How Compassionate Conservatism writes off the poor

As secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith will oversee the application of those “savage”, “momentous”, “way-of-life disrupting” cuts to some of those at the very bottom of the social heap. His late metamorphosis into the Tory party’s social conscience was one of the more endearing curiousities of the Conservatives’ wilderness years.

Sure, the assumptions from which IDS’s Centre For Social Justice worked were often numbingly traditionalist. Talk of wanting a “welfare society” to displace the welfare state could be cynically compared to the Victorian practice of offering voluntary poor relief (mostly workhouses, which don’t sound as huggy).

And then the think tank’s obsession with marrying the nation off, turning out endless papers on the presumed value of legally enshrined heterosexual coupledom, made it a bit of a meddling grandmother to the nation, constantly trying to nudge us all down the aisle. But still, Compassionate Conservatism meant well. And who wants to be anti the anti-poverty think tank? Anyone who wanted to criticise the Centre’s work had to pass through a pretty invidious double negative to make their point.

Actually, that was part of its function. The mission statement says it was established “to seek effective solutions to the poverty that blight parts of Britain”. But it was also part of the reorientation of the Conservative party away from being the big bad benefit-slashing wolf of British politics, and into a more lovable Red Riding Hood guise (basket of goodies, keen on the extended family).

In a 2005 interview, IDS was disarmingly frank about the fact that his policy contributions were inspired by salesmanship as well as sympathy. Asked about how the Tories could make themselves electable again, he explained that the party needed to “present a set of values which represent compassion”: “You need people to say, rather like they say about Labour, actually these are OK, they are decent people, their heart is in the right place.”

But while he was persuasive on the heart part of the argument, it was the head that caused IDS problems earlier this year – specifically, his flawed interpretation of one neuroscientist’s work on the developing brain. As the Guardian reported, IDS was caught extrapolating wildly from Dr Bruce Perry’s research on the brains of children who experienced extreme neglect.

Perry’s work found that infants who experienced profound sensory and emotional deprivation tended to have restricted brain development. Duncan Smith spoke about that finding as though it applied to a whole range of more minor deprivations, from witnessing abuse to growing up in the care of a mother who has several partners. And IDS posited brain size as an explanatory factor in poverty and crime.

Perry described Duncan Smith’s comments as an oversimplification and distortion of his research. It’s a depressingly lax attitude to evidence, but that can hardly seem surprising in a politician. What’s perhaps worse is that Duncan Smith is making a deterministic case for putting the poor and supposedly disruptive beyond help.

After all, the government can’t be expected to make people’s brains bigger. And people with small brains can’t be expected to make anything of their lives. It’s a nonsensical perversion of the research, but very seductive to a party that had already committed to the Broken Britain lie – a pseudo-biological explanation for inequality that exonerates the well-off from responsibility. In fact, it’s practically Victorian. As the cuts start to take effect – starting, it turns out, with some of the smallest and poorest – that workhouse comparison might not turn out to be as facetious as it sounded.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; photo by Alyceobvious, used under Creative Commons

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