Do you remember the Third Way? It was Tony Blair’s attempt to spray gloss a veneer of political philosophy on New Labour’s ruthlessly focused election machine – rejecting a choice between “prosperous and efficient Britain” (Thatcher’s Conservatives) and a “caring and compassionate Britain” (Old Labour).
For a while, the Third Way attracted commentary, praise from Blair groupies, and criticism – before Gordon Brown put the slogan out of its misery. The era of marginalising the Tories and the Left had come to an end.
Then came the Big Society. This was David Cameron’s big idea, or should I say Steve Hilton’s? Again, it was an attempt to give a political project definition, but Hilton was empowered to further the idea, or try to – before the then Prime Minister lost patience with it (and him).
But for a few years, the Big Society was all the rage – at least among organisations seeking cash, thinkers and doers seeking patronage, civil servants recasting projects, and a mass of others trying to get in on the act.
Levelling up has provoked the same pattern of behaviour, and my sense as an Editor is that no subject since Brexit has attracted more submissions to ConservativeHome (with the exception of Tory MPs offering pieces backing of Net Zero, often because they have a constituency interest in green energy).
Schools, work, skills, productivity, infrastructure, transport, housing, science, procurement, high streets, law and order, elected mayors, health, broadband, sport, parks, culture: nothing human and indeed unhuman is alien to levelling up.
This provokes the criticism that if levelling up is about everything it is thus about nothing – assuming that it’s understood in the first place. “People find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating,” Rachel Wolf, the co-author of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, wrote on this site.
All the same, the central message of levelling up seems clear enough to me: at heart, it’s about redressing the economic, cultural and social imbalance between the Greater South East and much of the rest of Britain.
If this isn’t One Nation conservatism in post-Brexit guise, I don’t know what is. The heartland of the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum was provincial England, which thereby rejected the status quo – including an economic model heavily reliant on unskilled migration, financial services, low wages, and London plus its hinterland.
Michael Gove said more or less as much in the Commons yesterday. “While talent is spread equally across the United Kingdom, opportunity is not.”
“We need to tackle and reverse the inequality that is limiting so many horizons and that also harms our economy. The gap between much of the south-east and the rest of the country in productivity, in health outcomes, in wages, in school results and in job opportunities must be closed.”
It’s therefore evident not only what levelling up is but what it isn’t. Fundamentally, it isn’t focused on prosperity, though this would certainly be a by-product of the project were it to work.
After all, a Government focused simply on prosperity, or at least growth, might well double down on the present economic model, supplemented by tax cuts, a reinvigorated private sector, and deregulation. This seems to me to be precisely what some in the centre-right thinks believe we should do.
“The intention to spread government R&D around the country could damage the success story of the Oxford-Cambridge corridor,” the Institute of Economic Affairs said in its response to the White Paper.
This suggests the nightmare endpoint of a levelling up policy which makes the Greater South East worse off than it otherwise would be while leaving much of the rest of the country not much better off than it is now. You can bet that what the IEA is saying some Tory MPs with home counties seats will be thinking.
If levelling up isn’t fundamentally about prosperity, it isn’t exactly about people either. Government could help to upskill the next generation only for it to up sticks and head for the Greater South East, as so many have done before.
No, levelling up is primarily about place (and therefore includes in its ambit those bits of the South East that aren’t well off at all). In which context, that long list of concerns begins to become explicable, since all help to make a place what it is and can be.
Having said which, some of the core elements of levelling up – better transport, joining up towns and cities and skills – look a lot like George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse.
Let me leave aside such disparate questions about the White Paper as: how many of the proposals are actually reannouncements? Are targets for 2030 really meaningful? What’s the knock on for target seats? And will Gove now vanish from public view again?
Instead, it’s worth reflecting on the magnitude of the task which the Government has set itself, perhaps as much by accident as anything else.
The gravitational pull of London on the rest of the country is more powerful than that of the capital cities of comparable neighbouring countries. Although it has a great deal of poverty within it, the city of which Boris Johnson was once Mayor is an international hub, the centrepiece of a relatively open economy.
Read accounts of how parts of the country boomed when Neville Chamberlain was Chancellor, with a mass of housing and roads being built in and around London, and you will see how little has changed.
If one element of the White Paper has the capacity to drive change is the localism proposals – cautious though these are now that this Parliament approaches its mid-term. The best time for radicalism is at the start of a new government and that moment has gone.
But whether the matter to hand is better skills, industrial strategy, apprenticeships, emission reduction, integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, central government is badly placed to do the job
Gove referred yesterday to giving such local Mayors as Ben Houchen, Dan Jarvis and Andy Street more powers, and held out the prospect of creating new mayors “where people want them”. That may be as much as he wanted to do, or his colleagues would let him get away with.
“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. In terms of local taxation, double it,” Osborne said last year in an interview with ConservativeHome.
Without ambition on that scale, along the localist lines of Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan’s The Plan, there will be no irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of the provinces, to misquote Tony Benn. Places need power if they’re to level up.