Following the annual Vote of No Confidence debate at the Cambridge Union we were privileged to be granted an exclusive interview with the former leader of the Conservative Party – the Rt. Hon Iain Duncan Smith, MP.
A heated debate was highlighted by Quentin Davies being challenged by a Fitzwilliam student and constituent to defend his decision not to call a by-election after defecting from the Conservatives to Labour this summer. The proposition attacked the government for allowing personal debt to rise to unsustainable levels, and there were a number of colourful floor speeches from the audience. An American student ridiculed his own government, claiming we should be grateful that our politicians can “string a sentence together”. The opposition’s rosy description of improvements made during their tenure was met a the cry of “tell that to the dead Iraqis!”. At points, the debate descended into petty squabbling, with speakers, notably Nick Herbert, interrupting and shouting each other down. This behaviour was criticised by Union speaker Will Redfearn who rebuked the politicians: “you’re not in the Commons now”. There were long queues to go through the “aye” door, as the New Labour government was defeated for the first time ever, 302 to 95.
After meeting students in the Union bar the former Tory leader kicked off his interview in the main chamber by welcoming the government’s defeat (whilst admitting the result was not an expression of confidence in his own party). The issue of higher education arose as a matter of personal as well as political importance for Duncan Smith as his own children are now of university age. The MP told The Cambridge Student (TCS) that he had “never been a supporter of top up fees” and whilst his Party is “in a slightly different position” than it was under his leadership, his “personal views” remain unchanged. “There’s got to be a better way than just plunging people into massive amounts of debt”, he continued. “If it was easier for people to get work while they were here then that might be a different case but I think sometimes it’s very difficult for people to get work in the area where they go to university.” When asked to comment on the recent coverage of the appointment of Lord Triesman as minister for students (Yes [student] Minister Vl.10 issue 5 25/10/07), the former leader revealed his scepticism about “constantly appointing people”, describing it as “cosmetic”.
He was also cynical about the government’s system of quotas and targets for widening access to universities. “If it was going to work it would have worked by now”, he said. “The government’s been bullying universities for the last seven or eight years to get more people from lower socio-economic backgrounds into university.” He believes university authorities have been making great efforts to widen access yet accepts that it is imperative that standards aren’t lowered in the process. He identified that the root of the problem actually lies in the lack of applications from underprivileged pupils, especially to Oxbridge.
Duncan Smith is not concerned about the purported devaluation of degrees but warned of the dangers of the current government’s overemphasis on university education. “The be all and end all of life is not to go to university – I know that might be difficult for this government to swallow. Lots of people out there are not academic and they don’t want to follow an academic life.” He points out the government treats those who do not opt for an academic path as if they are “subhuman”, and that this is “not fair and not true”. He stressed his belief in the equal value of a vocational education, adding that “it takes two different groups of people to make society work”.
When pressed on David Cameron’s progress in ending Britain’s style of ‘Punch-and-Judy politics’, Duncan Smith suggested that it was a “long term process” and that “no solution will be achieved over night”, whilst admitting that the current state of politics is the fault of both the media and politicians. Questioned on the government’s plans to reform the constitution, the MP welcomed moves to restore the power and influence Parliament has lost in recent years. “It is time now”, he said, “to make a big change”.
Duncan Smith also defended the ‘quiet man’ approach he adopted during his time as Tory leader. “The people who get things done in society are invariably the ones who don’t talk about it: they are the ones who do it”, he told TCS. “This is a world of quiet people who you never really hear from…but on whom the whole of society rests….politicians spend a lot of time talking while the rest of Britain gets on and does”. He insisted that quiet determination was a better approach to politics than spin, but jokingly suggested that John Wayne’s film ‘The Quiet Man’, which was re-released following his notorious Party conference speech, may have profited from his approach more than he did.
Like a true politician, Duncan Smith wisely dodged the question when asked if he was planning to attend the Oxford Union.