Austerity’s defendent turns witness for the prosecution. The turning of Iain Duncan Smith

by | Mar 21, 2016


The media and political classes in Britain are in shock at the dramatic resignation of the minister in charge of welfare, Iain Duncan Smith. He had been seen as a hawk for austerity. Now he says it has gone too far, is politically not economically driven, is hurtful, and is dividing society. The significance of this is huge, but far too much of the media and political debate has focused on which politicians his declarations will help and harm, or what it might mean for the other debates that elites see as more important than poverty and inequality, namely the forthcoming referendum on Europe. Surely there is no more important issue than what kind of society we want to live in, and whether we really are, as he asks in his resignation letter, “all in this together”. And to have the defendent of austerity turn witness for the prosecution is a massive development. This is not an NGO slamming the austerity programme. It is the man who ran the programme.

Let us listen to what he says:

“They are losing sight of the direction of travel they should be in. It is in danger of drifting in a direction that divides society rather than unites it, and that I think is unfair.”

“That is deeply unfair, and that unfairness is damaging to the government, it’s damaging to the party and it’s damaging to the public.”

“It looks like we see benefits as a pot of money to cut because they don’t vote for us.”

That’s a lot further than we NGOs ever went! (I used to represent a number of charities on UK poverty, though now I live in Kenya and on this issue speak only for myself.)

I can understand how Iain Duncan Smith must feel when politicians say that the evidence he shares doesn’t count because he is really just pursuing a narrow partisan agenda. It’s what he and his acolytes used to say about me, and about the foodbank volunteers who shared the misery of those they met, and about the doctors who highlighted the damage to public health, and about researchers whose studies showed the harm, and about church leaders who pleaded for more compassion. I can see why many charities may be tempted now to revel in his fall. But the issue is much bigger than him. When Fifa official Chuck Blazer revealed the extent of institutionalised corruption, prosecutors did not reject his testimony because of his past – they saw that they needed to tackle the whole edifice. Likewise when the minister who ran an austerity programme exposes its true nature, social justice advocates need to  look beyond the individual to the bigger issue. That bigger issue is not one party or one country. Indeed, it can be said that for about 35 years after World War II governments of both left and right worked to constrain market excesses and contain inequality, and for the 35 years after that they both let it go. The scalp to claim is not one politician or one government, it is an ideology, a lie, that elites across Europe have held onto for far too long. Good people of all political stripes have seen an architect of austerity admit that foundations are built on sand. It is a chance for us all to turn away from it.

And though this is not about the man, one thought about the man. It seems that people like me may have misunderstood his aggression – the threats, the bluster, the anger – as certainty. But now he says he had been wrestling with the injustice for too long. Perhaps his aggression wasn’t certainty. Perhaps it was shame.

 

Author

  • Ben Phillips is Campaigns and Policy Director of ActionAid. Previously, he worked for Oxfam in the UK. He has lived and worked in four continents and 10 cities including New Delhi and Washington DC, as well as with children in poverty in East London. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid.


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