“Bandwidth” is one of those fashionable expressions that, as they often do, loses any power it might have possessed through overuse, and is currently moving through a euphemistic phase towards cliché and then redundancy.
So Alan Milburn, the now former head of the Social Mobility Commission, may have been mincing his words a little when he accused the Government of lacking the “bandwidth” to make much political progress on social progress, but his meaning was clear: Brexit obsesses this divided Government and the fractious Tory party to the exclusion of almost everything else.
When ministers aren’t making passes at journalists and activists at lunch, plotting, or freelancing on behalf of their own shadow leadership campaigns, they are making a mess of the Brexit talks, and have little time or imagination for much else. It was one of the less-covered aspects of Brexit that it has meant most of the routine work of government will be put on hold for many years, and damagingly so. Then again, given the prejudices of those running the country, maybe it is a blessing they’ve not had the chance to do more damage to social mobility by turning their incompetent attentions to that too.
Mr Milburn may be too much of a gent to say so, but the Prime Minister lacks the intellectual capacity to think through how to make a reality of her rhetoric about righting social injustices, even if she had the time for it. She portrays herself as a sort of “wet” One Nation Tory of an older tradition, which would be fine if she had the policies, money, parliamentary majority and mandate to back that up. She has none of those, and fails even to make the case for her policies.
Ideologically, Theresa May is all over the place, mouthing centre-left rhetoric some of the time but then calling herself a Thatcherite, and all the while pursuing a policy on Brexit that can only succeed by shredding the social protections that help the poor and the young to make any material progress for themselves and their children through Britain’s ugly caste systems of education and employment. Tax concessions for the wealthy, HS2 and more grammar schools (now postponed) are not going to radically alter inequality of opportunity.
Ms May needs to tell the country and her party, if she gets the chance, that she understands the distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, which of these she is in favour of, and what she proposes to do to achieve those ends. Either way, the Conservatives in office have – since 2015 alone – done little to correct the growing loss of opportunity and, consequently, widening inequalities across class, race, gender, age and regions.
Hence the despair of Mr Milburn and his colleagues, including Major-era Tory cabinet minister Gillian Shephard. As if to symbolise the Government’s confusion and lack of commitment to social mobility, the commission has been messed about over its remit, staffing and funding, and Downing Street has questioned its very future. True, no quango will ever transform society, but it can be a catalyst, a conscience even, for a busy government to reflect on the impact of its policies. Soon, it seems, we will not have even that, and Britain’s slow regression into Edwardian patterns of social inequality and life chances – especially between state and public schools and in housing – will continue.
The latest work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – a body concerned with such issues for more than a century – is expected to illustrate the stark realities of poverty in Britain. There are consequences to such a situation.
Mr Milburn warns of the social unrest and political extremism that will surely follow – and signs of that are already apparent, as with the rise of Brexit and Corbynism, and the riots of 2011. Mr Milburn’s resignation letter is a powerful parting shot from the Social Mobility Commission, but it is likely to make little difference. Ministers are too busy to notice, even if they cared.