Iain Duncan Smith Resignation: Relocating Brexit within the Province of Compassionate Conservatism

Is the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith an indication that Compassionate Conservatism is jockeying for first place in Britain’s EU Referendum? His departure within days of last week’s surprise poll results and those two appearances on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show suggests it is.

On Tuesday last week, just one day before the budget, The Daily Telegraph newspaper (held in significantly high regard by members of the UK Conservative Party) published a brand new poll that showed the outcome of a referendum had shifted to 52-47 in favor of Brexit (when low turn-out among pro-Europe voters was taken into account).  Within days of the new poll being published, the Conservative Party’s most vocal supporter of Brexit, Iain Duncan Smith, announced his resignation in a fairly swift and spectacular fashion; not on account of his disagreement with the Prime Minster and the Chancellor over Britain’s future with Europe (which is substantial), but in response to a decision made in Wednesday’s budget to cut disability benefits.

After a fair bit of reflection (some 48 hours in fact) Iain Duncan Smith, resigned as work and pensions secretary, denouncing the planned cuts to disability benefits as “indefensible”. He slammed the budget decision as ‘unfair’ and put immediate measures in place to have discussion about his resignation shift from one of political variance and disunion to one that could flourish within the narrative of ‘Social Justice‘.

Was it possible though, that the fiercely Eurosceptic, Iain Duncan Smith, encouraged by statistics in the previous day’s polls, saw an opportunity to have the Brexit campaign move forward under the banner of the ‘Caring Conservative’?

Well it depends on how much you understand about social semiotics.

In terms of Public Relations the resignation of IDS relocates Brexit within the province of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’. Of course, it’s been simmering for quite some time. Duncan Smith had made noises about all this as early as last year, but with ambition still purring in his heart like the engine of an old Rover P5B saloon, timing would have to be everything. There had to be a credible chance of moving forward instead of slipping into reverse.

Let’s face it, as far as the tussle over the centre ground of Conservative politics goes, it was nothing short of a land grab and quite likely to the opening move in a serious leadership bid ahead of a Tory meltdown in June.

This was about redefining those mental territories — folding those cold, detached extremities back into the warm, soft centre of social egalitarianism. In fact, it’s been rather like watching somebody knead dough in that respect. Only someone has applied the slashing knife.

At a semiotic level IDS is positing a meaningful connection between expressions relating to Social Justice and those relating to National Self-Determination — currently represented by the  Brexit campaign and Iain Duncan Smith himself. It was a bonding exercise. The relationship between the two may be fairly arbitrary, but Iain Duncan Smith and his supporters are hoping that whenever the British Public thinks of his chivalrous defence of principles relating to Social Justice they’ll think of Brexit (and vice versa). We’re talking about occupied spaces; aligning people (and ideas) into groups with shared dispositions — and preferably all of them positive ones.

Here’s the problem they face: if Brexit is to become a more attractive and more compelling ‘bonding icon’ for voters it will need to inhabit a radically different semantic space.

Up until Friday the whole character of Brexit was blighted by qualities more commonly associated with racism and xenophobia. It was seen as divisive and anti-progressive, socially and culturally hostile, self-seeking and narrow-minded, stingy and ungenerous.It was everything that Benjamin Disraeli’s ‘One-nation conservatism’ was not. Last Friday though, the Honourable Iain Duncan Smith (or the Even More Honourable Iain Duncan Smith as we should call him now) embarked on a mission to change all that.

And there are several ways in which he went about it.

One of the ways was to bind the two previously unrelated issues together at the level of language. He took the words and the worlds of national independence and relocated them within the context of social and economic independence. This first became evident in his letter of resignation. “Building a system of social security” demanded the right balance between “state-help and self-help“. It was about being tough and promoting self-sufficiency on the one hand and being cooperative and altruistic on the other. It was getting the balance right between economic assistance and standing on your own two feet, between confrontation and compassion, between needing help and over-reliance.

It was a question of Independence.

His full statement reveals (or better still, produced) a metaphoric and metonymic proximity between discourses relating to social security and social justice and those relating to National Independence. It was a political double entendre and might just as well have read: Brexit: the caring alternative. Take one look at the following quote from Friday’s statement. He could just as easily have been talking about the economic freedoms that come with breaking away from the European Union:

I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest — Iain Duncan Smith, Resignation Statement, 18.03.16

And it’s not as unlikely as it sounds.

Just three weeks ago Iain Duncan Smith appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. During the course of the twenty minute interview the former Conservative leader put an aggressive case forward for leaving the EU. The images he used were dramatic: we have “no control over our border”, there was “utter chaos and crisis in the European Union”. Even the Schengen Agreement was ‘falling apart’.

It was the language of disunity and fractures, chaos and disharmony. IDS was previewing our future if we stayed in the European Union. It was a spoiler to end all spoilers. By contrast the language and imagery IDS adopted on Sunday’s Andrew Marr show was one of unity and cohesion, a “one nation team” uniting for a common purpose.

When asked by Marr if he believed disability cuts (over which he resigned) were ‘simply immoral’ IDS dodged the question entirely. It might have been unconscious, it might not have been, but he responded with a fairly convoluted explanation that not only reiterated the sincerity of his feelings about the budget decision, but also shifted attention to the quagmire that was bureaucracy. Duncan Smith was eager to present himself as a man grappling with dense procedural details and insurmountable administrative hurdles, none of which we would understand.

Just like the problem we face in Europe (or so the subtext goes).

It was honorable, it was non-inflammatory and it wasn’t meant to be understood. It was there only to convey the purity of his decision and the complete and utter absence of political skullduggery; Iain was desperate to convince us that this wasn’t about self-advancement, it was about his ‘passion’ and ‘commitment’ to Social Care and Health Care which he went on to describe as ‘fractured’. He was demonstrating just how reasonable and level-headed he really was.

And it’s that word again: fractured. Sunday was his Hamlet moment. Time was out of joint. There was something rotten in the state of Denmark. Let’s face it, chaos and fractures are as much a part of the Justice Narrative as conspiracies and corruption. As on numerous other occasions in the last few weeks, its a story of righting wrongs and restoring balances — serving the party  he loves ‘dearly’ and the and country he loves ‘dearly’ (which was lovely verbal parallel). Even if IDS is engendering splits and panics at the level of action, he can be seen to be preserving harmony in his words.

He’s doing the semiotic equivalent of naming the vessel before smashing the bottle against it and seeing it slide ungracefully from its moorings.

Will there be any wind left in Cameron’s sail after all this?

I have only one thing to say  … spoilers!

About the author

The author graduated in Literature & Linguistics at Sheffield Hallam University in 1993 before making the unlikely transition to Information Systems a few years later. Editor at Crud Music Magazine from 2000 to 2012. Interests include signs, semiosis and other crazy phenomena that contribute to the mechanics of communication. Also likes baking.

Lives in the Central Highlands of Scotland with his wife and two daughters.

Email: alan.sarjeant@gmail.com