How Compassionate Conservatism writes off the poor


9:10 am - June 9th 2010

by Sarah Ditum    


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As secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith will oversee the application of those “savage”, “momentous”, “way-of-life disrupting” cuts to some of those at the very bottom of the social heap.

His late metamorphosis into the Tory party’s social conscience was one of the more endearing curiousities of the Conservatives’ wilderness years.

Sure, the assumptions from which IDS’s Centre For Social Justice worked were often numbingly traditionalist.

The think tank’s obsession with marrying the nation off, turning out endless papers on the presumed value of legally enshrined heterosexual coupledom, made it a bit of a meddling grandmother to the nation, constantly trying to nudge us all down the aisle.

But still, Compassionate Conservatism meant well. And who wants to be anti the anti-poverty think tank? Anyone who wanted to criticise the Centre’s work had to pass through a pretty invidious double negative to make their point.

Actually, that was part of its function. The mission statement says it was established “to seek effective solutions to the poverty that blight parts of Britain”. But it was also part of the reorientation of the Conservative party away from being the big bad benefit-slashing wolf of British politics, and into a more lovable Red Riding Hood guise (basket of goodies, keen on the extended family).

In a 2005 interview, IDS was disarmingly frank about the fact that his policy contributions were inspired by salesmanship as well as sympathy.

Asked about how the Tories could make themselves electable again, he explained that the party needed to “present a set of values which represent compassion”: “You need people to say, rather like they say about Labour, actually these are OK, they are decent people, their heart is in the right place.”

But while he was persuasive on the heart part of the argument, it was the head that caused IDS problems earlier this year – specifically, his flawed interpretation of one neuroscientist’s work on the developing brain. As the Guardian reported, IDS was caught extrapolating wildly from Dr Bruce Perry’s research on the brains of children who experienced extreme neglect.

Perry’s work found that infants who experienced profound sensory and emotional deprivation tended to have restricted brain development. Duncan Smith spoke about that finding as though it applied to a whole range of more minor deprivations, from witnessing abuse to growing up in the care of a mother who has several partners. And IDS posited brain size as an explanatory factor in poverty and crime.

Perry described Duncan Smith’s comments as an oversimplification and distortion of his research. It’s a depressingly lax attitude to evidence, but that can hardly seem surprising in a politician. What’s perhaps worse is that Duncan Smith is making a deterministic case for putting the poor and supposedly disruptive beyond help.

After all, the government can’t be expected to make people’s brains bigger. And people with small brains can’t be expected to make anything of their lives.

It’s a nonsensical perversion of the research, but very seductive to a party that had already committed to the Broken Britain lie – a pseudo-biological explanation for inequality that exonerates the well-off from responsibility.

In fact, it’s practically Victorian. As the cuts start to take effect – starting, it turns out, with some of the smallest and poorest – that workhouse comparison might not turn out to be as facetious as it sounded.

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About the author
Sarah is a regular contributor and a freelance journalist and critic. She blogs at Paperhouse.
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Reader comments


A little early to make that judgment I would have thought.

Especially as the article doesn’t seem to support the dramatic headline.

‘Duncan Smith spoke about that finding as though it applied to a whole range of more minor deprivations’

Of course he would say that… he has the brainpan of a stagecoach tilter.

3. Mike Killingworth

For once (and I promise not to make a habit of it) I agree with cjcjc.

I think it’s important for LC not to become a kind of “Daily Express” of the left, easy option though that might be.

There are important questions to be asked about the coalition’s (or anyone else’s) welfare programme including the role of the contributory principle, the future of universality and the political difficulty of withdrawing it – another way of looking at this is to say that the numbers game means that pensioners will be cushioned at the expense of children. And when Cameron talks of “twenty years of pain” we should be asking: is this rhetoric or is the combination of the demographic prospect with that for the public finances that our living standards are actually (as I believe) going to fall off a cliff?

With all respect to Sarah, I don’t think her CV (any more than mine) is up to this task. Where’s Chris Dillow?

4. Luis Enrique

I think you have to be really careful with how you respond to what you call “pseudo-biological” explanations.

After all, we do think that childhood deprivation (of varying types and degrees) has all sorts of bad consequences (of varying types and degrees) and this is bound to show up somewhere in the brain. So any “sociological” explanation is likely to have a “biological” counterpart.

So when we talk about kids coming from bad backgrounds being more likely to fall into criminal behavior, or whatever, some psychiatrist could probably tell you about how socioeconomic status correlates with various measured cognitive and non-cognitive skills (self-control, patience, empathy, anticipation of consequences etc.) and some neurologist could probably point to where this shows up in the brain.

I don’t know at what stage in life these things start to solidify and become harder to change. There’s lots of research into the importance of the early-life environment, James Heckman being one famous example. If it turns out early-life experiences have hard-to-reverse effects, that show up in some “biological” sense, that’s an important fact that ought to shape policy regardless of what political stripes you wear, not an idea that ought to be resisted because it sounds like “blaming the poor” or saying they cannot be helped. Of course such conclusion would be entirely unwarranted, it would merely means the weight of effort ought to shift toward trying to improve early-life experiences.

How this relates to the current budget cuts I’m not sure. The example you give of cuts reflects how the poor have been “written off” is scrapping the extension of free school meals. I suppose child hood nutrition has some connection to these questions, but it’s not the most striking example of a policy coming from a “deterministic case for putting the poor and supposedly disruptive beyond help”.

@4: “I think you have to be really careful with how you respond to what you call ‘pseudo-biological’ explanations. ”

Absolutely. And try this worrying research relating to what is has been dubbed Epigenetics:

“What if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is inaccurate? What if the way you live now affects the life expectancy of your descendants? Evolutionary thinking is having a revolution.”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/mar/19/evolution-darwin-natural-selection-genes-wrong

“Take, to begin with, the Swedish chickens. Three years ago, researchers led by a professor at the university of Linköping in Sweden created a henhouse that was specially designed to make its chicken occupants feel stressed. The lighting was manipulated to make the rhythms of night and day unpredictable, so the chickens lost track of when to eat or roost. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they showed a significant decrease in their ability to learn how to find food hidden in a maze.

“The surprising part is what happened next: the chickens were moved back to a non-stressful environment, where they conceived and hatched chicks who were raised without stress – and yet these chicks, too, demonstrated unexpectedly poor skills at finding food in a maze. They appeared to have inherited a problem that had been induced in their mothers through the environment.”

And this research about teenagers reported in the (highly reputable) Nature periodical:
http://www.nature.com/ejhg/journal/v14/n2/full/5201567a.html

Of course, since pensioners are unlikely to parent new offspring, what happens to them doesn’t matter too much. Shortening longevity will reduce the budgetary cost of paying state pensions, winter fuel allowances and free bus passes.

A modest investment in a network of Terminator stations could contribute towards reducing the problems of the fiscal deficit.

6. Luis Enrique

Bob,

yep, epigenetics is certainly a “biological” explanation that I think needs to be understood and adapted to, rather than resisted. It has some very important implications.

[I’m not sure where you got your last point about Terminator Stations from, but I’d assign a reasonably high probability to the prediction: “in the long-run, euthanasia will become standard practice, because prolonged medical care for the very elderly will become too expensive”. If somebody offered me the choice between pay X per year towards your life-time medical care and we’ll keep you alive as long as possible, or pay x<X and know we'll bump you off at a certain point, I may well chose the latter]

Compassionate conservatism does not exist.

It is Fairy tale.

“Compassionate conservatism does not exist.”

I can understand why you say that but the credit for starting a national welfare state must surely go to Count von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German empire (1871-90), who launched not only state pensions for the aged but, in 1883, a social insurance scheme to cover personal healthcare costs:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_von_Bismarck#Chancellor_of_the_German_Empire

Whatever else, Bismarck had no socialist inclinations.

Arguably, the Elizabethan poor laws were an early statist initiative to make provision for care of the poor and needy on a national scale:
http://www.victorianweb.org/history/poorlaw/elizpl.html

And what of Disraeli’s concept of One Nation Conservatism in his novel, Sybil, published in 1845?

“Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws … THE RICH AND THE POOR.”
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/bsurface_01.shtml

9. Shatterface

‘And IDS posited brain size as an explanatory factor in poverty and crime.’

That would explain why most crime is committed by women then.

Oh, wait – it isn’t.

The idea that aquired characteristics can be passed down genetically is known as Lamarckism, an evolutionary theory which is currently ranked somewhere above intelligent design but slightly below and idea apes were taught to use weapons by a black Strauss-loving monolith.

10. Cristiano

Indeed the phrase ‘compassionate conservatism’ may be a misleadeing and ultimately meaningless term, this article is unsubstantiated nonsense. What evidence is there that IDS’ reforms will punish the poorest? How have the reforms of the last decade or so helped the poor – try answering that one. I would say Labour have well and truly failed the poorest in society – evidence being the growing gap between haves and have nots. A lot of the above article was focused on IDS’ bizarre interpretation of Perry – yes that is odd, and ultimately a foolish thing for a very wise man to go along with.

But the basic facts here are that there are shocking numbers of poor/deprived/ unemployed people in this country, and whilst Labour didn’t create this, their unintended model of welfare dependency fuelled this. We need a new approach, and quite frankly I’m sick of this childish arguments that the Tories shaft the poorest in society. It was Labour who shafted low paid workers with the income tax rises, Labour who conned more and more people to go to Uni (to keep the young off the dole queues) and perpetuated this myth about academic qualifications for all would lead to a wondeful society with great opportunities. A visit to the job centre, for a highly skilled or low skilled person, is a horrifying and fairly helpless experience these days. For that, Labour have to take the blame. Maybe the coalition won’t fix that, but they’ve only been in government a few weeks – we can’t judge them. We can however judge the lot that ran the show for over a decade – and they failed the poor, the low skilled, the needy.

11. Watchman

Can I point out here that science does not explain childhood development alone; social science also has a role, and in social science it is the passing on of experience and belief which is accepted, whilst evolution has a more questionable role. There is an entire field of academic psychology basically devoted to the question of the role of evolution in individual human development; so far I’ve not heard that they’ve agreed any answers beyond the fact Social Darwinism is nonsense.

So to make reference to evolution in this debate is fairly silly: apart from anything else humans are not really evolving that much – changes in size and even appearance are mostly to do with changing nutrion and climate. Notably neither Mr Duncan Smyth nor Ms Ditum in her original post felt the need to mention evolution. It is a debate about how able humans are to achieve their potential from certain backgrounds, and it presumes that humans are born pretty well genetically equal. Long-term poverty might change this, but the point here is to avoid that situation.

“The idea that aquired characteristics can be passed down genetically is known as Lamarckism, an evolutionary theory which is currently ranked somewhere above intelligent design but slightly below and idea apes were taught to use weapons by a black Strauss-loving monolith.”

That is rubbish – and I’m well aware of the Lamarckian theory of evolution.

Epigenetics is a developing aspect of research in genetics and evolutionary theory for which there is already a growing academic literature, such as:

Beck and Olek: The Epigenome, The: Molecular Hide and Seek (Wiley, 2003)
Denis Noble FRS: The Music of Life: Biology beyond genes (OUP, 2008)
Jablonka: Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigentic, Behavioral and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (MIT Press, 2006)
Gluckman: Principles of Evolutionary Medicine (OUP, 2009)

A search at the Amazon site will yield many more references.

@9:

The New Labour government has a truly shameful record on social mobility by the assessment of external, independent observers. According to the OECD, social mobility is lower in Britain than in the other OECD countries:

See the Figure 5.1 posted in the relevant OECD report: Going for Growth:
http://www.oecd.org/document/51/0,3343,en_2649_34325_44566259_1_1_1_1,00.html

14. Luis Enrique

yes, Shatterface, educate yourself

anyway, we’re not necessarily talking about anything hereditary – even if socioeconomically determined characteristics are not passed down the generations via genetic inheritance, early-life experiences are still going to leave a biological imprint on the individual that can sound like a “biological” explanation to some. This is trivial stuff, it includes things uncontested things like the lasting physical affects of in-utero nutrition.

Quote: “A comprehensive review of over 100 cases of *transgenerational” epigenetic inheritance reported the phenomena in a wide range of organisms including prokaryotes, plants, and animals.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics

16. Yurrzem!

I doubt that any ideas from IDS and his think-tank would involve the resources necessary to break cycles of deprivation and dependancy. They’re more likely to involve some sort of suggestion that people pull their socks up and get on their bikes plus involvement from strange organisations with shady backgrounds in US evangelical churches.

We know that unborn infants also experience stress from their mother and it’s been known for a long time that rats subjected to high levels of stress show significant changes within neural pathways in the brain. It’s also estimated that a person suffering from anxiety for any length of time takes approximately seven years to return to ‘normal’ functioning after being removed from the stressor/s, if they are environmental.
It’s really quite difficult to tease apart the social and biological @13 infers. I don’t think many people would argue that children brought-up within an environment that is stress-free (as far as is possible), and who received the optimum nutrition and tlc will function better than those who did not.

18. Luis Enrique

steveb,

I’m not trying to “tease apart” the social and biological – quite the opposite, I’m saying that the social is likely to have some biological manifestation, so one shouldn’t react to “biological” explanations as if they are somehow a denial of “social” explanations.

“I doubt that any ideas from IDS and his think-tank would involve the resources necessary to break cycles of deprivation and dependancy.”

Quite so. Philippa Stroud is the Director of this think-tank and she reportedly believes that homosexuals are inflicted by demons which need to be exorcised.

Perhaps we should anticipate an AQuto de Fé up Whitehall every so often:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auto_de_f%C3%A9

@16

Some of the reported epigenetic experiments with animals claim to detect evidence of transgenerational effects from stressful environments through to several generations later.

21. Flowerpower

Watchman @ 10

“it presumes that humans are born pretty well genetically equal”

Do you share this presumption? Would you say the same of, say, horses?

As for compassionate welfare services, I feel sure that readers would want to know of this engaging example of valued local welfare services brought by private enterprise:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jun/05/brothel-in-country-village-experience

17 I thought that I was agreeing with you.

19 The impact of anxiety/stress stays with the individual for quite a long time, (it’s suggested that it takes 7 years to return to normal levels) and that’s only if the person is taken away from the stressors. Consequently, during pregnancy, the anxiety/stress is passed on to the unborn infant (in the form of increased levels of adrenaline/norarenaline), so the infant becomes stressed congenitally even if the mother is no longer in the environment which caused the initial stress. Arguably, depending upon the child’s experience, stress can be passed on to her child. As I stated @16 it’s difficult to tease apart the biological and social and, of course, the congenital.

20
Except for the case of identical twins/triplets ect, we are all born genetically different.

25. Luis Enrique

oh, sorry Steve, wrong end of stick

My brother works at DWP and reports that IDS has so far proved an unexpected hit with staff there. Apparently he announced he wanted to make it a poverty fighting department rather than merely a benefits-administering department – which the civil servants found pretty inspirational.

In post 24 I was replying to 21 not 20 (sorry if I confused you Bob B)
Yes, Flowerpower, horses are a good point in question, if I lived in an agricultural community, which relied on horsepower, I would value large heavy horses, the smaller thinner horse such as Red Rum would have no value. As a horse-trainer in the UK, I would place no value on large heavy horses – if you need me to spell it out, we are talking about value-judgements.
I have blue eyes and you have green, are we equal, actually we are different, perhaps if this post doesn’t accurately reflect your inference in post 21, perhaps you could clarify..

Reginald is calling for a Mexican Wave to be carried out in House of Commons for the 2010 World Cup.

So now we know: it takes about 30 people to get a Mexican Wave going in a football stadium. How many MPs will it take to get a Mexican Wave going in the House of Commons?

Reginald has studied video tape of the crowd phenomenon that caught on during the 1986 World Cup and made a leaflet to describe how it works.

Reginald’s leaflet says a Mexican Wave spreads around the stadium when large sections of the crowd, in turn, jump to their feet, throw their arms in the air and then sit down. The effect is a huge swirling motion that sweeps around the ground.

29. Flowerpower

#steveb @ 27

if you need me to spell it out, we are talking about value-judgements.

Goodness, how conveniently we can dispose of all actually existing inequalities through your mechanism of value judgments! Why go to the trouble of feeding the hungry if we can just make a low-cal diet chic? Why worry about poverty if we can simply re-calibrate our value judgments to esteem the simple life over affluence?

I rather think the disposessed of the world would tell you to stuff your po-mo radical subjectivism where the sun don’t shine.

Do you extend it into pathologies, I wonder? Sadly, stubborn old humanity persists in prizing health over illness and four working limbs over none at all.

Genetic endowment is not equally or fairly distributed. It is distributed by blind chance – or might as well be. And no amount of fiddling with value judgments will change the fact that some people are born with genetic afflictions while others are born with genetic advantages.

29
Please give me examples of actual existing inequalities in order that I can admit/deny that I have disposed of them under the heading of ‘value-judgements’
As for your inference of what I can do with my opinions, I suppose I didn’t really expect you to understand the concept of relativity.
Well other than being born without limbs, sight or hearing, what other genetic inequalities are you refering to, as your post was in reply to Watchman@11, who did not mention physical dissability or health and sickness, only rich and poor, I am waiting with baited breath for you explaination of how inequal genetic distribution influences poverty/affluence.

31. Matt Munro

@ 11 “Can I point out here that science does not explain childhood development alone; social science also has a role, and in social science it is the passing on of experience and belief which is accepted, whilst evolution has a more questionable role.”

It’s the other way round, the case for biological determinism is strengthening exponentially, as technology enables a greater understanding of the brain, while the case for “the passing on of experience” or conditioning/social modelling/cultural immersion (some of it’s previous flawed conceptions) is being seen in it’s true light, as a politically inspired denial of science and evidence of the “we don’t want to be constrained by biology, therefore we aren’t and if the science does’t support us, then the science is wrong” school of left wing, anti-science thinking. It’s basically a hangover from 1970s sociology departments, which should be consigned to the dustbin of history, along with beards, denim jackets and Jethro Tull albums.
There’s actually very little difference in the fundamentals of dervelopment between societies (apart from some unimportant cultural fluff) , if social factors were as important as you appear to a believe you would expect behaviour to be far more culturally specific than it is.

32. Matt Munro

@ 5 “What if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is inaccurate? What if the way you live now affects the life expectancy of your descendants? Evolutionary thinking is having a revolution.”

I don’t see how the chicken example proves evolutionary theory “wrong” Chicken is not well fitted to the environment (because it has been manipulated) chicken then produces offspring which are also maladapted, therefore thier chances of reproducing are reduced, chickens DNA line therefore under threat until/unless it adapts to thrive in the new environment. It’s exactly what evolutionary theory predicts.

@31 Matt Munro

I’d love to see some references to this science you mention.

31
The problem with observing brain function/structure is that it’s difficult to ascertain whether we are seeing cause or effect. We have known for a long time that rats subjected to stress show a significant and permanent change in neural activity. Consequently it isn’t hard to infer that rats under stress will behave differently to rats with no stress, learning potential of stressed rats becomes considerably reduced. It isn’t an enormous leap to extrapolate that humans would be affected too.
I have quite a lot of engagement with young people who are suffering psychosis and have a history of drug-taking from an early age (some from middle-class back-grounds but primarily working-class), many report that they used drugs to address existing symptoms, others report that the symptoms emerged after using drugs.
Biological determinism is such a broad statement, as is social determinism, but as I’ve mentioned before, we don’t have wngs so we cannot fly. And to quote from my father ‘in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king’, your dismissal of the importance of the environment isn’t realistic.

35. Matt Munro

@ 33 – Try reading “the nurture myth” for a starter. It’s a good demolition of a number of pop psychology mantas (“parenting gurus”, “learning styles”, “life coaching” etc) which seem to have gained popular ground over the past decade.

If you want something more hardcore, why not start with Darwin, in my experience the most scathing critics of evolutionary theory haven’t actually read it………

35
MM, Evolutionary theory is entrenched in the notion of environmental impact on organisms, apparently dinasoars died out because of environmental impacts, we can then continue to wonder if the emergence of humans as the supreme animal is anything to do with the accidental flight path of an ancient meteorite.
I suppose the accident of birth as to who shall be king carries remnants of this randomness.

37. Matt Munro

@36 And also organisms impact on the environment. The central tenent is genetic, as in fitness for a particular environment is acheived through adaptation across many generations. Organisms which fail to adapt are not viable in the long term, organisms that do adapt multiply and flourish, I see that as the organism acheving dominance over the environment, rather than vice versa

@37

Partial understanding and misrepresentation of complex science to fit a personal ideology. Nothing new there then.

39. Flowerpower

Please give me examples of actual existing inequalities

I’ve already offered you hunger, poverty and serious disability arising from genetic causes. You need more? OK, try congenital stupidity.

As for your inference of what I can do with my opinions….

No, it’s your inference; my implication.

I suppose I didn’t really expect you to understand the concept of relativity….

I think you mean ‘relativism’, unless you’re Einstein, which doesn’t seem likely. Yes, I do understand it. But I don’t agree with it. You may not agree with claims made for the Laffer curve, but that doesn’t mean you don’t understand them.

what other genetic inequalities are you referring to, as your post was in reply to Watchman@11,…

In that post I alluded to the clear genetic influences that affect how fast horses run that constitute the stock-in trade of the bloodstock industry. By extension, one might consider height, build, some aspects of dexterity and so on where, although doubtless affected by environmental inputs such as nutrition, there is an evident genetic base.

I am waiting with baited breath for you explanation of how unequal genetic distribution influences poverty/affluence.

Taylor et al’s work on the genetic influences on early childhood reading achievement is worth a mention. Jane Mendle’s work on genetic factors relating to absent fathers and adolescent sex is interesting too. There’s a huge body of study on genetically induced susceptibility to alcohol/drug addiction, which has poverty/affluence implications.

But I guess what you’re fishing for is some mention of IQ. Personally, I don’t fully buy in to the idea of a general factor for intelligence, g. Also I think most of the studies on differences in average IQ between groups are pretty meaningless. But that said, IQ tests are effective predictors of poverty and affluence and are measuring something, even if we don’t know quite what it is. If you look at individuals with extraordinarily high or extraordinarily low IQ, the evidence of a genetic influence on IQ is vivid. Like most parents I am conscious that my own children, though raised in the same family environment, exhibited markedly different physical and mental abilities before reaching school age. Despite having the same parents, their genetic endowment was unequal.

37
Organisms do impact on the environment such as building aeroplanes to overcome biological determinism. You are still attempting to underplay environment which is just as important as genes in evolutionary theory.
39
Well you still haven’t answered my question, and I have already discussed the role of value-judgements when assessing horses.
As you made a suggestion about genetic inequality with regard to another poster’s comment, from your reply, am I to take it that you mean something like ‘a person with blue eyes is more likely to suffer poverty than those with brown eyes’ for example.
With regard to your children, (I assume that they are not identical twins), you mention that they have different abilities, are they inequal or different and are they genetically different or inequal?
I am sure the books that you suggest will, in some way, uphold your views, you are hardly likely to suggest reading matter that contradicts your opininions. Btw, I’m not fishing for any particular answer, just clarification on your questioning that ‘all humans may be not equal’ in relation to poverty.


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