Page 7, 19th May 2006

19th May 2006
Page 7
Page 7, 19th May 2006 — Returning from the wilderness

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Returning from the wilderness

The former Conservative leader has a new and even more challenging mission, says Vincent McKee Iain Duncan Smith looks every inch the Scots Guards officer he once was. And he needed all his military mettle to survive a brief and hapless tenure as leader of the Conservatives from 2001 to 2003. He stood up under a withering assault from the Press, his political opponents and even members of his own party before he was finally ousted in October 2003.

It is a mark qf Duncan Smith's strength of character that now, less than three years after being cast into the political wilderness, he has reemerged among the most influential figures in his party.

"Sure, it was a disappointment," he tells me when I meet him at his Westminster office. "Certain colleagues let me down. but one moves on. There are new challenges out there."

The former Tory leader is reluctant to name names but after acknowledging the support of William Hague, Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher. he admits that "Michael Portillo was frequently unhelpful". Further than that, he will not go. He is looking to the future and wants to lay aside past agonies.

The big challenge ahead, as Duncan Smith sees it, is finding new ways to alleviate poverty in Britain's grim inner cities. Some time after losing the Tory leadership he established the Centre for Social Justice, a centre-right thinktank that aims to revitalise Conservative social policy. In December 2005 David Cameron recognised his predecessor's contribution to Conservative thinking when he appointed him chairman of the party's Social Justice Policy Group. Duncan Smith's view will therefore have a profound impact on the next Conservative manifesto, a situation that, understandably, has made his rehabilitation more pleasing.

"The big challenge is no longer the economy, but social Britain," Duncan Smith explains. His formidable appearance softens as he warms to this theme; the stiff Scots Guard takes a step back and a more relaxed personality takes a pace forward. "Our society's liberal managers over the past 30 years have caused a collapse in British structures into an amoral vacuum. That trend must be reversed."

Where does Duncan Smith place the blame for his collapse? He, like Pope Benedict XVI, believes that the cause is secularism.

"So much of our social breakdown is a consequence of secularism, which is a panEuropean phenomenon," he says. "Despite having an Established Church, British society worships at the altar of secularism more than any Western nation."

Duncan Smith is deeply concerned about the permissive climate that has led to critical social problems such as record teenage pregnancies, drug addiction, an annual rate of 180,000 abortions, high urban crime, social exclusion and the disintegration of family life. "I dread to think how far those troubles will reach in years to come if things do not change," he says.

Yet he shies away from American-style moral majoritarianism. He has no time for the fundamentalism of the Baptist leader Jerry Falwell or the Catholic populism of Republican contender Pat Buchanan. Instead, he believes that the solution to Britain's social ills lies in a new corn

mitment among Conservatives to social justice, compassion and the family.

"What people dislike about the Conservative Party is not traditional values or its core principles," he explains. with the candour of someone revelling in a new freedom to speak his mind, "but our perceived indifference to the needy, with traditional values warped into nastiness.

"Because we value wealth creation we are viewed as indifferent to the poor, while supporting stable families makes us look hostile to single mothers, unmarried couples and homosexuals. Even our belief in personal independence infers hostility to elderly, sick and disabled recipients of public welfare, people who depend on the state for survival."

Yet Duncan Smith believes that Conservatives can change public perceptions by balancing existing commitments to the free market with an emphasis on compassion. He spelt out his thesis in a recent pamphlet, in which he argued that most people want to get married, own their own homes and aspire for their children to be able to do the same. But he acknowledged in-built obstacles to those goals. "In too many cases, for which government policy is to blame, this aspiration is not met," he wrote. "Children often don't get married or settle into regular jobs and sometimes embrace drugs and crime. We Conservatives have a vision of government that seeks to recover common ground by tailoring policy to peoples' experiences, as well as their aspirations."

Duncan Smith's social philosophy has two sources: the first is an interest in "One Nation" Toryism a legacy of 19th-century Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli and the second is his Catholic faith.

In many ways Duncan Smith is an unlikely champion of One Nation ideals, given that this school is most commonly associated with Tory centrists such as Kenneth Clarke (whom he defeated for the leadership in 2001) and the late Edward Heath. Duncan Smith is a man of the Right, and when challenging for election to the leadership his appeal (not to mention his background as a sovereignty rebel against John Major's European integration policy) was to the Tory Right. An open admirer of Mrs Thatcher, Duncan Smith won Norman Tebbit's old Chingford seat in 1992, and shares his mentor's distaste for "state socialism in all its variants."

But once freed of the burden of leadership, Duncan Smith began to review the One Nation tradition, which strives to overcome the chasm between the "two nations" of rich and poor.

"The idea of One Nation is indeed very powerful," he reflects, "where people of all backgrounds can feel at home, secure and free."

Duncan Smith also alludes to his party's need to reconnect with the middle ground of British politics. He insists that "old definitions of Left and Right have become obsolete", and his priority is devising a social agenda that "might enable the party to win over sufficient numbers of new voters necessary for seeing it back into power".

Duncan Smith's Catholicism is quintessentially English. The son of a decorated wartime RAF pilot and a devout Catholic mother, he was received into the Church at the tender age of 13, and is firmly. though quietly, committed to Catholic teaching. He emphasises that his approach to his faith is "different to that of Ann Widdecombe". and admits to "sharing the British aversion for wearing religion on my lapel". He is ecumenically minded, and believes there is

a place in heaven -for men and women of goodwill from all Christian faiths and beyond". Significantly, Duncan Smith praises Catholic social teaching and, in particular, the legacy of Pope John Paul II, especially the late pontiff's commitment to the pro-life cause, which "makes me determined to press the point at Westminster, and in collaboration with pro-life-minded colleagues from all parties",

Duncan Smith was the first Catholic to lead the Tories since the Reformation. And it was probably his faith that kept him going during those bleak final months as Conservative leader. Doubtless, too, faith is a source of his optimism. He believes that if the Tories are open to new thinking then they can tackle Britain's deep social problems.

"Making our party electable is the compelling priority for all Conservatives," he says.

Even though he no longer leads the party, he possesses the confidence of a man who knows that he is making a vital contribution to realising that goal.

Dr Vineent McKee is completing a book on factionalism in the post-war Conservative Party,

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