Thursday, 18 November 2010

The 're-conversion' of IDS

Bob Holman is a sort of saintly man, living beside the poorest and most deprived of Easterhouse in Glasgow.

He knows poverty at first hand. He's chosen to be amongst it. And he's given his life to championing those at the harshest end of society.

He's also, we might assume, able to spot a sham 'caring Tory' at a hundred yards.

For eight years, Bob Holman thought Iain Duncan Smith was a real, caring Tory, converted to the cause of the poor. Now he thinks otherwise:

"The IDS I knew was a politician who almost wept at the plight of the poor. My guess is that, in order to reach his costly goal of a universal credit scheme, he has had to mollify the chancellor, George Osborne – and that can only be done by being like those Tories who take pleasure in punishing the poor."

Has IDS been 're-converted'? Or, was he ever converted in the first place?

Contrary to the blanket vilification of such Tories, it's not unreasonable to suggest that IDS does actually care as a human being about those in poverty; that he has a compassionate core.

The more pertinent question, however, is how he actions that supposed concern; how he puts those compassionate thoughts into practice.

As Holman acknowledges, the real impact of the policies IDS has initiated on coming to office will mean financial and emotional devastation for many of the poorest in society - those living in Easterhouse and other privation-ridden places that IDS claims to care for.

But, beyond even the obvious suspicion of staged pre-election visits and contrived empathy for those struggling residents, a more fundamental question might be asked: can even the apparently genuine articulation of politicians' shock and concern for such people hold any real compassionate value?

As suggested, the essence of compassion lies not, essentially, in what one feels, but in what one does about those feelings - again assuming, of course, that those feelings are sincere.

Compassion, in other words, has to be proactive. It has to demonstrate a genuine effort or real evident desire to correct an injustice or abuse. Otherwise, it remains self-indulgent emotion, void words.

One might reasonably argue that such people were never even partially interested in helping the poor. But that, again, would negate the kind of instinctive feeling Bob Holman felt towards IDS.

Holman sees a saving-grace choice for IDS:

"There is an alternative. I have observed his rare gift of being able to listen to and communicate with people crushed by social deprivation. I believe he should leave the cabinet and devote himself to the cause of those at the hard end. He cannot create compassionate Conservatism alongside Osborne and Cameron; the danger is that they will change him instead."
But does Holman's faith in IDS and the 'corruption' by his peers really stack-up as an explanation?

Proactive compassion can, in one sense, be passive, as in taking the form of not acting in a harmful way towards those one purports to care for.

In this regard, were IDS to refuse serving in an administration that imposed such cuts, he would have behaved in a proactive-compassionate way. Indeed, he would, through the high-level publicity of such a refusal, have sent out the strongest, most proactive statement of compassion possible.

That was never remotely likely. Not just because IDS is, at heart, a Tory, even a 'caring Tory'. It's that the very system of power acts as a massive deterrent to such action.

This requires us to recognise the kind of extreme system-serving culture which causes such people to jettison what little baggage of compassion they might have once carried.

Thus, when we castigate IDS, Nick Clegg and others who have eagerly sought to impose these punitive measures on the poor, it's worth considering the psychology of incorporation and vanity politics that draws even potentially well-meaning people into the fold.

This is never to excuse the individual actions of politicians - especially those like Clegg who have 'so-obviously', for so many people, 'sold-out'. (I don't include myself here, as I never believed his 'compassionate' claims in the first place.) Rather, it's to better understand the kind of systemic enticements, expectations, obligations and remunerations that will almost always cause aspirant politicians and others (in all walks of life) to rationalise what they do in the name of the cause they supposedly support.

Hence, Clegg talks of acting in the 'national interest', Cable of the 'necessary pain', Cameron that 'we're all in this together' and IDS that it's a "sin" for the unemployed to refuse a job, any job.

Thus, does the language of 'compassion' and 'concern' become one of 'dutiful' imperative, even, in IDS's case, divine judgement.

Holman's appeal to the IDS he 'once knew' looks like a last, proactive effort to reach-out and help restore those 'compassionate tendencies'. It seems like an honourable initiative in itself.

But, Holman's invitation and reasoning behind IDS's 'abandonment of the poor' might look a lot more persuasive - indeed, compassionate - were it indicting the system rather than just the corrupting individuals within it.

There's little point in blaming Cameron and Osborne for IDS's 're-conversion' and 'return' to Tory doctrine. The real fault lies with the structure of power that all these people are beholden to; an economic, political and social model concerned with profit and greed rather than poverty and injustice.

IDS, in that regard, is in his appropriate, predictable place, Whitehall rather than Easterhouse, doing the job he was always intent on doing.


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