There is a simple lesson the government needs to learn from Alan Milburn’s resignation as social mobility czar: employ a GOAT at your peril. A ‘GOAT’ – the acronym derives from Gordon Brown’s phrase ‘Government Of All Talents – is a figure appointed to a government job, either as a minister or an adviser, even though he or she has a political persuasion. Presumably, what was going through David Cameron’s mind in 2012 when he appointed Milburn to the job driving Tory social mobility policy was that it would make his government look broad-minded and caring. That was, after all, what Cameron was all about – he was above all else a one-man PR operation to ‘detoxify’, as he saw it, the Conservative brand.
But there was a rather fatal flaw in Milburn’s appointment, as there would in any appointment of a former opposition minister to a government job. Milburn was a political animal and was all too likely to end up turning on his new masters. However much presentational value he might have had there is a good reason why he threw in his lot with the Labour party rather than the Conservatives when he was embarking on his political career – he sees the world in a different way. He has very different instincts from most conservatives, not least when it comes to issues of poverty and self-help. A conservative is almost always going to tend towards policies which involve self-reliance; someone attracted to the Labour party, on the other hand, is inevitably going to be drawn to the idea of the state as a benevolent institution, helping people who cannot help themselves. Milburn as social mobility czar was a nasty collision waiting to happen since the day his Social Mobility Commission was put on the road.
Add Brexit and it began to look like a multiple pile-up. According to Milburn the government’s social policy is letting down the people who voted Brexit. In other words he subscribes to the view that a lot of people voted Brexit only as a generalised protest, a demented cry against everything they felt to be unfair about the world. They couldn’t, of course, have voted for Brexit because they had listened to, thought about and agreed with the arguments of the Leave campaign that the EU is an anti-democratic body which was seizing increasing areas of our national sovereignty. Neither, in Milburn’s mind, could large numbers of people voted for Brexit because they saw the EU as a big drag on the UK economy, whose protectionist instincts were standing in the way of Britain doing business with the rest of the world. No, In Milburn’s mind Brexit voters are too stupid to see any of that – they simply lashed out as the EU as a convenient punchbag for their day-to-day frustrations.
That is not, I think, the attitude of a man I would want running my social mobility policy.