What is this mania for simplification? Listening to Nigel Farage struggling to explain UKIP tax policy on the Today programme this week made me wonder why, in so many areas of policy, politicians of the right have such a fetish for making things less complicated than they really are. UKIP’s message is the very essence of this tendency and in Farage’s case you have to wonder whether he’s just too dim to entertain a complex idea.
It is no surprise that UKIP’s comfortingly simple message is gaining support, but we should be wary of political oversimplification in times of crisis.
This tendency is not restricted to UKIP. The government is learning that simplification of systems can sometimes be very problematic indeed. Something very peculiar is going on at the Department for Work and Pensions, arguably the most important ministry beyond the Treasury in the present climate. The simplification of the benefit system via Universal Credit and the Welfare to Work system with the creation of a single Work Programme to replace Labour’s plethora of schemes, seemed like a fine idea in opposition. But guess what? Sometimes there is a reason for complexity – people, even people on benefits, are not all the same. The Youth Contract was introduced after Lib Dems in the government recognised that a single monolithic Work Programme would not crack youth unemployment. Now it is stumbling because of Chris Grayling’s insistence that it had to be delivered by the giant prime contractors such as G4S, A4e and Serco.
I have absolutely no doubt that Iain Duncan Smith is a man of principle, whose Christian faith has led him to believe he has a personal mission to address welfare dependency in this country. But why did David Cameron trust him with this task? Mr Duncan Smith himself recognised that his leadership of the Conservative Party was less than inspiring. His decision, nearly a decade ago, to resign was driven by an unusual degree of self-awareness. Without it, there would have been no revival in Tory fortunes.
Now he needs to show a similar degree of humility and re-engineer his welfare reforms to recognise the necessarily messy complexities of human existence.