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The quest of a quiet man

Iain Duncan Smith had big ideas for improving social justice in the UK. How much did he actually achieve?

Fifteen minutes by car up the M8 motorway out of Glasgow you arrive at the site of the epiphany. On the Easter-house estate in 2002, close to tears at the squalor he witnessed, the Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith changed his mind about politics. Posing in front of the dilapidated housing blocks, he was both incredulous and ashamed that people should live in such circumstances in a rich nation. Duncan Smith committed his party to compassion on the spot.

Though nobody can doubt the sincerity of the conversion— Duncan Smith has devoted too much time and effort to the cause—it is hard to avoid a churlish note of irritation. Duncan Smith was long in the tooth when he realised a truth the rest of us grew up with. Besides, the ambition was a little hard on the Conservative Party too, which can claim many dedicated and successful social reformers, William Wilberforce and the Earl of Shaftesbury chief among their number.

Still, better a late convert. When Duncan Smith returned to London, he established the Centre for Social Justice and turned himself into John Profumo without the scandal. Though there was always a suspicion that the think tank’s conclusions had a habit of reflecting what Duncan Smith already thought—marriage and happy families were the road to social justice—his new-found passion lasted all the way up to the point that his party returned to government and he was granted the opportunity to embody his principles, as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Iain Duncan Smith visits the East End of Glasgow in 2002, the scene of his “epiphany”

Now that Duncan Smith’s resignation from government on 18th March has closed the story, or at least this episode of it, we can assess what became of the epiphany. Did the world move? There are, of course, reasonable doubts to be entertained about the sincerity of Duncan Smith’s resignation. He walked ostensibly over a series of cuts to disability benefits which he had himself sanctioned and which were, in any case, about to be withdrawn. The Prime Minister had tried and failed to move Duncan Smith at his last reshuffle and there was a certain amount of loose talk from people in the know that a new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was likely after the EU referendum in any case. It is therefore possible that Duncan Smith decided to leap before the push.

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In Prospect’s May issue: Simon Taylor and Bronwen Maddox on why Hinkley Point C is an expensive gamble that might not pay off. Philip Collins examines Iain Duncan Smith’s tenure as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and Lionel Shriver reveals why she stopped fighting being female. Alan Rusbridger responds to last month’s piece on the Guardian by Stephen Glover. Also in this issue: Nicholas Soames says there’s no such thing as "Project Fear” and Howard Davies reviews Melvyn King’s new book and suggests that we are vulnerable to another financial crisis. Plus Ruth Dudley Edwards examines the fading myths of the Easter Rising and Owen Hatherley suggests it’s time to look for a Plan B to solve London’s housing issues.