Iain Duncan Smith
had been Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for just under two years when Huw Spanner met him in his office in the Palace of Westminster on 23 February 2012.
Photography: Andrew Firth
A lot of commentators say that you’re a complex person. Is that how it feels to you, from the inside?
I don’t know. I seem quite ordinary, really. I think I am quite a private person, so I think that when people say I’m complex it’s probably because they are surprised by something that they never saw [in me] before.
I don’t like too much intrusion into my life – which made being leader [of the Conservative Party from 2001 to 2003] very difficult, because I wouldn’t have my kids photographed and that annoyed the media enormously because they felt they had a right to intrude.
Can you talk a little about your upbringing and how it shaped the man you are now?
I don’t know that it was particularly special. My father was serving in the RAF until I was six or seven, I think, so we’d moved around a lot – we’d been in Germany, America… And then he went into business, and I think I went away to school when I was 13 –
You were the youngest of five, is that right?
I was, yeah. Two girls, then two boys, then me.
Do you show any sign of youngest-child syndrome?
Normally, youngest children have to make their presence felt, particularly in large families, and I probably did, too. It probably helped me when I entered politics, to be able to stand my ground and argue my case.
I’ve read that you admired your father greatly.
By the age of 24 [my father] was commanding about a thousand men – in combat, every day. I mean, what was I doing when I was 24? Commanding a platoon
Yeah, hugely. He was an inspiring character, really.
I didn’t really [appreciate] his past until I got older. It didn’t mean a thing to me that he had got, you know, five gallantry medals until I go into the Army and somebody asks about him and they say, ‘That’s unbelievable!’ And at that point you suddenly realise that actually he was a kind of Boy’s Own hero, really.
He was very understated, very much in control of himself – he never swore. He was quite old-school in a sense: he was unfailingly polite – if a woman walked into the room, he always stood up.
I think he was flying in combat by the age of 20, 21, and by the age of 24 he was commanding about a thousand men – in combat, every day. I mean, what was I doing when I was 24? Commanding a platoon.
Your mother was a ballerina, wasn’t she?
She danced through the war, for a company called the Anglo-Polish [Ballet]. She was very different from him.
Were you brought up a Catholic?
My mother was Catholic, my father was Church of Scotland, so he took a view that he would bring the boys up as, basically, Church of England and she would take the girls [to church] and they would be Catholic. That was the agreement. I don’t think the Catholic Church approved, so there were a few ruckuses.
However, my father wasn’t really a great churchgoer, to be frank. He had his own view about religion – he was, you know, a Christian – but basically we boys didn’t go much unless my mother took us. Eventually, round about the age of 12, it was put to me: Did I want to become a Catholic? And that seemed to me quite logical and sensible.
I was told that you don’t particularly like talking about your faith. Is that true?
Well, I don’t wear all these things on my sleeve, because, you know, they’re personal.
But your faith is more than just cultural?
No, no, I’m a strong believer in this. Very much so.
You went to Sandhurst and ended up in the Scots Guards. Why did you want to go into the Forces?
I quite liked the idea of leadership, of action and outdoor activities. That kind of thing really interested me. I was always pretty good at sports – to this day I still love playing sports, and I read the sports pages first before the politics.
But I only joined on a short-service commission. I always had other things to do, and I wanted eventually to go into politics.
When did that ambition emerge?
It was shaping all the time in me, I think – even when I was a teen I was interested in politics generally. I think it all came to the fore when I went to what was then Rhodesia with [Major General] John Acland in 1979 and got to know some of the politicians involved in the implementation of the Lancaster House Agreement,1The agreement, negotiated in London in 1979, that brought legal independence and full democracy to Rhodesia (renamed ‘Zimbabwe’) after its white minority’s ‘unilateral declaration of independence’ in 1965 and decided that really what I wanted to be doing was not implementing stuff but making the decisions.
The whole idea of improving the quality of people’s lives was very much part of that. I have a very graphic memory of two little kids I saw on a long trek through the bush. We crossed over a dried-up river bed and these kids had dug a hole in the middle of it; it was half full of water and they were having a bath, basically – having a whale of a time with a bar of soap. I mean, it was just giggles galore and bubbles everywhere. [Throughout the bush war,] this had been a no-go area and it was just a wonderful moment when you suddenly realised that as a result of the agreement things were changing.
I know things have gone off the rails there since, but at that time you could see the results of good politics and it struck me that that was a good thing to do.
When you finally got into Parliament in 1992, you spent most of your first term defying the whips –
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
After six years in the Army, did that go against the grain?
No. Yes, you want to try to be a team-player if you can but you didn’t come into this place to say that every decision is taken by somebody else. We were being told we had to vote for stuff which I didn’t think I should vote for. It wasn’t easy, coming in as a new boy – there was a lot of pressure on me; but I’ve always taken a view that sometimes there are things you just can’t agree to as a matter of principle, and I thought we were wrong about the Maastricht Treaty.2Formally, the Treaty on European Union, signed in 1992 by the then 12 members of the European Community, which established the European Union and led in due course to the creation of the euro I think that everything I said then is, pretty much, coming true now, so I’m pretty certain that I was right.
You were regarded back then as a hardened Thatcherite – John Major described you in his autobiography as ‘sharp-toothed … with … a strong right-wing ideology’.
Yeah. Not really. That was because I didn’t agree with him over Maastricht – he took it personally.
In 2002, it’s said, you had an ‘epiphany’ when you visited the Easterhouse housing estate in Glasgow –
Yeah, I always feel that this is a little unfair. I had been writing about the problem [of poverty] for some time before but it was only when I became leader that anyone took any interest in what we were trying to say.
All that happened was that when I took over the party I thought it had become too narrow, too focused on things that it felt comfortable on, like Europe and taxation, law and order and, to a degree, immigration, and not what I call the more ‘social’ issues, the things that seem fuzzier, like poverty, social breakdown, the stuff that makes the family tick. The Health Service was another area I thought we needed to get much more involved in.
Historically, the party had been across these issues – after all, the great 19th-century social reformers were invariably Conservatives if they were anything – you think of the Shaftesburys and the Wilberforces, and even the Disraelis of that time: social reform was very much part of their canon.
I can’t see a problem but attack it. The worse the problem, the more interested I get in it. I couldn’t just write about poverty or do a television programme about it and then walk away
So, my aim was to focus attention dramatically on the areas where I really thought there were problems. That was really what it was about.
You yourself said that you went away from Easterhouse ‘a changed man’, and your experience there has been widely understood as a ‘Damascus Road’ conversion from Thatcherism. Was that not so?
No. You see, I think that people have defined Thatcher in the way they wanted to define her, and in some ways they’ve just misunderstood her. If you look at what she was about, she had particular problems in her day – the economy was in a desperate state, Britain was heading down the tubes fast and, you know, was a bit of a laughing stock, people were saying that you could never sort the unions out, they were just too powerful. The recent film [The Iron Lady]3Dir Phyllida Lloyd, 2011 reminded us of the battles that had to be fought – violent battles – just to get Britain back to a rational sense of itself. So, she had to be pretty tough to solve those problems; she had to be pretty strident.
But what was she really about? The truth was, there was unfinished business with her, which was ‘the inner cities’, as she called it. I would call it ‘social breakdown’. After the last election that she won, in ’87, she said we were going to go [and sort out] the inner cities; but we never quite got there because we ran out of steam.
I’ve always said that you can’t reform an economy without reforming society, because otherwise all that will happen is what’s happened now, which is that a large minority of people come to feel they have no part to play in society because they’re ill educated and they have no sense of belonging and they become part of a dependent culture. The rest go on to play a full part in society but what you end up with is the situation we’ve arrived at, where the top end of society becomes untrammelled and, all right, people create wealth but they end up taking a disproportionate amount of that wealth for themselves. And there was a lack of balance because we never resolved this bottom bit, the inability of the poorest to play a part in wealth creation, which was the bit that Thatcher said she wanted to resolve.
So, this is unfinished business right now that I am engaged in: sorting out welfarism, family breakdown, cultural breakdown – changing lives, to get a modern British society ready and able to play a strong role in the world and to give its people a real shot at mobility. We should have done it 20 years ago – and it’s all the tougher doing it now because this culture has become bigger and more embedded.
People often talk of your ‘almost religious fervour’ about tackling poverty, or your ‘evangelical zeal’. To what extent does that concern in fact relate to your faith?
Well, I don’t know that you can… All I can say is that you are the sum total of the things you believe in or care about and so if I have any sense of faith – which I do – then it does lead me to believe that if you see something [wrong], you have to want to put it right. And if you think you’ve got some of the answers, I think you need to try to [bring them] to fruition.
You know, ‘zeal’ – I think that’s just the way I am. I mean, I can’t see a problem but attack it. The worse the problem, the more interested I get in it, to be quite frank with you. I couldn’t just write about poverty or do a television programme about it and then walk away.
It has been said that you were elected leader of your party (and Leader of the Opposition) almost by accident. Tim Montgomerie, who was your chief of staff in 2003, said you were ‘completely unprepared, with no worked-out agenda’. Why did you stand? Was it opportunism, or vanity? Or just to prevent someone worse getting in?
I felt I had a pretty clear idea where the party ought to be. (And I was right about that, by the way. I think that David Cameron picked up a lot of what I was doing and moved it on, hugely – I’ve nothing but the highest regard for [him] in that respect.) I didn’t agree with those who were saying at the time they thought the only way for the Conservative Party to get back into power was for it to crash and burn and then, you know, like the phoenix rise from the flames, with a whole new set of beliefs.
Unlike the Labour Party, the Conservative Party has never really been ideological – it’s very much a party based around a set of overlapping principles, and those shift to meet the times. That’s how it has survived as the world’s oldest political party. For that very same reason, it doesn’t have a fixed constitution, as it were – it is what it is at the time, with the principles that lie behind it: things like giving people greater freedom to make their own decisions, at the same time recognising that there are some things you have to do to protect and help to support those who are the most vulnerable. You know, these are the principles that guide us, but within all of that the direction of travel can be modified. So, the reason I stood, really, was that at the time I felt that Michael [Portillo] and others didn’t see that. They thought they had to have a ‘Clause IV moment’4The reference is to the vote by Labour Party members in 1995 to amend the clause of the party constitution that in effect had committed it to socialism. Tony Blair commented at the time: ‘Today a new Labour party is being born.’ – ‘with one bound, they were free’ – and I didn’t think that was feasible with the Conservatives.
Given the way it all ended, in a vote of no confidence – you didn’t even get to lead your party in a general election – do you regret now that you became leader?
No. It was tough, I don’t say for one moment it wasn’t tough and there weren’t times when I thought to myself that it was really not worth a candle; but no, I have no regrets at all. Because [otherwise] I might not have been able to set up the Centre for Social Justice 5centreforsocialjustice.org.uk and all the good work that we’ve done, all the programmes I have now been able to put in place. And others – some of Michael Gove’s programmes [at the Department for Education] came from the CSJ, there are programmes in the Home Office… You know, had we not set up the CSJ would [Mr Cameron] have had the scope to do some of the things he did in opposition as leader?
What I did regret was the way people used my wife to get to me, with false allegations – and they were genuinely utterly false.6In 2002, Michael Crick of BBC2’s Newsnight alleged that the salary Elisabeth Duncan Smith was paid from the public purse as her husband’s diary secretary in 2001–02 was not commensurate with the work she did. The House of Commons’ Standards and Privileges Committee eventually dismissed the charge.
Your novel, The Devil’s Tune,7Published by Robson Books came out in 2003, too, to quite dreadful reviews…
It did, it did. Actually, it sold out, so that was all right.
I haven’t ever had a chance to write another one, because I’ve been a bit busy since then.
Tim Montgomerie has said that the job you have now [as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions] is the one you’ve been working towards your whole life. I don’t know if that would be your perspective.
I wouldn’t put it in quite such a…
Is it not the job you really want?
Right now, this is the work I have to complete. I didn’t come in to do the job – I don’t like the red boxes and all that kind of stuff very much – you know, it’s a mechanism to me, that’s all it is, to get things done. I know what I want to do – on that, I’m absolutely clear – and I just want to get it done. The rest of it is just games.
At the end of the day it’s quite simple: either we are changing lives for the better or we’re not
I spoke recently to Bob Holman8The academic-turned-community-worker who showed Mr Duncan Smith around Easterhouse in 2002 and he said that his challenge to you would be to leave politics and devote yourself to campaigning for social justice.
I know. I would love to do that, and who knows that at some point I won’t? The problem is that I don’t think I could ever live up to Bob’s standards, because he is a living saint – I use that term literally, because I believe it – I mean, he is a remarkable man and I have huge admiration for him.9He died in 2016 – see this obituary, for example. And I know he gets fed up with me because he thinks I should be doing things differently10See bit.ly/dzFWa7. and I accept that. I mean, the trouble with government – and I knew this when I took the job on – is that you don’t govern by yourself. You’re impacted by all the decisions that the Chancellor takes, or the Health Secretary, and what you’re trying to do all the time is keep your head focused on the horizon and steer to the goal that you want. But you need sometimes, sadly, to make trade-offs and accept some compromises.
Have you found that painful?
They are difficult, those compromises. Particularly in a time of austerity, it’s really hard to make these reforms because you’re also being asked to make savings at the same time. But we’ve secured some major things – the investment in Universal Credit11The new income-related benefit for working-age people that was shortly to replace six different means-tested benefits and tax credits. It was designed to ensure that people are always better off being in work than out of it. is a pretty serious plus, and I think that will change people’s lives quite dramatically once we’ve got it in.
Are you hurt by the criticisms?
No, not really. Some of them are probably correct, you know. Some of them arise from disappointment that I couldn’t do everything I would have wanted to do. I understand that. I think it’s quite legitimate for people like Bob to tell me that I’ve done something wrong – and it does make me pause for thought. I sit and reflect: Maybe he is right, maybe I could have done more to stop something or to change something and perhaps I got engaged in the ghastly game of government too much.
When you sit in church on Sundays, what do you hear in the gospel that resonates with what you are trying to do, and what do you hear that challenges your politics?
That’s a really difficult question. I don’t want to bang on about this, but I think that mostly I’m just reminded that we are here for a purpose. We are not here to be spectators, we’re here to do things. And so I just feel constantly that I’m not working hard enough and I’m not doing these things properly. The purpose of what I’m doing is to change people’s lives and I have to remind myself that it’s not about changing mechanisms or fiddling with new systems – which it’s very easy to get bogged down in in the wonderful game of government. At the end of the day, it’s quite simple: either we are changing lives for the better or we’re not.
When you sit in church, that’s what you have time to reflect on and I guess that’s what faith does for you: it examines you, and makes sure that you don’t forget that there is a much bigger purpose to your life than just self-indulgence, really.
This edit was originally published in the October 2012 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||The agreement, negotiated in London in 1979, that brought legal independence and full democracy to Rhodesia (renamed ‘Zimbabwe’) after its white minority’s ‘unilateral declaration of independence’ in 1965|
|⇑2||Formally, the Treaty on European Union, signed in 1992 by the then 12 members of the European Community, which established the European Union and led in due course to the creation of the euro|
|⇑3||Dir Phyllida Lloyd, 2011|
|⇑4||The reference is to the vote by Labour Party members in 1995 to amend the clause of the party constitution that in effect had committed it to socialism. Tony Blair commented at the time: ‘Today a new Labour party is being born.’|
|⇑6||In 2002, Michael Crick of BBC2’s Newsnight alleged that the salary Elisabeth Duncan Smith was paid from the public purse as her husband’s diary secretary in 2001–02 was not commensurate with the work she did. The House of Commons’ Standards and Privileges Committee eventually dismissed the charge.|
|⇑7||Published by Robson Books|
|⇑8||The academic-turned-community-worker who showed Mr Duncan Smith around Easterhouse in 2002|
|⇑9||He died in 2016 – see this obituary, for example.|
|⇑11||The new income-related benefit for working-age people that was shortly to replace six different means-tested benefits and tax credits. It was designed to ensure that people are always better off being in work than out of it.|
Iain Duncan Smith was born in Edinburgh in 1954. He was educated at the naval training school HMS Conway and then attended Sandhurst, passing out in 1975.
He spent six years in the Scots Guards, rising to the rank of captain and serving in Northern Ireland and (as aide-de-camp to Major General John Acland) what was then still Rhodesia.
From 1981 to ’88, he worked for GEC-Marconi in sales and marketing. He joined the property company Bellwinch briefly and then, from 1989 to ’92, was marketing director of Jane’s Defence Weekly and Jane’s Fighting Ships.
He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1987 as Conservative candidate for Bradford West, and was elected MP for Chingford in 1992. Since 1997, he has been MP for the new constituency of Chingford & Woodford.
He has sat on the Commons select committees on health (1993–95), administration (1993–97) and standards and privileges (1995–97).
He was promoted to the Shadow Cabinet in 1997 and was given the portfolio first for social security and then, from 1999, for defence.
In 2001, he was elected leader of the Conservative Party, and thus Leader of the Opposition, and was appointed to the Privy Council. In 2003, the parliamentary party passed a vote of no confidence in him and he returned to the back benches.
In 2004, with Tim Montgomerie and Philippa Stroud he founded the centre-right think-tank the Centre for Social Justice, of which he was chair until 2010 and is now patron.
He was appointed Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2010.
He is the author of The Devil’s Tune (2003). He was made a freeman of the City of London in 1993.
He has been married since 1982 (to the daughter of Baron Cottesloe) and has two sons and two daughters.
Up-to-date as at 1 September 2012