Reflections on Mrs May’s newly announced Cabinet Committee on Social Reform

Thomas Hector Smith was an ancestor of mine. 

An Aberdeen Grammar School pupil, he started working life at sixteen as a bank clerk in Stonehaven. By the time he was thirty seven he had reached the top spot, taking over in 1881 as General Manager of the National Bank of Scotland, a job he held for the next thirty years.

In 1904 a biographical sketch about this Mr Smith tried to explain how he had risen so fast and stayed successful so long. One key feature was highlighted. “He had the faculty”, wrote the author, “of being susceptible and pervious to the ideas of others and of gauging their utility. He went along the line of least resistance.”

Last Thursday lunchtime I took part in a discussion on Five Live with two other charity colleagues about Mrs May’s new Cabinet Committee on Social Reform, the one that’s intended to put legs on the Prime Minister’s promise that her government will make life easier “for the millions of people for whom life is a struggle, who work all hours to keep their heads above water”. What one thing did we want from this committee, we were asked.

With those precious airtime minutes ticking, policy prescriptions flowed. Mrs May’s “millions struggling with job insecurity”, are of course those same millions – four to five it’s estimated – who work on zero hours contracts and the people who have been driven, over the last few, difficult years out of secure employment to low paid, unpredictable self-employment. Secure and sufficient income has to be at the centre of any credible response, we all said.  

And we made sure too, to remind people that the Trussell Trust, which I was representing, the CAB and many, many other well informed charities had spent years speaking up for these millions in the face of an administration that determinedly appeared as though it did not want to know. Indeed, in concert with their chosen media compatriots, many in the previous administration had spent their energies denying the truths we tried to expose and attacking the messenger.

We live in hope, of course we do. But we could be forgiven, we suggested, for asking what’s different this time around?

The more I thought about that radio discussion, the more I wished I had told people about Thomas Hector Smith.

You see, we don’t need “one particular thing” from this new Cabinet Committee – the silver bullet isn’t the answer. What we need is a new and remarkable beast:  a Cabinet Committee that’s somehow able to make itself seriously “susceptible and pervious to the ideas of others”. And that’s a big ask. It means senior and experienced politicians putting aside their preconceptions. It means turning the think tank brigades away at the door, because every member of the cabinet knows full well that those kinds of advisors are not the “others” who need hearing; and it means listening properly to the people who have experienced the struggle Mrs May refers to, and to those who work directly with them.

And when the listening is done and the ideas have been considered, what about that precious and seldom sufficiently prized “faculty… of gauging their utility”? Not everyone has it. That’s the problem. How might this Cabinet Committee spot and empower those who do?

Last, isn’t there so much in Mr Smith’s going along the line of least resistance? Worth a longer thought?

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