by Martin Odoni
It is a common claim among egomaniacs, at least when simplistically portrayed in TV and movie dramas about the Mafia, that for people to respect you, they have to fear you. As followers of my blog will be aware from previous posts, I have up until now felt no respect at all for the Work & Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith. But if, as the movies insist, fear is a fundamental part of respect, then that has now changed. This week, I started quite genuinely to fear Iain Duncan-Smith.
Of course, I have long felt terror and despair at the fact of a man of such breathtakingly obvious ineptitude holding a high office. I am confident that I am in a majority there. But the man himself has so far been an object of maddening ridicule, not terror. There are times when I hear him flapping about helplessly in public interviews and making silly remarks that diverge one hundred and eighty degrees from reality, sounding feeble, ineffectual, and easily-confused, and I think, “I bet he gets beaten up by the girls from S-Club-7. He can’t look Hannah Spearritt in the eye, because it reminds him of when she out-muscled him…”
But no longer. Now I am scared of him. Because this week, a fresh example of the travesties caused by his infernal ‘Bedroom Tax’ was presented to Parliament during Prime Minister’s Question Time, and his reaction was so abhorrent and so devoid of human understanding that it almost made him seem like he is an entity from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
To explain, the Government is being taken to court over its indiscriminate implementation of the ‘Bedroom Tax’. The plaintive in the case in question is a woman who is a victim of serious domestic violence, including rape, by her former partner. Her identity has been protected by the court, so we know her only as ‘A’, but she and her child have had a special room set up in their house called a ‘Panic Room’, where they can retreat to in the event her ex-partner tries to access the building again; the room has special extra security facilities to keep them safe in such an event.
It is shocking, but somehow unsurprising, to learn that the Government has decided to rule that this ‘Panic Room’ counts as an under-used spare room and is therefore subject to the ‘Under-Occupancy Penalty’. The ruling has been advocated and defended by the DWP, even though the very nature of what the room is there for means it cannot be used as a bedroom for another tenant.
Duncan-Smith defended the ruling at a hearing in the summer, arguing that the case should be dismissed and ‘A’ should just accept that she is no longer entitled to the same amount of benefit, which is quite nauseating enough. But when the leader of the Opposition, Ed Milliband, raised the matter at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, explaining details of the case, Duncan-Smith did something that really frightened me.
He mocked and wheezed at the plight of a traumatised, vulnerable woman whom he had already victimised by the ‘one-size-fits-all-poor-people’ outlook of his policies.
It is not the first time he has been guilty of seeing ‘comedy’ in the misery he has inflicted. Almost a year ago, he and his intellectually-bankrupt sidekick, Esther McVey, were in fits of mirth and merriment during a debate on the increased use of foodbanks around the UK. Oh, how they split their sides when they heard how people are going hungry in surging numbers! How they mocked and sniggered when they were informed, courtesy of figures from the Trussell Trust, that the overwhelming majority of foodbank-users report benefits-delays as their reason for looking for help. Oh yuk yuk, eh? Tee hee hee, right? Who needs The Thick Of It when we have topical political humour this cutting and tasteful, yeah?
Yet, for all that Duncan-Smith’s superciliousness that day angered and disgusted me, I still did not feel actual fear of him for it, nor even any great surprise. But this week, he was presented with his own bullying, with the way he shamelessly takes money even from a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault, and not only did he not apologise, not only did he stubbornly refuse to back down and make people in her situation an exception… he actually laughed again.
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Iain Duncan-Smith finds the rape of the poor, even in the most literal sense, funny. He finds it entertaining. He finds it diverting, an amusement so in accord with his tastes that it could almost have been devised for his own personal pleasure.
I do not imagine for a moment that he would find the rape and violent assault of a rich, well-dressed woman amusing at all. If something like that happened to his beloved Esther McVey (and no, before anyone tries to suggest it, I am not calling for a violent assault on McVey), he would doubtless be appalled and cry out for the heaviest punishment against the perpetrator, while also going out of his way to make sure that every possible comfort and support is sent McVey’s way, paid for by the taxpayer.
To be fair, that is how it should be, no matter who the victim is.
But the problem is that Duncan-Smith is such a blinkered, class-feeling throwback that his powers of empathy simply stop descending once they reach the lowest rung of the social ladder’s middle tier. Once he surveys the working classes, his sympathies seem to dissolve into resentment and contempt, as though the people who are most vulnerable and least privileged in society must be in that condition because they ‘deserve’ it in some way. “They’re so unsightly, they’re so smelly, so obviously they deserve everything we do to hurt them!” He is quite ignoring the reality that possession of a reasonable share of the wealth is what would allow the poor to live as more ‘aesthetically-pleasing’ people, and that is what he is taking from them, but far worse is the utterly malicious cruelty it leads him to. He does not just overlook the misery he causes, which would be amoral. Nor does he merely pretend to himself it is not happening, which would be delusional. He has now shown that he takes a gruesome pleasure in it as well, which is sadism. A degree of sadism that I find frightening.
With the right wing’s strange notion that ruthlessness is the same thing as efficiency, it follows that those people who most enjoy being ruthless, and who take the most pleasure from seeing the effect they have on their victims, will be ipso facto the people most motivated to achieving ‘efficiency’ – and doubly so if it frightens others into line at the same time. Given what an expensive fiasco, say, Duncan-Smith’s attempt to start up the Universal Credit has been, we can treat such empty logic with the derision it deserves, but at the same time, it may be the only workable explanation for why the Prime Minister refuses to fire his blunder-prone DWP Secretary. If he wants an efficient Government, David Cameron looks out for people who will behave ruthlessly, no more, no less. Iain Duncan-Smith laughs at the misery of the ‘lower orders’, therefore he is ruthless, therefore he commands fear, therefore he commands Cameron’s respect.
So after a fashion, and in the lowest sense possible, I suppose that means he commands mine too. But only if we accept that to fear someone is to respect them. Do not mistake me – my regard for Iain Duncan-Smith’s abilities and intelligence is as low as ever it was. But I now fear how little of a restraining effect either ethics or good sense have on his behaviour or his outlook. His religious zeal has always allowed him to express the most flagrant reversals of the plainest facts. Now we can see that his innate hostility to people ‘below’ him in the social order even makes him enjoy it. That sort of zealous sociopath is frightening even when he does not have his hands on Government. Right now, Duncan-Smith has his hands on, not just Government, but also on the throats of millions. And let us be honest; in such a prone position, who would dare tell such a rabid man that they do not respect him?