to this man and his party of greedy pigs jeff3

  • Stepping Razor Sound Plate May 30, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    IDS is already sacked. Cut your loses IDS.

  • Stepping Razor Sound Plate May 30, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    UK faces European Court over benefits for EU nationals
    30th May 2013

    Britain is being taken to the European Court of Justice for allegedly discriminating against EU nationals who claim social security in the UK.

    Ministers are accused of discriminating against those from EU member states who have been living and working in the UK.

    It is alleged an extra residency test applied by the UK to see if migrants are eligible to claim breaches EU law.

    Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith said he planned to fight the commission “every step of the way”.

    the full article: bbc link –
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22712569

  • Stepping Razor Sound Plate May 30, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    So if the EU nationals living in the uk can take the UK government to court under Discrimination Laws wht can`t the disabled do so also !!!

    • Richard McTaggart June 3, 2013 at 10:00 am

      we can* because the UK* are in breach of article19* of the UNCHRDP! the UK* ratified that treaty in 2009!
      all we have to do is remind the bar stewards*

  • Stepping Razor Sound Plate May 30, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Reform is needed in the uk for new Disability Discrimination Laws. So the bigger picture looks outragous IDS. The laws we already have are the Data Protection Act with will open the flood gates to higher charges to be made against the DWP & the PM & his government.

    • Richard McTaggart June 3, 2013 at 7:46 pm

      interesting to note that Roger Berry*
      withdrew the Independent living bill!
      originaly proposed by Jack!
      I’ve written to him asking his reason?
      that bill would have been useful*
      I suggest lot’s of people write as well!
      asking why?
      bring a bit of pressure!!

  • Linda May 31, 2013 at 8:55 am

    The Tories were scraping the bottom of the barrel, when they chose IDS for their leader.

  • Richard McTaggart June 2, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    I remember IDS* was caught fiddling expenses!
    maybe this voice actuated sensor* should be,
    trialed on MP’s
    lets see what that comes up with?
    personally I’m rather,
    enjoying watching this,
    Condem* coalition,
    tear itself apart!
    while sitting in my wheelchair*
    vote UKIP* come 2015?
    they don’t like it UP-EM!!

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