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
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 (on whose advisory board I sit). 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
And what makes him thing gangs were at the centre of this? “There is pretty good evidence,” he says. “ I was talking to my borough commander in Waltham Forest and he said there was very good evidence that they moved around a lot and they were co-ordinating locations and some of the social media network.”
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
He has been struck by research by Karen McClusky into the opportunities there are to prevent a young child from turning to crime. “She tracks what happens to one person, who ended up doing life by the age of 18. She starts from the day the person was born and walks you through what happened to them. At each point she stops, and says: now here is a signal they were sending us. What if we’d intervened at this point? But we didn’t. We did was something else so things progressed. Now they are in their first bit of violence, did we intervene here? No.”
He talks with an extraordinary, almost suspicious enthusiasm – as if early years intervention by governmental authorities is, without the slightest doubt, the single most effective cure for the broken society. Why so messianic? “I’m passionate about it because if we get this right, as they have shown in Colorado over 25 years, whole communities are turned around by early intervention. Early years work at the beginning with the kids, and early intervention all the way down the chain. Alongside the work on gangs, early intervention is the next stage to resolving all of that problem. It’s turning a whole society around.”
And this gets to the heart of it: he believes this is not about repairing society, but renewing it. “I simply say the only purpose we should have in government on this is not remedial, it’s life change. That is what we have to do now.” But isn’t all this unusual for a Conservative. Wasn’t Reagan right when he said the most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help?”
"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. You don’t want some official trying to descend from on high and intervene. We’ve been doing that for years, and it’s all gone wrong. I’m talking about intervention, but on a programme based around local communities. Government doesn’t do this. It can pave the way, set up the structures.”
The example he points to is Washington state in America, which publishes what Duncan Smith calls 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. As he says: “We could suggest to the private sector we create a social bond. We’d say: you can put your money into this for five years, and we’ll give you a guaranteed return because we think it saves us money. We’ll give some of it back to you, but the good thing is they have a guaranteed sum of money which the Treasury doesn’t touch for five years which they can invest in these programmes which are proven to succeed.”
Why would hard-headed investors buy these social bonds? “It plugs them back in to social responsibility - but not by lectures, or by getting something back. 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. It can release money which the government itself doesn’t have to spend.”
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."
Haven’t the LibDems already frustrated his families agenda? “You can’t generalise on this,” he says. “There are some Liberal Democrats who are very strong. There are lots of Conservatives who don’t necessarily agree with the emphasis on family and marriage. So the Prime Minister has to give a lead. That’s what Prime Ministers are for.” He’s about to do some work with Louie Casey, who was Tony Blair’s former Respect tsar. To hear him talk, is as if the former Tory leader has given up on the political party system.
And his real enemies, of course, will not be rival political parties but 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. Would he have liked to see Bill Bratton run the Met? “I’m in a difficult position because the official position of the government is it is open only to UK residents.” He’s hoping to meet him in London soon. “My answer to everybody who says we don’t want him, my answer to them is why wouldn’t you want to learn from someone who knows what they’re doing?”
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. His own gangs committee, he says, is working at full pace. “In October you will see a proper set of recommendations with a timescale for implementation.” The report, he says, will “set a template for what we believe as a national position every area should do and we’ll expect that to happen.” It then falls to the local councils. But will they all agree to national government’s plans? He admits that, even in London, different approaches have made gangbusting rather difficult.
“Reality changes you, rather than police being directed by politicians. I think the Met will accept they stared a nightmare problem in the face last week and they went to the brink. They now recognise they have to change those policies. But it’s very patchy. Some boroughs like Waltham Forest and Islington, are doing good work - but then next door to them in the sort of Hackneys and others, who are not doing that work. The result is that while it’s patchy. They [the gangs] spill over borders and then they come back again. But if it’s perpetual, each borough doing something really strong on gangs, you bring the whole culture down. “
He seems absolutely sure that his own Cabinet is convinced of the urgency. "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
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." Thatcher knew this, he says, but “never got there.”
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 (figures would come out the next day, showing 90 per cent under Cameron’s first day). "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."