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Interview: Iain Duncan Smith MP former Conservative leader

by
03 April 2007

and founder of the Centre for Social Justice

“Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man.” Most of the good things in life are done by determined people. The present Government is all flash-bang razzmatazz; so the “quiet man” thing was really me making a point.

I was not surprised, but very taken aback by, the scale of poverty we discovered when researching our report Breakdown Britain. There were so many layers, not just money and debt, but a failed education system and alcohol- and other abuse, which made people incapable of work. Add to that a broken home, and the chances of moving out of that appear non-existent.

Each policy group talked to more than 1000 people. We set up groups of academics and other experts to look into different areas of poverty. We set up a system so we could talk directly to people who had been, say, drug-dealers, and ask their views.

It is a fact that children from broken homes are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to education. You only have to look at the figures. [www.povertydebate.com]

It is no surprise that many boys end up in street gangs. They are looking for order and a new family, because they come from dysfunctional homes.

It is a big mistake to say all that matters is the children. You cannot divorce children from their parents. What matters to children are parents. If children are a priority, then the Government must make families a priority. I am a great supporter of National Marriage Week.

There are currently disincentives for people to stay together. Many see that they can get more money living apart. The current benefit system is a big incentive not to stay together, particularly if there is a low household income and the relationship is tenuous.

It is not just Labour’s fault; family values have been disregarded over the past 15 to 20 years. In that time, people have stopped telling their children that you should be married to be a parent. Cohabiting parents are more likely than a married couple to split up before the child is five. Yet cohabiting parents are the fastest-growing group with children.

Faith groups, particularly churches, can work with people in a way that the Government cannot. There is some invaluable people-focused work run by these groups going on in the community. Harry Benson and the Bristol Community Family Trust is one example we came across: this group works in the area of family breakdowns and helping to mend marriages.

The established Churches, including my own [Roman Catholic], do need to rethink their attitude in this area. It is the big Evangelical churches who seem to be doing the most hands-on work. It is wrong to think it is someone else’s job, and I would encourage all church members to get involved in such community work.

What would we do if in Government? You will have to wait until our big report comes out in July.

Bishops and faith leaders should speak out on this issue. I think it is their job. We have developed this peculiar secular society where there is a lot of intolerance towards people of faith and belief. We do not seem to tolerate debate.

When I was leader, I never had time to read. Now I get through a lot of biographies and the odd novel. I also love the classics, particularly Jane Austen’s books, which I know is unusual for a man, but I think they are great commentaries on people. Most recently I have read To Kill a Mockingbird.

My wife, Betsy, is much happier now she can do her own thing. She keeps pigs, and we have chickens —we don’t just deal in free-range eggs, but wild eggs, as they roam so far. We have four children, two boys and two girls; I would say I am happiest when I am with the family.

As a child, I wanted to be a concert pianist; I also played the violin and cello, as my father was very musical. But this rather stopped at boarding school, when I decided I wanted to write and be in the army, both of which I have done.

I was brought up in the Church of England, but I went to Roman Catholic boarding school and decided to get confirmed in the Catholic Church. Our children have been brought up as Catholics.

The most important choice I have made was to marry my wife. I don’t really have many regrets, as I am not a great “looker-backer”, but I think I would like to have seen more of my children growing up.

It is not over for me yet, but I would like to be remembered as a dedicated man who made a difference — particularly with the work we are currently doing through the Centre for Social Justice.

My father was a great inspiration in my life. He was a fighter pilot in the Second World War. I was enormously fond of him. General John Acland was also very important in my working life; he died only a few months ago. He was outspoken about government policy in an era when it was not really done, and his career survived.

In the Bible, I like the Sermon on the Mount. I think everything comes from that. I do not read the Bible endlessly, but one thing that puzzles me is when the disciples are called by Jesus to follow him — what happened to their families? I imagine the wives saying: “He’s just gone off with this bloke.”

I remember a particular sermon in Salisbury Cathedral. I had gone in my role as Shadow Defence Secretary for a special service after the shooting of the British diplomat in Athens. It was powerful, and all about duty and responsibility.

I get angry about the lack of mutual respect in society. I think older people really suffer, particularly in hospital when they are referred to in a patronising way — they are treated as children. In my constituency surgery, I always use someone’s surname unless they say otherwise. I think people are entitled to that.

Betsy and I are great supporters of local produce where we live, and go to the farmers’ market. There are different seasons of the year that are marked by different foods, and this should be enjoyed.

I enjoy playing football, although have just incurred an injury from a five-a-side game here in the Commons. I used to play rugby at county level, and follow Spurs. I still try and keep fit, and did the London Marathon in 2004 for Haven House in Woodford, my constituency.

I would like to get locked in a church with my wife or a social reformer from history like Shaftsbury or Wilberforce — certainly not a politician.

Iain Duncan Smith was talking to Rachel Harden.

www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk

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