The real untold story of Iain Duncan Wilberforce


by Don Paskini    
11:00 am - January 8th 2013

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The comedians at Conservative Home recently described Iain Duncan Smith as ‘a latter-day Wilberforce’, comparing his work on welfare reform to the abolition of slavery.

This got me thinking – what if Wilberforce had adopted the approach to tackling slavery which this current government has adopted to tackling poverty?

Here is the story of Iain Duncan Wilberforce, the man who tried to end slavery:

Iain Duncan Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) was an English politician, philanthropist, and founder of the Centre for Slavery Justice (CSJ). A native of Essex, he began his political career in 1780, eventually becoming the independent Member of Parliament for Chingford (1784–1812). In 1780, he underwent a conversion experience and became an evangelical Christian, which resulted in major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for reform.

Wilberforce was convinced of the importance of religion, morality and education. His underlying conservatism led him to support politically and socially repressive legislation, and resulted in criticism that he was ignoring injustices at home while campaigning for the enslaved abroad.

In 1781, Wilberforce founded the Centre for Slavery Justice (CSJ). Through his work with the CSJ, he became convinced that traditional anti-slavery campaigning had an excessively narrow focus on ending the slave trade and making slavery illegal, an approach which Wilberforce dubbed ‘freedom plus a shilling’.

Instead, Wilberforce and the CSJ identified five Pathways to Slavery – Family Breakdown, Economic Dependency, Educational Failure, Addiction and Debt. He argued that slavery could not be addressed without a greater focus on the moral character of the slaves, as opposed to what he and his supporters dubbed the ‘politically correct, liberal elitist’ focus on slave owners.

In December 1783, William Pitt the Younger appointed Wilberforce as Secretary of State in his Coalition government, in order to put his ideas into action. Wilberforce published reports which claimed that slavery had increased by ‘three hundred billion drillion’ under the previous government (though independent fact checkers struggled to find the evidence on which these figures were based), and broadened the official government definition of slavery to reflect his concern with family breakdown and the dependency culture.

In a speech at a workhouse in South East London, Wilberforce argued that, “Across the Empire, there are children living in circumstances that simply cannot be captured by assessing whether their parents are slaves or free. There are many factors that impact on a child’s wellbeing and ability to succeed in life… and measuring slavery alone does little to represent the experience of those in pauperism”.

Asserting that ‘work is the best route out of slavery’, Wilberforce set out ambitious plans to ‘make slavery pay’, as well as Work Capability Assessments and Mandatory Work Activities to require paupers and the sick to undertake unpaid work in exchange for receiving the services provided by the workhouses. Wilberforce’s greatest achievement was the Welfare Reform Act of 1791, dubbed the ‘Strivers not Slaves or Skivers’ Act in the popular press.

Despite official government statistics claiming that these measures reduced the extent of slavery by ‘six hundred billion million drillion quadrillion’ over the following three years, the slave trade continued to flourish throughout Wilberforce’s time in office, much to the bemusement of Wilberforce and his key adviser Lord Freud. In later years, Wilberforce also came under criticism from some younger Conservatives, who campaigned for the official government definition of slavery to be extended to those who had to pay the new income tax.

In 1834, the House of Lords passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire from August 1834. This marked a rejection of the gradualist application favoured by Wilberforce, Freud and the CSJ, but proved to be far more effective than Wilberforce’s reforms had been.

The story of Iain Duncan Wilberforce and his role in the anti-slavery movement has mostly been forgotten today. But it is an important reminder of what can be achieved by a conservative politician who combines personal commitment to a cause with a determination to set aside or make up the evidence to support his own prejudices and priorities.

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Humour

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Reader comments


Iain Duncan Smith is as much a latter day Wilberforce, as Satan is a latter day Jesus Christ.

Cor, if only IDS had thought to make poverty illegal. What a brilliantly simple way out that would have been.

@Tim J – Given the size of the economy, you probably could abolish absolute poverty quite easily with enough commitment.

Even relative poverty is something that isn’t that difficult or expensive for a country as wealthy as the UK to do. Its just a case of opportunity cost.

The issue is political will, and the belief that homelessness and destitution are necessary to create the incentive for low skilled people to take low paid shit jobs.

IDS is considered one of the most compassionate of all the Tories. Talk about damming with faint praise. These bastards show all the compassion of your average white shark.

Like every other Tory, he is a petty minded scumbag.

Lets be fair to him.

His biggest achievement is in pursuading the tories that there needs to be some in work financial support for people on low wages. Previously his party felt that the problem of effectively 90% marginal tax rates in the benefits system should be dealt with solely by reducing and abolishing benefits. With universal credit he has them accepting the principle of in work benefits at least, although they have continued with the policy of reducing cash amounts and he has only managed to persuade Osbourne to reduce taper rates to 65%. He’s also deluded if he thinks universal credit will reduce fraud and error.

If we are honest, then we have to regard universal credit as a necessary administrative simplification that represents an improvement on what we currently have (partly because of tory cuts already made). However one of the first acts of a labour government needs to be to reduce the taper rate to 40%, change universal credit from a monthly to fortnighly payment system, and make it a benefit individuals rather than households apply for – the last point being one of the biggest flaws in what is planned.

Duncan Smith knows all about living off the state. He has been doing it all his life. First in the military. Then on the rare occasion he got a job in the private sector, it was an arms company. So it relied on govt to buy its products. Before getting a nice cushy job as an MP.

Quite why someone who has all that protection, and is married to wealthy woman needs a scholarship for his kid at Eton. Can’t he pay his own way? Shouldn’t Eton scholarships be for genuine poor kids.? Typical tory scrounger.

I think Jeremy Hardy puts it best by renaming him Irritable Duncan Syndrome.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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