Farewell to the Great Social ReformerPosted: March 20, 2016
You go away for the weekend and suddenly everything goes mad: it turns out that Iain Duncan Smith was really a Socialist or a Liberal Democrat all along.
The Great Social Reformer (this is what the many ‘friends of’ IDS speaking to journalists call him) has not just resigned, not just skewered George Osborne, he’s also questioned the fundamentals of the post-2010 Conservatives narrative. We are not ‘all in this together’, the most vulnerable will not be ‘protected’ and the deficit reduction target is ‘more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest’.
Yet this (apparent) modern day heir to Tory Great Social Reformers like Shaftesbury and Wilberforce is also the same Iain Duncan Smith responsible for punitive benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, the £30 a week ESA cut and all the other salami slices taken out of the social security system in the last six years that were not ‘compromises too far’. The man who took the moral high ground about cuts that benefit the better-off is the same one who stood on a manifesto of cutting inheritance tax and £12 billion from benefits.
As many others have pointed out, something does not stack up here. If he’s telling the truth in his resignation letter why didn’t he resign before? If he’s lying, why resign at all? If he’s as dumb as George Osborne thinks why did he pitch his letter and his Marr interview so perfectly?
At the heart of the conundrum is universal credit, the grandiose scheme dreamed up by his Centre for Social Justice to ‘make work pay’. The idea of bringing all benefits and tax credits together to make the whole system simpler and more transparent and reducing punitive benefit withdrawal rates on people who find work was great. But for all IDS’s boasting, it still only exists in Heath Robinson form and the full digital ‘live service’ looks as far away as ever.
For some time universal credit has been like Schrödinger’s Cat: existing in two states at the same time, with nobody knowing if it is alive or dead, triumph or not-triumph until someone (perhaps Stephen Crabb) opens the box. Surely the time to resign was when Osborne butchered it in the spending review (those cuts in tax credits delayed until they’re less noticeable)?
That got me thinking. Something has not quite stacked up ever since IDS had his Easterhouse Epiphany in 2002 and discovered his moral mission of social justice.
Take for example, the glee with which people retweet that picture of him supposedly celebrating benefit cuts when he was actually pumping his fists at the announcement of the higher minimum wage. Or contrast all those times he’s defended the benefit cap with the occasional stories that it was all Osborne’s idea and the verdict of his own CSJ that its effects will be ‘devastating’. Such is the struggle of all Great Social Reformers.
But perhaps there is another explanation. Maybe Easterhouse created two Iain Duncan Smiths? Maybe they exist in two parallel universes that occasionally intersect?
In the first, there was no epiphany. IDS continued to be the same sanctimonious Quiet Man as ever, more 21st century Bumble than Shaftesbury, moralising his way through politics and meeting inconvenient facts with an unshakeable faith that ‘I believe this to be right’.
In the second, in his own mind the Great Social Reformer attempts to lead the poor and vulnerable to the promised land only to be thwarted by plagues of locusts sent by Downing Street.
On Friday night maybe GSR and IDS co-existed in our time and space one last time.