Iain Duncan Smith: Lessons From England’s Compassionate Conservative

Britain’s Conservative Party has recently elected its fourth leader since losing power in 1997 to Tony Blair, and the first leader to be regarded with a real chance of changing the party and returning to government. Just 39 years old, and a member of Parliament for only four years, David Cameron’s rise to the top has been meteoric. When he launched his leadership bid last September, his prospects were slim; most people had never even heard of him. Those who had saw a talent whose youth and inexperience meant he was the future, not the present. But his speech at the party conference in October electrified the audience, and his star began to rise. And despite his privileged background—educated at Britain’s elite private school, Eton, and Oxford University—he has successfully communicated a passionate concern for the poor. “Modern, compassionate Conservatism,” a phrase borrowed from President Bush and the Republicans, has become Cameron’s theme song, with “social justice” as the chorus.

But while Cameron has grasped the compassionate agenda, it was one of his predecessors who laid the groundwork.

Iain Duncan Smith, or IDS as he became known, was elected leader of the Conservative Party in 2001, after a second disastrous general election defeat. Like Cam­eron, he was relatively inexperienced and unknown. Elected to Parliament in 1992, he had been an arch-Euroskeptic and rebel against John Major’s leadership. When elected leader, he promised, like Cameron has, to change the Conserva­tives’ uncaring image. But after two years, his leadership hit the rocks and he was overthrown. Michael Howard re­placed him and took the party into the 2005 election, mak­ing progress but still ending in defeat.

Duncan Smith was mocked and derided. Regarded as uncharismatic, he became known as “the Quiet Man” after a self-deprecating speech in which he announced: “Never underestimate the determination of a quiet man.” A year later, he tried to rescue his embattled leadership by declar­ing: “The Quiet Man is here to stay and he’s turning up the volume.” It didn’t work.

“I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what was wrong with the party, and I knew where I wanted to go,” said Duncan Smith, reflecting on his leadership. He recalled a party researcher who spoke to him after a debate in the 2001 leadership contest between Duncan Smith and his ri­val, Kenneth Clarke. Duncan Smith had outlined a vision for a new, compassionate conservatism. “The same person saw me the other day, and he said, ‘Everything that you said at that meeting in 2001, you did—and your detractors never understood the degree to which you meant what you were saying.’

Born in 1954. Duncan Smith joined the army when he left school and saw active service in Northern Ireland and Rho­desia. With his typical understatement, he is reluctant to be drawn out on his experiences. “I am not a great one for talking a lot about ‘danger,’ he says. “Certainly there were dangers, but that’s just par for the course.”

But the experience affected his views on life. A com­mitted Catholic, Duncan Smith found himself serving the British army against the Irish Republican Army (IRA). “It was rather intriguing to be a Catholic and to be spat at by Catholics because I was supposedly ‘oppressing’ Catholics!” he recalls. “I was there in the winter of 1976 and 1977. I remember a poster campaign in the middle of Londonderry, which said ‘Seven Years Is Enough!’ I thought, ‘Goodness, that’s a long time for these troubles to be going on.’ I was very influenced by that—I thought that there must be a bet­ter way.” The peace process, he acknowledges, “has come a long way,” but he believes there is “still a final hurdle to get across.” A “huge amount of the blame lies with Sinn Fein and the IRA,” he adds.

His time in Rhodesia coincided with independence and the creation of Zimbabwe. While involved in a politi­cal process there that, in the short term, granted the re­gion some peace and stability, he acknowledges that it has gone badly since. “If Zimbabwe were a stand-alone case in a sea of happy democracies prospering and doing well, then we would ask ourselves the question: ‘What did we do wrong?’ But in fact I do not think we did a lot wrong.” Africa’s problem, he believes, is that its governments “all too often turn into despotic governments, and that is a cause for the poverty.”

Crossing a dry Rhodesian riverbed in a conflict area one day, Duncan Smith and his fellow soldiers saw some young children digging a hole. On their return trip, they noticed the children filling the hole with water—not to drink, but to wash in. “They were sitting in the water, soaking it up,” he remembers. “I wondered to what degree they would have been able to do that two months before.” It is politics, Dun­can Smith concluded, that allows people to establish peace. That revelation ultimately drove him to leave the army and seek a career in politics.

But it was eleven years before a political career became a reality. Duncan Smith left the military at 27 and went into business, working for a defense services company, a prop­erty company, and a publishing house. Finally, in 1992, he was elected to Parliament, representing Chingford, a con­stituency in Essex on the outskirts of London. Within a few months, he established a reputation as a rebel and made enemies among the party whips that would stay with him for life.

After the Conservatives under John Major were re-elected in 1992, they introduced legislation to enact the Maastricht Treaty, an intergovernmental agreement deep­ening political and economic integration in the European Union. Duncan Smith joined a small group of Conserva­tive MPs who were fiercely opposed to the treaty, and who risked almost bringing down the government as a result. But unlike some of his colleagues, who were quite reckless, Duncan Smith was a reluctant upstart. “It’s a pretty lonely business, rebelling,” he recalls. “It is not easy, when you have just entered Parliament, because you don’t have the reputation in the House of Commons which normally sustains you in difficult times. You are trying to carve out a reputation at the beginning of your political career, and you are being told by all those around you that you don’t have a political career.”

In 1992, few would have predicted that just nine years later, Duncan Smith would be elected party leader. Ap­pointed the party’s spokesman on Social Security in 1997, he rose to be defense spokesman in 1999. After William Hague resigned as party leader following the 2001 gen­eral election defeat, Duncan Smith decided to run for the leadership—and won. Immediately, he set about trying to implement a compassionate conservative agenda.

“I was coming from the right of the Party, but I knew that you could not simply concentrate on two issues [Europe and taxes],” he says. “The problem had been that people were clear about us on these classic issues, but they were not clear about where we stood on a much broader agenda. The party had allowed itself to be pushed into a very nar­row little box. Those who agreed with us were made to feel deeply guilty, even dirty, about voting Conservative.”

If you listen to David Cameron now, he is saying al­most the same things Duncan Smith said four years ago. “I believed that politics had changed dramatically with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Duncan Smith argues. “The Conser­vative Party needs to understand that the electorate have changed their requirements.” From the end of the Second World War until the end of the Cold War, all that Conser­vatives needed to do, he suggests, was “not to be socialist.” Such was the fear of socialism that the Conservatives were an obvious alternative. That gave them regular electoral success. “The Conservatives never had to do a lot of posi­tive explaining.”

That began to change when Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 and put forward a positive agenda for so­cietal change. The Labour Party remained socialist throughout the un­1980s, and so there was a clear political divide that worked to the Conservatives’ advantage. All that changed with Tony Blair, who “took the sting out of Labour—you did not have to fear Labour anymore,” says Duncan Smith.

Over time, Labour was able to assure people that it had economic competence, would be tough on crime, and would preserve national defense. “They were carefully nur­turing all these strong Conservative issues. That left you open to saying, ‘Well, you get a bit extra with this package. You get the issues you are most concerned about, but you also get the concept of people caring about the society we live in.'”

The Conservatives, in Duncan Smith’s view, have to understand that while “we need to regain the economic com­petence, the upper hand on law and order, we also need to do something more—we need to be positive, to be able to describe ourselves and our politics in a way that, instead of making people feel they have to swallow hard, actually will make them feel good about voting Conservative.”

His strategy as leader was to see how their proposals fared among the worst-off in society. He knew it was un­likely that the Conservatives would win many votes from the underprivileged, but he wanted to send a signal to the electorate about what Conservative values mean. While he was able to carry some of his colleagues in the party with him, not all were convinced. He made several visits to deprived inner-city areas such as Easterhouse and Gal­lowgate in Scotland, two of the poorest housing estates in Europe. “My visits to the inner cities were looked at with real raised eyebrows back here in the House of Commons by my parliamentary colleagues—and then progressively with horror and annoyance, because it appeared to them as though we were not attacking the main issues of Europe and tax,” he recalls. “It was a challenging agenda—but it is the right agenda.”

To further his social justice program, Duncan Smith es­tablished a policy unit within the Conservative Party headquarters called “Renewing One Nation.” “One-Nation Conservatism” is a phrase that has been used for decades to describe a compassionate form of conservatism.

Tim Montgomerie, founder of the Conservative Chris­tian Fellowship, was hired to head the unit, and he became Duncan Smith’s chief of staff. “Getting the party to talk about social justice has been a long, winding, and some­times unprofitable road,” says Montgomerie. “Some Con­servatives even objected to the term in the early days of the Renewing One Nation unit. Many members of the Conser­vative Christian Fellowship were happier talking about ho­mosexuality than third world poverty. The biggest problem has been a polite indifference.”

Renewing One Nation battled to put the social-justice agenda at the heart of policy making. Visits to Britain’s de­prived areas became a regular feature. Some gained press coverage, but some took place deliberately without media intrusion a sign that it was not just a stunt.

Those visits to run-down inner cities gave Duncan Smith a personal passion for the vulnerable, and for the volunteer sector. Walking through graffiti-covered corri­dors littered with discarded drug needles, he saw first-hand the work of courageous—often Christian—individuals and groups dealing with social problems. “Staring me in the face was this most fantastic work in the most appalling condi­tions,” he recalls. “In Gallowgate, I visited a project set up by one man, Jim Doherty, whose kids were all drug addicts and he had just had enough and was trying to help other parents understand what to do to help these kids get off drugs. This had a huge effect on me.”

Inner-city areas, Duncan Smith explains, “are expand­ing; they are getting worse, not better. That is a real chal­lenge. So if this Labour Government says it is on the side of these people and fails, surely that is a fantastic opportunity for us to say we are really on their side and we are going to succeed.” Meeting these people and seeing their situations first-hand is crucial. Real life, says Duncan Smith, “should a;ways describe your philosophy and if it doesn’t, then it means your philosophy must be wrong.”

By 2003 simmering discontent in the party boiled over, with continuing poor opinion-poll ratings. Allegations were made that his wife had been wrongly receiving a salary for secretarial work in his office—”lies,” says Duncan Smith, and she was later exonerated. A last-ditch attempt to rescue his leadership with a speech at the party conference failed to quell the plotters, and in November of that year, after losing a vote of confidence, Duncan Smith resigned as leader.

“I eventually ran afoul of my colleagues,” he concludes. His days as a Euroskeptic rebel nine years earlier had come back to haunt him. “There was a group of ex-whips who never forgave me for rebelling against Maastricht. There were others who could not conceive of me being leader af­ter such a rebellious past. A lot of it was about getting even, throughout my time as leader.”

Some politicians adopt a mantra of compassion as a cynical vote-winning gimmick. That is an accusation that could never be levied at Duncan Smith. His heart was clear­ly committed to social justice, and he vowed to continue to advance this agenda despite losing power. “Literally, as soon as I knew [my leadership] was all over, I said, ‘We cannot let this go—we are going to have to do something to continue the work.'” With Montgomerie, now editor of the influen­tial Web site www.conservativehome.com, he founded a think tank, the Centre for Social Justice.

“Social justice” is an expression that Duncan Smith be­lieves has been monopolized by the Left for too long. “I have had a lot of people say to me, ‘Conservatives don’t do social justice.’ My answer to them is, ‘Tell me when we stopped?’ Why do we let the best terms go to Labour—the warm ones that people all agree with? Why do we spend so much capital attacking?”

Social justice, he argues, does not equate to socialism; it can be achieved through applying Conservative principles. He adds that the history of the building, Hawkstone Hall, in which the Centre for Social Justice is based, demonstrates “that those who say Conservatives don’t do social justice have simply got their heads up their backsides.” At­tached to Christ Church and Upton, Hawkstone Hall is the building where William Wilberforce started the anti­slavery movement and Lord Shaftesbury began the “ragged school” movement. Abraham Lincoln’s family donated the tower after he died, because he had been so inspired by what started there.

“Those are three Conservatives that we would all admire,” Duncan Smith says.

At the heat t of Duncan Smith’s politics, is a simple belief that politicians are there to “improve the quality of life” for the people—particularly the worst off, rather than those earning millions. “If we are not in the game to do that, then I don’t know what we’re doing kicking around in politics for. We might as well pack it up.” His party’s record in government is one to be proud of, he believes, and one that the party should build on now. “The record shows that when in power, the Conservatives have done huge amounts for the worst off in society, so why not talk about them and our successes, instead of allowing ourselves to drift into the idea that we are the ‘fat cats’ party, which we never were?” The Conservatives have historically been the party of small, not big, business. “We were the people who were striving to get on in life. When did that stop? It didn’t. We just stopped talking about it.”

In December 2004, Duncan Smith published a pam­phlet, Britain’s Conservative Majority, which analyzed polling data and concluded that Britain is socially conservative. The majority of people want their values expressed in politics and are concerned about the family, child protection, drugs, and education, and want “a fair deal for the poor.” A values-based agenda, therefore, if properly communicated, would embrace the majority of the electorate. “Those who dismiss President Bush’s election as some sort of biblical nonsense… are just lazy and self-indulgent,” Duncan Smith says. “They have not understood. None of them ever refer to Australia, where, unstudied by anybody, John Howard, in a stylisti­cally and linguistically different way, romped home to an increased majority on a very similar platform [to Bush’s].”

Britain’s social conservatives, Duncan Smith believes, are “ignored, almost hated by Labour” and are “naturally akin” to the Conservatives. “So why aren’t we telling them that this is the party they should be thinking of? We should match our existing beliefs to their concerns.” He concedes that such a plan would have to be implemented differently in the United Kingdom than in the United States because of cultural differences, but the values are the same. Combin­ing socially conservative views with a commitment to social justice is, in his view, “the most intellectually interesting characteristic of Britain’s conservative majority.”

But while there are cultural differences between Britain and the United States, Duncan Smith is an unflinching pro­ponent of their special relationship, in spite of the recent strain put upon it by the Bush—Blair alliance and the war in Iraq (which some Conservatives opposed).

Duncan Smith is understanding. “Alliances are between nations, not individuals. So it is important for the Republi­cans, and my own party, to understand that it is the duty of an American president and a British prime minister to place that important alliance at the heart of all their thinking.”

He doesn’t deny that it has been difficult at times. American Republicans and British Conservatives are old po­litical allies, and yet today, America’s Republican president has forged a strong relationship with Britain’s Labour prime minister. In addition, the war in Iraq polarized opinion even within the Conservative Party. But Duncan Smith, himself an early proponent of intervention in Iraq, has never wa­vered in his support of the war or of President Bush. And under Duncan Smith’s leadership, the Conservatives sup­ported Blair in a vote in Parliament on the war—against many of Blair’s own MPs.

Montgomerie says that Duncan Smith’s Catholic faith has given him “a political philosophy that is honest and straight­forward…. There is no member of Parliament I would trust more than lain. He doesn’t talk much about faith. He just gets on with walking the Christian journey. A concern for society’s most vulnerable is, for him, at the heart of that journey.”

Duncan Smith wants to leave people with a sense that “we really do have a mission.” He believes in the impor­tance of a narrative in politics. “Story first, implementation second. If you do it the other way around, you lose people. The policies are the bits that fit into the narrative.” His suc­cessor has recognized that and has appointed him to chair a new social justice policy group within the party.

Despite a bitter experience as leader, Duncan Smith has given the Conservatives an important legacy. Now they are at last beginning to tell an exciting story.


  • Benedict Rogers

    Benedict Rogers is a journalist and human-rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (www.csw.org.uk). He has co-authored a book with Joseph D'Souza: "On the Side of Angels: Without Justice, There Can Be No Mission."

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