There’s a social crisis coming, says Iain Duncan Smith, and we must act now to avert it
Most politicians who hang pictures of battle scenes in their office do so from a sense of nostalgia. For Iain Duncan Smith, it is about militaristic feng shui. Since becoming Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the former soldier has approached his job as he would a battle. The abstract pictures he inherited from his predecessor, Yvette Cooper, have been replaced with scenes of the Duke of Malborough’s victories. When a group of officials came to visit him just after he changed the decor, they told him it felt like the Ministry of Defence. ‘That’s right,’ he replied. ‘I want you to know that from now on, this is the war room.’
The London riots were, for him, simply the most spectacular manifestation of another war: that being fought, and lost, on the streets of Britain’s inner cities. Until now, he says, many people have believed that gang warfare existed only in America and in television series like The Wire. ‘People didn’t think it was happening two blocks away.’ But it was, he says, and his north-east London constituency is a case in point. ‘There has been gang war going on in Waltham Forest. Each postcode gang is at war with another. There’s evidence that they had a truce during the riots, and were swapping information with each other.’
Duncan Smith believes that the looting was a mixture of professional gangs, who would set a building ablaze then rob a jeweller’s store, and opportunists who were swept up in the crowd. The original Tottenham riot, he says, was spontaneous. ‘There were groups like the Socialist Workers Party inciting a lot of anger. But when people saw the police couldn’t control both the riot and the looting, the penny dropped. “Everybody — here’s the game. There’s looting to be had here.” ’
And having outwitted the police, he believes, London’s gangs will try to do it again. That was why the government’s main response to the riots has been to set up a committee on gangs, which Duncan Smith will lead jointly with Theresa May, the Home Secretary. The key, he says, will be to act with urgency on the proposals of the Centre for Social Justice (of which I am a council member). The centre produced a report on gangs called Dying to Belong. Its first recommendation was for police forces to agree a definition of gangs, so as to assess the scale of the problem.
‘The Met have now accepted that, by our definition, there’s at least 100 gangs in London but it could be anything up to 200,’ Duncan Smith says. The remedy he prescribes is a technique used in Boston and applied by police in Glasgow: to offer gang members education and protection. Those who refuse are told there will be no hiding place. ‘Most of the kids didn’t want to be in the gangs at the beginning,’ he says. ‘If you’re not in the gang, then you’re against the gang and they will target you and your family. A lot of these kids are desperate for a way out.’
Where this approach has been tried, he says, the effect has been profound. ‘The gang system starts to implode. It happened in Boston. Cincinnati did it very well. Strathclyde is doing it brilliantly. Criminality, violence and attacks on young people start to fall. The areas become safer, more secure. Then decent people take back the streets, as they did in New York, and suddenly those communities start to thrive again. Work starts to return. It is do-able, you just have to keep at it.’
When we meet, Duncan Smith is fresh from the first meeting of the gangs committee. May will present findings in October alongside what Duncan Smith says will be a ‘timetable for action’ that demonstrates the government means business. They are also looking at a plan to intervene in 120,000 families who cause the greatest problems. Here, the action list sounds long and expensive. Yet Duncan Smith works in a department facing steep cuts (as if to remind everyone, there is a picture of a chainsaw-wielding forester in its foyer). Can he afford such an expensive programme?
‘Yes, it’s called good management,’ he says, with a note of exasperation, as if he’s been asked the question a hundred times before. ‘We’re spending a lot of money sending them off to offenders’ institutions, to prison, intervening at all sorts of stages. You can save a lot of that by getting these interventions right, earlier on.’ It would mean offering ‘remedial education, work programmes, job interviews, drug addiction rehab, by using the correct targeting and money being spent anyway’. Isn’t this a tad interventionist from a Conservative?
‘It cannot be the government doing this! The government can check the signals, but most of the intervention is done by the voluntary sector, private organisations, people who have proven programmes that work.’
In Washington state, Duncan Smith says, officials publish a ‘Which? buyers’ guide to interventions that tells you, for every dollar invested, how much you can absolutely say is saved within five years’. It’s such a sure investment, he tells me, that the government could even use it to raise money: issue a ‘social bond’, use the money to save on welfare, and split the proceeds with those who put up the cash.
‘I was talking to Ronald Cohen about this,’ he says. ‘We think this could be a marketplace as big as some of the late-1970s marketplaces in investment banking.’ Cohen is a Labour fundraiser who worked for Gordon Brown. He is one of many Labour names that come up as Duncan Smith discusses his various agendas. But the government has a majority with the Liberal Democrats and doesn’t need Labour approval. Why the olive branch? ‘Because this requires the best talents available. That’s why Frank Field, Graham Allen [both Labour MPs] and all these others are working with me to try and get this right: we care more about our society than we do for the political party. I don’t care if I’m attacked for it. I want to get Britain right — to me that’s more important than actually having a political spitting match.’
Duncan Smith’s real problem, however, is likely to come with the councils and police forces who may not sign up to a national gangbusting plan. ‘But people will have to stand in front of their electorate and say “I didn’t care about this”,’ he says. Much of his plan depends on his conviction that the shock of the riots has given the country not just a sense of common purpose but a sense of urgency. He seems absolutely sure that both are now felt by his own Cabinet.
‘There has been a lot of focus on debt and the economic crisis. Now, we have to focus on the social crisis. The Prime Minister made it clear that this, now, is his big focus. It is not possible to have watched or experienced any of these riots without realising that we’re in the last-chance saloon. This is our warning. That wasn’t the crisis, but the crisis is coming. We can’t let this go on any more, and I think the Prime Minister sees that.’
I ask if the riots will change Cameron’s leadership, in the same way that the 11 September attacks transformed Tony Blair’s. ‘Well, I think he sees it like that. It’s been a reminder to him. He’s now determined this is what he wants to do. It’s like a reinvention of Thatcher’s great drive. I always argued that the last Conservative government freed up the markets, but what was missing was the next bit. Getting society in Britain ready to meet that change. We never did. We ended up with a sort of mid-20th century society, many locked away in welfarism, and a 21st-century economy. We see now that one cannot me
et the results of the other.’
Duncan Smith’s department is the old Ministry of Labour, and the globalisation of the British labour market is something he regards as fundamental. ‘So much is now produced by people from outside the UK. This is a very expensive option for us because we pay for welfare, absorb crime and health costs, then pay money for people from overseas. Labour got this wrong: this needed reforming.’
The problem has grown so ingrained, he says, because so many ministers — including Conservative ones — saw reform as optional. ‘If anything tells you that it’s not optional now, look at the 2.5 million jobs created under Labour out of which at least 60 per cent went to foreign nationals.’ Since Cameron took power, I say, the ratio has been even higher. ‘It’s getting worse because we face the problem of having to reform a group that’s progressively less able to do the work. Last week was a wake-up call for us. But we should thank our lucky stars that we had one.’