UK Politics

'Goats': Do all talents make the best government?

Goat
Image caption Horns of a dilemma: Goats were all the rage in 2007 - but have they had their day?

In his mid-thirties the poet William Wordsworth famously looked back at the French Revolution and wrote: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven."

A fan of Gordon Brown might exclaim the same sentiment, albeit in more modest tones, about the former prime minister's first days in office.

Having served 10 frustrating years under Tony Blair's increasingly ancien regime, the Brownites were running the show by June 2007.

Soon after taking power, Mr Brown grandly announced he wished to lead a "Government Of All The Talents".

Eschewing party divisions, up to a point, several experts from "outside politics" were to be granted peerages and instantly moved in to ministerial roles.

Quickly given the acronym "goats", the likes of former admiral Lord West, ex-UN deputy secretary general Lord Malloch Brown, former CBI director-general Lord "Digby" Jones and City hotshot Lord Myners took up office.

They were soon dealing with issues as big as terrorism and the global financial crisis.

'Dehumanising'

Supporters of Mr Brown praised him for looking beyond the usual Westminster talent pool in search of brilliant solutions to massive problems.

But a report by University College London's (UCL) constitution unit raises some doubts about the project.

It says: "By the end of Brown's premiership... views about the success of these appointments were at best mixed. Some of the original 'goats' had left government after a relatively short time; commentators were scathing about their achievements."

Image caption Lord Jones was not happy as a minister

Lord Jones - not seen as a natural Labour supporter - took the party whip to become a roving trade minister in 2007.

On several occasions, he went a little off-message, notably when he expressed concerns about plans to tax "non-domiciled" foreigners in Britain.

He left in Mr Brown's October 2008 reshuffle and later complained to the Commons public administration committee of having gone through "one of the most dehumanising and depersonalising experiences a human being can have".

He added: "The whole system is designed to take the personality, the drive and the initiative out of a junior minister."

So it was not only the commentators who were scathing. But what made Mr Brown bring in the goats in the first place?

'Shrinking pool'

The report, entitled Putting Goats amongst the Wolves, says some dismissed his actions as a "publicity stunt", but adds: "There was a perceived need for the appointment of outsiders for two reasons.

"The first was that the pool of ministerial candidates was too limited: in the UK, candidates for ministerial appointment were generally confined to those within the legislature.

"This pool might shrink over time, particularly as a government came into a third term of office - often with a smaller majority, and with a number of MPs having 'done their time' and perhaps been found wanting.

"The second reason was the apparent professionalisation of politics, and politicians. People brought into Parliament, and those who remained in Parliament, were perceived to have a narrow range of skills.

"It followed (though not inevitably) that those appointed from the legislature to become ministers would also have a narrow range of skills. Put differently, it was not clear that the skills needed to be a successful politician were the same skills needed to be an effective minister."

So, were the goats any good at being politicians? To mingle clichés, were they like fish out of water?

Admiral Lord West of Spithead, the security minister, stayed in office throughout Mr Brown's time in Downing Street.

However, shortly after joining the government he told the BBC that he remained to be convinced of the need to extend the 28-day limit on detention without trial for terrorism suspects, one of Mr Brown's most high-profile policies.

'Several failures'

Hours later, after a meeting with the PM, he declared himself "personally convinced", dismissing his faux pas as the words of a "simple sailor".

The UCL academics interviewed several goats. One recommendation made was that those "outsiders" brought straight in to government from a non-Westminster background could receive some "mentoring" from experienced ministers, to avoid embarrassments.

The report says: "We found a wide range of views and experience. A few of these new UK 'outsider' ministers were regarded as successful, and several as failures. Most were given little or no induction.

Image caption Sea dog: Lord West's knowledge of dangerous land-based canines was questioned

"Some felt that too much emphasis was placed on the parliamentary role."

It adds: "There are set days when Commons ministers will answer questions related to their portfolio in the chamber. By contrast, the role of peer ministers has usually been that of departmental spokesperson, answering questions on all matters which fall within their department, and taking bills through the House.

"Thus, in practice, a peer minister may end up doing the equivalent parliamentary work of three to four Commons ministers."

The report says goats "expressed some bewilderment" at the range of their work, finding the Lords chamber "intimidating".

One respondent, perhaps humorously, asked: "Did anyone bother to tell Lord West that he would be answering questions on dangerous dogs in the House?"

'Radical step'

In the US, members of Congress cannot serve in the cabinet because of a strict division between the legislature and the executive.

Former Prime Minister Sir John Major is an advocate of a similar scheme in the UK, arguing a few ministers should not have to be MPs or peers. But, he contends, there would have to be "safeguards" to ensure accountability.

The report notes that this idea - running contrary to constitutional convention - could happen if the Lords is changed into an elected, rather than appointed, chamber.

It says: "Outsider ministers, if appointed at all, would have to be wholly 'outside' Parliament. This would be a far more radical step. Each House would need to devise procedures for holding such ministers to account, and the Commons might find it harder to deny a platform to ministers who asked for it."

Outsiders could still defend themselves at the dispatch box, despite not being parliamentarians - not even peers.

Sir John's suggestions raise huge questions over the future role and constitutional position of ministers.

These will no doubt be raised if the desire for Lords reform becomes more of a clamour.

David Cameron, perhaps with a "fresher" parliamentary team at his disposal than Mr Brown, has not shown quite the same enthusiasm for goats.

He has, though, given a peerage to former Conservative Party policy adviser Jonathan Hill. Baron Hill of Oareford - hardly a political outsider, but a newcomer to Parliament - is now an education minister.

In an echo of Lord Jones, the government has awarded Stephen Green, former chairman of HSBC, a peerage and made him trade minister.

Gordon Brown's words on coming to office are a fading political memory, but perhaps his goat revolution is only in its infancy.

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