The contradictory world of Iain Duncan Smith

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Indy Politics

His own biographical notes say Iain Duncan Smith went to Perugia University in Italy. Fact: he did a language course, not a degree. A Conservative Party biography states that he was a director of GEC-Marconi. Fact: he was not. His supporters know him as "IDS". Fact: the moniker is a recent acquisition. At school, he was known as "Wally", which requires no explanation, and in the Army as "Drunken", by way of irony, because he was so desperately serious. Welcome to the contradictory world of the new Tory leader.

As far as many Conservatives are concerned, they have got the leader they crave. He is one of them: a true-blue, old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool Tory. On paper, at least, he is a more natural successor to Margaret Thatcher than the quavering, woolly John Major, or the youthful, unworldly William Hague ever were. This, they believe, is a man who went to a service school, has seen action in Ulster, risen to the top of business, and now wants to drive his party back to greatness.

When he makes his first keynote speech as leader, to a sombre party conference in Blackpool late tomorrow morning, he will receive a warm reception. Obviously he would have preferred to have been speaking in different circumstances. But for the outbreak of war, the party would have been treated to a rallying cry for the reassertion of traditional Tory values, on crime, on race, on Europe. Now, it will be statesmanlike in tone, less point-scoring in content.

Duncan Smith, though, will talk from the heart – he was, after all, once a soldier himself. The applause will not be as loud as he could otherwise have expected, but it will be long and sustained, and genuine. It will be a happy coincidence of someone described by one former Shadow Cabinet colleague as having "something of the past about him", receiving the salute of a membership, the vast majority of whom have themselves seen better days.

Image is everything in modern politics, and for the Tories, Duncan Smith fits their wish list perfectly. (Whether he does for the electorate as a whole, who, for two contests running, have chosen a very different type as prime minister, remains to be seen.)

It therefore comes as a shock to start exploring the Duncan Smith life and to find that the accepted version, the one trotted out by his legion of supporters, and repeated verbatim by some sections of the media, begins to fall apart. Put simply, the image conveyed does not stand up to serious scrutiny. It might feel like we have been here before, of course, with another Tory, now residing in jail. With him, too, his CV was very sparing with the facts. But Duncan Smith is no Jeffrey Archer. In the case of IDS, it is not so much what he has said but what he has allowed to be said and not corrected. You can see why it would happen: in the desire to make an unexceptional character interesting, myth and reality have become inextricably entwined.

When his former colleague said that Duncan Smith had "something of the past about him", he was serious. The new leader's background seems disconnected from modern life. Take his father. Rare is the Duncan Smith write-up or constituency chairman's introduction that does not mention that he is the son of Group Captain W G G Duncan "Smithy" Smith, DSO, DFC, a Second World War fighter ace. "An outstanding marksman, he destroyed 19 enemy aircraft and was awarded the DSO and bar and the DFC and two bars, making him one of the RAF's most decorated fighter heroes", was the tribute in The Daily Telegraph five years ago, and it is posted in full on the Duncan Smith website.

The late "Smithy" was also the author of Spitfire into Battle, a book about his exploits, to be republished next year. On the internet, on a military hobby site, there is, somewhat incongruously, a war game based on an incident in the book, when he was forced to bale out over the Italian coast and came under enemy aircraft fire while waiting to be picked up. The game grades the pilots: perhaps not surprisingly, the RAF boys are described as "excellent", and the Axis as "average".

"Smithy" would have approved of such an assessment. To him, men were "chaps", women were "girls", homosexuals were "queers" (a description that Iain Duncan Smith has reportedly used in private), and politicians were beneath contempt: "We expected to die like many other misguided chaps because we should never have tolerated the ineptitude of gutless politicians for so long."

The dashing war legend married his "girl", Pamela Summers, a beautiful Irish ballerina. Their combination of rugged physique and fine-boned grace is reflected in Duncan Smith's physical make-up. Powerfully built and fit, he can seem surprisingly svelte. Once you know that a great-grandmother was Japanese, from ancient samurai lineage, you can also see the Oriental in him, especially his eyes.

He was born in 1954, in Edinburgh. Duncan Smith likes to proclaim that he is Scottish and supports Scotland at rugby, although he does not relish being linked with other Scots who became notable politicians at Westminster, namely Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Robin Cook. He was the last of five children.

Duncan Smith worshipped his father, who wanted him to have a military career. Oddly, though, he did not go to a military school. It may be called HMS Conway, but Duncan Smith's school was not a Royal Navy academy but a fee-paying college primarily serving the merchant fleet. Cost may have been a factor, since Conway, based on Anglesey, was subsidised by the merchant navy.

The school was better known for its sporting prowess than its academic success. Normal lessons were interspersed with learning seamanship, sailing and outward-bound classes. The school has since closed. "It had a public-school ethos with a nautical flavour added to it," says Philip van Bergen, a Conway contemporary of Duncan Smith.

During the leadership campaign, students of Duncan Smith became used to reading his website and noting that entries had the habit of disappearing. This was certainly true of some of his associates when they were exposed in the press for their far- right pasts. Curiously, for a period, his school was also absent – to the fury of the Conway old boys.

One explanation could be that someone in Duncan Smith's camp took it off to prevent reporters snooping around, that something occurred at his school that the future leader of the party was ashamed of. Well, believe the old boys, there was a Duncan Smith who was caught smoking in Forecastle House (the areas of the school were named after parts of a ship). In which case, they say, he must have been beaten with the "teaser", the Conway boys' nickname for a knotted bell rope used instead of a cane.

Apart from that, nothing stands out. His school nickname, according to Nick Taylor, an Old Conway, was "Wally". Or, maybe, that is the point: he was totally unremarkable and his advisers did not want his school mates saying so.

He was good at rugby, though – good enough, maintains the Duncan Smith legend, to keep Clive Woodward, the future England great, out of the school team for a time (although Woodward was younger, and even with his God-given ability would have struggled to oust someone from the senior XV).

He played in the school band, and that was about it. "He was not the sort of guy of whom Old Conways, when they get together, say, 'Do you remember when...' " says Van Bergen. "He was not one of the characters."

Duncan Smith left Conway in 1973, having obtained eight O-levels and three A-levels. Most boys who left Conway either went straight into the merchant navy or Royal Navy, or to a university to read a subject related to shipping or shipbuilding. Duncan Smith did none of these. His own biographical notes say simply that he went to Universita di Perugia. This is true – but he did not go to do a university degree. He went to a language school attached to the university. He paid a fee and took a short course in Italian.

From Perugia, Duncan Smith joined the Army. This was a curious choice for two reasons: he did not join his father's old service, the RAF; and neither did he use the experience gained at Conway and go into the Navy. Among Conway old boys, rejecting the sea for the land is tantamount to treason, and Duncan Smith has been referred to as a "turncoat" on their website.

Commentators have referred to his Army record as "distinguished", but it is hard to see why. He was not a star at Sandhurst, having to work hard at getting a commission. He joined the Scots Guards and served two tours in Ulster. Republican sources say that all they have been able to discover about Duncan Smith was that he almost lost his weapon in a street altercation with some civilians. He was not on a Provisional list as an officer to be feared or as someone who had scored many hits against them.

Duncan Smith was in Ulster during one of the worst periods, when many soldiers were shot by the IRA. Among them was Alan Swift, a fellow Scots Guard, shot dead in Londonderry, where Duncan Smith was stationed, in 1978.

Irish republicans greeted Duncan Smith's elevation to leader with disdain. He remains a deeply unpopular figure among nationalists ­ and not just because he once patrolled their streets. He was a vocal backer of Lee Clegg, the paratrooper convicted then acquitted of killing two teenage joyriders in West Belfast in 1990. And, he was a prominent defender of James Fisher and Mark Wright, two soldiers in his own regiment, the Scots Guards, who were jailed for shooting 18-year-old Peter McBride in the back, in Belfast in 1992, but kept their Army jobs.

His support for the two guardsmen endeared him to his old regiment. Until his political rise and his support for Fisher and Wright, Duncan Smith was not held in great regard in the officers' mess, where he was remembered, if at all, as being solid and dependable rather than as a future leader of men. He has, though, gone out of his way, since entering politics, to cement his links. He spoke up for mercenaries during the Sierra Leone affair, where the man at the centre of the controversy was Tim Spicer, a former commanding officer in Duncan Smith's old regiment, and still held in high regard in the Scots Guards.

From Ulster, Duncan Smith was sent to Rhodesia where he served as aide-de-camp to General Sir John Acland, then steering the colony towards independence. Accounts of Duncan Smith's time there vary. There is one impression of a young, bright, brave Army officer, treading a delicate path between the white Ian Smith regime and the black guerrilla fighters. And there is another, of a young aide to Acland who followed one step behind his master. Needless to say, the former is propagated by Duncan Smith's supporters, keen to portray him as a man of action and decisive leadership. The latter was voiced by Acland himself, who pointed out that while he was effective, Duncan Smith was still only an aide, and the real bravery was being exhibited by troops in the bush.

It was in Rhodesia, among the hearty expatriate community, that the ever-so-serious Duncan Smith acquired the ironical nickname, "Drunken" Smith. He left the Army, aged 27, in 1981. He had risen to captain, which sounds good but was the minimum expected for someone from Duncan Smith's background and length of service. Within the Army, the next level of major is much tougher to reach. He never made the leap.

The year after he quit, the Scots Guards were in action on Mount Tumbledown in the Falklands. Duncan Smith, of course, was not there, but it is doubtful how many ageing Tories in the audience realise as much when they hear their new leader reportedly describing how, on Tumbledown, the soldiers were pinned down and running out of ammunition and "scared shitless", when one officer "stood up and said, 'I'm going'. They got up and followed him. Eight or nine men were killed, but he survived and got the Military Cross. That is my idea of leadership. Sometimes you have to go out in front and say, 'This is how we are going to do it and I'll take the bullets as we go'." This is heady, remarkable stuff ­ all the more remarkable when you remember Duncan Smith was not there.

From the Army, he trod a well-worn ex-officer's path to defence sales at GEC-Marconi. "I was involved in the manufacturing industry," is Duncan Smith's take on his position, presenting himself as knowing all too well the problems of industrialists. Technically, he is correct: he was involved in the manufacturing industry. But he did not get his hands dirty. He was a smooth, ex-military marketing-and-sales man, one of many at GEC-Marconi.

The official Tory biography of Duncan Smith says that he was a "Director of GEC-Marconi from 1981-88". This is astonishing: he leaves the Army with no business experience and immediately becomes a director of what was then one of Britain's most successful companies. The board did contain Tories during that period, most notably Lords Carrington and Prior, but Duncan Smith was not among them. The totally hands-on head of the company throughout those years was Lord Weinstock. He has no recollection of Duncan Smith. "I've never met him, it's nonsense to say he was a director," says Weinstock. "I've been around the company for 41 years and he was not a director. I've never seen him in my life."

To be fair to Duncan Smith, he has not made the claim. In answers to questionnaires about his life, he has replied "executive, GEC-Marconi". The description of him as a director appears in Tory propaganda about him. Presumably, this is an attempt by someone in Central Office to give him a status and business success he never acquired.

In 1982, the young captain-turned-business executive married Betsy Fremantle, a secretary. During the leadership contest, Duncan Smith attended a meeting of Welsh farmers. Asked what he thought of the call from the Labour peer, Lord Haskins, for hard-pressed farmers to take on second jobs, he reportedly replied: "I have a father-in-law who farms, and I can tell you that he took Lord Haskins' remarks pretty badly."

If the Welsh farmers thought of the "father-in-law who farms" as a horny-handed son of the soil, like them, they were mistaken. The father-in-law is John Fremantle, otherwise known as Lord Cottesloe. An Old Etonian and former naval commander, he owns the Swanbourne estate in Buckinghamshire, which includes the picture-postcard village of Swanbourne, complete with post office, village store, tea-rooms, prep school and houses, plus rolling acres of prime farmland. Lord and Lady Cottesloe live in the Old House, a manor house set in five acres. As Betsy is the Cottesloes' oldest child, the next village squire could be Iain Duncan Smith. Despite attempts by Tory Central Office to present him otherwise, Duncan Smith is resolutely upper class.

He has four children: Edward St Alban; Harry Alasdair St John; Alicia Cecilia and Rosanna Tatiana. Of the three eldest children, one goes to Eton and the other two attend private secondary schools. The youngest, Rosanna, will also go to an independent secondary. Mrs Duncan Smith does not have a job. They have a home in his constituency in Chingford, east of London in Essex, but prefer to spend time among their own set at their house in Fulham in London. When that pales, they stay at the Cottesloe manor house, where villagers can hear the noise of the children splashing in the swimming-pool. Duncan Smith enjoys a good game of croquet and playing piano duets.

From GEC-Marconi, he joined a property company called Bellwinch (the official Tory history says it was Bellwing). This was a disaster for Duncan Smith. Bellwinch built houses in the south-east. Duncan Smith joined in 1988 at the beginning of the property recession. Within months he was made redundant.

After a short time on the dole (his spin doctors love to point this out as evidence of how "connected" he is with ordinary people), he became sales and marketing director of Jane's Information Group, the defence publishers. At Jane's, he is remembered for being dull and for keeping himself to himself. He was not a socialiser, avoiding a drink in the pub to head home to the family. This was not unusual. People who have come across Duncan Smith throughout his life, from school to the army to business to politics, all remark how controlled he is.

There was another reason, though, for his detached air: he was nursing the Chingford, Essex, seat of the soon-to-retire Norman Tebbit. According to his own account, put out during the leadership campaign, Duncan Smith caught the political bug while in the Army, in Rhodesia. "It was during his Army career that he decided he wanted to enter politics, but before doing so he wanted to broaden his experience further. After leaving the Army, he spent the next 11 years in business."

Strange then, that in the past, Duncan Smith has given a different impression, of someone who knew much sooner that he wanted to be a politician, and structured his career accordingly, saying: "I could have chosen the well-trodden route to Westminster, I could have gone to Oxford and the City like so many others; but I didn't want that label; I come from a family with a history of service; my father was a fighter pilot in the Second World War; I joined the Scots Guards and saw active service in Northern Ireland before becoming assistant to General Sir John Acland during the Rhodesian negotiations."

Putting aside the moot point of whether he could have got in to Oxford, this statement makes it look like he always knew where he was heading, that the Army was a springboard to Westminster. But his own leadership-campaign handout is also misleading. That makes it look as though, after leaving the Army, he decided deliberately to spend 11 years broadening his experience in business before entering politics for Chingford. In which case, why, less than five years after leaving the Army, was he applying to be the candidate for Bradford West? His adoption meeting was in January 1986, and he lost the seat by 7,500 votes in June 1987.

In Chingford, he could not lose. He entered the Commons in 1992 with a decreased majority, and instantly established himself as a man of principle, who was not afraid of defying the party whips. He was the only "new boy" not to vote with the Major government on Maastricht.

Neither, in those days, was he a centrist. He was pro-privatisation, pro-slashing the social-security budget, pro-capital punishment. On race, in 1992, he said: "The ethnic population of Waltham Forest, which is the fifth highest in London, has put pressure on housing demand ­ 15 per cent of the borough's population, about 33,000 people, come from ethnic-minority groupings." But this year, on a visit to Bradford, he said: "We want to reach out to all those people who find themselves in the predicament of having no hope, who are trapped in inner-city areas without jobs."

On Europe, he said, in 1997: "Poll after poll shows that a growing number of people... have determined that outright departure is the only solution." However, this year, he declared: "I have no plans to withdraw from the European Union."

In the Commons, he has opposed a European ruling putting women part-timers on an equal footing with male full-timers. He has said Britain should make clear its intention to use nuclear weapons, "otherwise we might as well not possess them". He has supported a call for the reintroduction of caning. Intriguingly, given his wife's family wealth, his two homes, and his children going to public schools, Duncan Smith has complained that life as an MP had been "a financial disaster".

Such was his stance on a variety of issues and his principled reputation, his supporters insist, that he refused a job in the Major administration. "The job was as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Jonathan Aitken," said a Duncan Smith spokesman. This is odd, since Major said that it was never offered: "I can tell you categorically that at no stage did I offer Iain a job in the government".

But this would not be the first time, with the Duncan Smith industry, that the facts have got in the way of the story.

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