Blogs > Ian Duncan Smith's resignation over welfare policy was sincere - he did believe in the Common Good

21 March 2016 | by Clifford Longley

Ian Duncan Smith's resignation over welfare policy was sincere - he did believe in the Common Good

Though the integrity of the former work and pensions secretary has been called into question, reform was on his agenda

We are witnessing one of the most serious government crises in recent years, both over the Budget presented to the House of Commons last Wednesday (16 March) and over the referendum on European Union membership which has divided the Tory party from top to bottom.

Ian Duncan Smith is central to both issues. He spectacularly resigned from the Government over what he said was an issue of conscience. He is, as is well known, a Catholic. As such he has frequently been the target of recrimination from his fellow Catholics for his willingness to see cuts to the welfare benefits that many poorer people need to live on. There were many such appeals to his Catholic conscience, which he appeared not to heed.

We now know the reason for his resignation, according to his resignation letter to the Prime Minister and to several interviews he has given since, was his principled opposition to further cuts in the welfare budget, particularly payments to the disabled.

His sincerity has been questioned and it is being put about that this is really all about the EU. But I believe him, though his resignation may have slotted easily into that other cause he has been promoting, namely opposing Britain's membership of the European Union. One reason I think he is sincere is because his trajectory is consistent, ever since he visited certain Scottish housing estates and concluded that the welfare benefits regime was calculated to keep people in poverty, not relieve them of it. It led to habitual long-term dependency, which was an impediment to human growth and development.

As he later wrote, he encountered "levels of social breakdown which appalled me. In the fourth largest economy in the world, too many people lived in dysfunctional homes, trapped on benefits. Too many children were leaving school with no qualifications or skills to enable them to work and prosper. Too many communities were blighted by alcohol and drug addiction, debt and criminality, many of them with stunningly low levels of life expectancy." 

 Though already a Catholic (and an ex-army officer) when he read it, Duncan Smith has said that he was converted to the idea of social justice by the publication in 1996 of The Common Good and the Catholic Church's Social Teaching by the Catholic bishops of England and Wales. He reacted as an army officer would, who had just received direct orders from the top. Not only that, but he must have been well aware that Margaret Thatcher's favourite guru, Friedrich Hayek, had famously denounced the very idea of social justice as an "absurd superstition". Hayek was a determined advocate of the free market, an early market fundamentalist. So to set up a think tank and to call it the Centre for Social Justice, as Duncan Smith did after relinquishing the leadership of the Tory Party, was a bold and controversial move. He was throwing down the gauntlet to all those Thatcherites who followed the Hayekian way, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

Indeed The Common Good document did contain a warning about welfare dependency on the basis of Catholic Social Teaching, though it did not go as far as Clause 48 of the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. The wording of that attack on the "so-called Welfare State" left many Catholics, myself included, very uncomfortable. Nevertheless it does shed a lot of light on Duncan Smith's whole approach. It said:

"In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called 'Welfare State'. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the 'Social Assistance State'. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

"By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care."

This is relevant not only to welfare policy in general but also to David Cameron's  project for a "Big Society" whereby the voluntary sector would be empowered to take over, and carry out more humanely, many of the functions that the Welfare State had put in a statutory basis. We now know that the Big Society project foundered through lack of joined-up thinking in Whitehall and Westminster, lack of resources and cuts to local government funding, and a failure to explain convincingly what it was about.

It is ironic that one of the most telling manifestations of the Big Society has been the growth of the food bank movement, growth largely driven by the withdrawal of benefits payments to the needy in order to punish them for breaking the rules of welfare eligibility. Cardinal Nichols made a public protest at the cruelty of such a system, saying the safety net of the welfare system was no longer in place to prevent hunger and other hardships.

Duncan Smith resented that and recriminated with the cardinal, saying he had got his facts wrong. Nichols stood his ground, relying on what he had seen with his own eyes when visiting food banks in his diocese and what he had been told by Westminster parish priests. Duncan Smith failed to acknowledge that many of the points the cardinal had made were fully enforced and reinforced by a recent House of Common Select Committee report on the imposition of benefits sanctions by the staff at Job Centres, which raised serious concerns about the social damage they were doing to some of the most vulnerable in society. Duncan Smith's department responded that they also had got their facts wrong.

The problem was that Duncan Smith's approach to benefit reform suffered from a highly dogmatic mindset, which refused to recognise the difficulties of dealing with human frailty and fallibility. It may even be that his dogmatism, as a personality trait, had been transferred from his Catholicism to his political work. It is for such reasons that Catholics engaged in the welfare sector, whether voluntary or statutory, will not greatly lament his departure, but may, just a little, respect his reasons for it.

Let Luke 15:7 have the last word - "I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents..."

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Comment by: Boyers
Posted: 12/05/2016 21:27:38
I think he's just shot himself in the foot (or was it the head)?
His latest rant that the EU is fundamentally evil because it promotes inequality sounds to me like the perfect description of the Tory Party. As every single survey has shown, the poor get poorer and the rich remain protected under Conservative policy. IDS was responsible for the lunatic policy of the "bedroom tax" which is about as stupid as "government" ever gets.
Is it possible to be a Tory and a Christian?
I think not.
Comment by: Maryk
Posted: 24/03/2016 09:39:50
I don't think many disabled people or those hit by the bedroom tax or unjust sanctions will either lament his departure or respect his reasons. He was warned so often of the consequences lof what he was doing but he wouldn't listen.
Comment by: philip
Posted: 23/03/2016 11:02:52
or, to put it another way...It is quite possible that IDS would have had Hayek's full approval for everything he did except the use of the term "social justice" to describe it. Hayek would have reasonably asked "why is this programme just and that one unjust - what are the objective criteria of justice that allow us to make a judgement?". Of course, the use of words is important - that is why Hayek did not want to see the adoption of the term "justice" to describe redistribution. But we should split the two debates - the important intellectual debate about exactly what "social justice" should mean (which we should, indeed, talk about more in an intellectually curious way) and the other debate about what interventions Hayek believed in. He was not an anarchist and he did not believe the poor should be left on the streets. Indeed, his ideas about redistribution go quite far.
Comment by: philip
Posted: 23/03/2016 10:47:38
Clifford - I don't quite see why you can't separate out the two issues. As I say below, there is no reading of the Constitution of Liberty or Law Legislation and Liberty that can take one to the view that Hayek did not believe in redistribution (or for that matter quite a few other forms of intervention in the market). Now you (and for that matter, the Church - though only relatively recently) might like to call such redistribution "social justice". Hayek's objection was not to the action, but to that description of income redistribution. I am writing something at the moment in which I say (and others have said this too) that Hayek was actually wrong about the Church's original understanding of social justice. Until the 1930s, the Church used the term "social justice" to mean justice in economic and social relationships (eg an employer treating their employees justly, or the state not somehow excluding people from running a business by unjust discrimination). This does have real meaning and it is a pity that Hayek did not run with that properly. So, to sum up: (a) I think there is real meaning in the term "social justice" (b) I don't think it is a good term to describe large scale mechanisms of income redistribution (c) Hayek did believe in income redistribution etc but did not wish to describe them as "social justice" (d) Nevertheless, I think Hayek could have done us a favour by exploring the concept more (good article we published by Rhonheimer on that).
Comment by: philip
Posted: 22/03/2016 11:28:17
I think Clifford misunderstands Hayek's critique of social justice. He was not especially criticising anything in which IDS believed or anything at the heart of Catholic social teaching. Hayek's antipathy to the term arose because he believed that it is not possible to specify a distribution of incomes that could be described definitively as "just". Justice is characterised by objectivity (as in "justice is blind"). We can say with some certainty that an outcome of a criminal process is more or less just than another outcome, but there will be wide disagreement over the principles by which the distribution of incomes should be determined. It is therefore not possible in Hayek's view to describe outcomes as just or unjust. This is why it is a "mirage": we can talk about it in the abstract without every stumbling across it in reality. I sympathise with this view, but it is an argument about semantics. Indeed, until the 20th century, the Church did not use the word "justice" to describe the distribution of incomes (more to describe social relationships). In both Constitution of Liberty (257) and Law, Legislation and Liberty (book 3, page 55) Hayek talks about redistribution to ensure a minimum standard of living dependent upon the average income of the country (well beyond what Rerum novarum ever suggested) and he makes clear that he is not that that he is not that concerned if this minimum level is quite high as long as the means by which it is financed is just.

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