Mark Brolin: Ignore Johnson’s moralistic detractors. Many voters may end up thinking that we’re lucky to have him.

9 Feb

Mark Brolin is a political analyst, economist and author. His most recent book is titled Healing Broken Democracies.

The anti-Boris Johnson forces, both inside and outside his own party, have trumpeted the “clown-and-a-liar” message ever since the day he entered politics.

Yet he won both Brexit and the 2019 general election – to no small degree because numerous voters know that Johnson is no more evasive than most other politicians, just more attacked when it happens.

In fact, part of his voter appeal is that he sometimes calls a spade a spade. Such as over the EU. And wokery. Unless brought down during the following weeks, Johnson is likely to emerge from partygate as underestimated as almost always.

Most Labour commentators are totally relaxed about Keir Starmer having a beer with his colleagues while up in arms about the Prime Minister having the same thing. Still, an opposition expressing tribal outrage surprises no one. Partygate developed into a major drama only after two aggrieved Conservative subtribes, Remainers and Covid libertarians, decided to exact revenge by siding with Labour’s Johnson bashers.

A key message highlighted by all Johnson’s detractors, such as Covid libertarian Fraser Nelson, is that the Prime Minister is irreparably damaged. This is a classic tactic when trying to topple a leader. Simply because the prophecy turns self-fulfilling if it influences key backers to redraw support. Yet, for three reasons, the damage to Johnson is arguably far from irreversible.

First, he is strong where it counts. In fact, he is one of remarkably few key politicians in sync with the voter majority over both Brexit and lockdown. Conservatives not in sync with Johnson over these issues remain vocal but still represent minority opinion only. It speaks volumes that the Prime Minister’s enemies have had to dig out their inner Cromwell (puritan) to find common ground surrounding an obvious Johnson weak spot.

Following all personal scandals throughout Johnson’s career, it is hard to believe anyone voting for him in 2019 is too surprised about some garden beer or birthday cake rule stretching. Meaning that, despite today’s proactively inflamed moralism, many will eventually write off partygate as “Boris being Boris”.

Not a chance, you say? Well, remember when most commentators lined up to claim “Boris the lying clown” would never pull off Brexit. Yet he did. Why? Partly because voters could tell that singling out Johnson and then going on and on about his missteps, as if he is the only one in Westminster bending the truth when cornered, reeks not only from double standards, but from an anti-coalition ganging up to cut down a feared political rival through bullying.

When the dust has settled many voters are likely to deduce, regardless of current opinion polls, that the UK has in many ways been lucky to have been led by outside-the-box Johnson during the outside-the-box Brexit and Coronavirus years. Since hard to see how a “system clone” Prime Minister would have done a better job. Would, for example, anyone more strongly steeped in the establishment ways have allowed Kate Bingham to run her highly successful task force largely outside the Whitehall structure?

Second, the flipside of moralistic battles is that these easily transgress into silliness. Take Daniel Finkelstein, normally one of the most thoughtful Remainers. He now argues that no heed should be paid to the proportionality argument. Downing Street rule breaking has, as he sees it, severely violated the bond of trust between politicians and voters. If Johnson stays, he continues, it weakens the integrity of nothing less than democracy itself.

Yet it is hard to square Finkelstein’s outrage and sudden championing of the voter bond with his always relaxed attitude towards the massive EU democratic deficit, the EU consistent rule-stretching and the lack of voter insight in Brussels. Also, UK democracy never has been at risk due to Johnson’s Downing Street birthday cake or thank-you-drinks, despite the exceptional circumstances and legal grey area involved.

Democracy is only at risk if a) voters are not allowed to know about doubtful activities and b) voters are not themselves offered an opportunity to pass judgement. Nobody can claim voters have not been made aware of partygate. In fact, Putin is probably still laughing about how a few beers and an HR-investigation has brought the UK government to its knees.

Third, Johnson’s outsider credentials have been boosted by all the PM-bashing. Eton you say? Yes, obviously. But he is still an outsider in a much more politically important sense. Since not thinking and acting in the way of Westminster officialdom. Incidentally this is why he irritates, to bits, so many Westminster insiders. Does anyone really think that Starmer would have faced a similarly moralistic onslaught had he had a beer or a slice of cake in Downing Street during a lockdown? Precisely.

Tribal groupthink is again in play when Johnson is slapped and slapped in the face until he is forced to promise a Downing Street shake up. Unsurprisingly, many staffers immediately start looking elsewhere for opportunities. Whereupon the anti-Johnson forces are publicly gloating: “See, what did we tell you, everyone is leaving”.

Johnson-bashers do not seem to get that many voters can sense such partisan scheming from a mile away. Also undecided voters might very well deduce that if the establishment wants Johnson gone so badly he must be doing something right. This is incidentally one of the best points rarely made in the emotional debate surrounding his future. Since the prime reason democracy must always be upheld is that only the people can be relied upon to offer push back against the paternalist tendencies often developing within an administration class.

Among Johnson’s rivals for the top job, is anyone really better suited, currently, to offer such pushback? The administration class does not seem to think so. It does however seem to love to hate the Downing Street “drinking culture”. Perhaps while seemingly so swimmingly verifying an always much favoured self-image among paternalists: “refined philosopher Kings” versus “vulgar people’s tribunes”.

Nonetheless, even though premature to talk about Johnson as a necessarily spent force, the key reason not to oust him over partygate is much bigger than both Johnson and the Conservative Party. Just think about the precedent it would set if the wording of an unelected civil servant, Sue Gray, is allowed to play a key role in deciding the political fate of a British Prime Minister – following an attempt by that Prime Minister to relax for a few minutes after a number of frantic months.

Political robots will then turn into a permanent feature at Downing Street. Why? Since every Prime Minister will be terrified to put a foot wrong. Well aware that any day the leading civil service “HR-inquisitor” might be tasked to scrutinise, given only yet another bandwagon witch-hunt, if Downing Street has fully followed a “protocol” largely determined by the inquisitors themselves. “What did you see? Alcohol! So you feel it was a ‘party’ rather than a ‘work meet’? Tell me and you might save your own skin.”

Given how moralism as a political weapon has crept back into society – and through mission creep transformed HR-departments from non-entities into rightfully feared internal affairs units – it was probably always only a question of time until this weapon was to be used against one of the last influential anti-moralists still standing. Johnson.

Nonetheless, whatever we personally think of him and partygate, democracy weakens big time if HR-inquisitors can be used to deny voters the chance to pass balanced judgement on the pros and cons of an elected Prime Minister.

David Skelton: The new snobbery. How football fans and Brexit voters were demonised as racists.

22 Jul

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

It seems an age ago now but ,for a brief moment, England’s glorious European Championship run brought the country together in support of our footballing heroes. Almost until the penalty shootout that guaranteed at least 56 years of hurt, the country seemed united and optimistic. This tremendous multi-racial squad, bursting with pride about their country and the honour of representing it, represented the hopes and dreams of the whole country.

It didn’t last of course. As soon as the last penalty was missed, the footballers who had shown the guts to take a penalty for their country in the unflinching all or nothing spotlight of a shootout were subject to vile racial abuse from a few morons.  Harry Kane was right to suggest that the contemptible idiots who abused our heroic players aren’t really England fans.

The abuse from a small minority was a reminder that, as Sunder Katwala emphasised in an excellent article, the UK has made great progress on race, but still has more to do. The fortnight that has passed since the final has given us time to reflect on how to build on the optimism of the cup run, but also to tackle the issues that arose in the aftermath (including the fact that much of the abuse has been shown to come from abroad).

We should look to build on the sense of unity and national pride that we saw during the tournament to build a renewed sense of national solidarity. This means that the identity obsession of today’s Left, as well as the snobbery that has again reared its head in the past week and a half, should be eschewed in favour of a focus on removing barriers, tackling prejudice and focusing on what united us.

The end of the tournament and the return of the sneering

The social snobbery of the progressive left, which had been on hold throughout the tournament was also evident again in the early part of last week. Although clear that the vile abuse came from a small, vile minority, too many modern snobs seemed determined to paint all working class football fans with the same brush.

The Twitter account of Have I Got News For Youjoked” that “amid calls to ban racist football fans from grounds indefinitely, clubs argue that they’d struggle to survive with attendances of 12.” This is the kind of satire that is downright offensive. Multi-racial estates around the country have been covered in the England flag, and the black members of this England team are absolute heroes to most working class football fans.

As satire it was grim, but it was a reminder of the attitude of too many parts of progressive Britain. The tweet was a neat distillation of the snobbery and sneering that has become all too common in the past few years. After the Brexit referendum, the assumption that working class Brexit voters were bigoted or racist became commonplace in politice, progressive society. An example of this offensive narrative was a prominent Corbynista commentator talking about a ”toxic narrative of nativism and xenophobia” in Red Wall constituencies.

The sneering attitude that caricatures working class football fans as bigoted and racist has become commonplace in too much culture and comedy, including the News Quiz and Daily Mash, which have a habit of punching down. The writer of Dead Ringers even said that comedy writers regard condservatism and patriotism as “distasteful” and the comedy writers in London “should be a little more careful about seeing England as “backward and nationalistic… or racist.”  Creating an enhanced feeling of national solidarity is important, but that isn’t going to happen if a progressive elite continues to unfairly caricature large sections of society.

Building a multi-racial working class conservatism

We need to build a multi-racial working-class conservatism that takes the lead in tackling discrimination and racism and also prioritises in removing the barriers that prevent people advancing, whether they’re based on race or class. It should look to build on the progress that has been made and should reject the narrative of a dystopia that parts of the modern left seem determined to paint.

As Trevor Phillips points out, the UK has more ethnic minority politicians in senior government positions than the rest of the EU put together, and cross-European polling shows that prejudiced attitudes are much less common in the UK than in many other European countries.

The kind of vile racism that was once commonplace in British football grounds, and remains so in places like Spain or Italy, is thankfully seldom heard in the stands today.  We should be proud of the advances we have made as a society, but always conscious that there is more to do.

We must be prepared to take on prejudice head on, which is why the Prime Minister was right to announce that anyone convicted of racist abuse should not be welcome in any football ground. A multi-racial conservatism also means that we should not be questioning the motives of black footballers or dictating what kind of stand they decide to make.

As Danny Finkelstein argued, the idea that Raheem Stirling and Marcus Rashford  “taking the knee” was somehow associated with Marxism or defunding the police is patently absurd. When black players take steps to highlight the racist abuse they have been facing, the players should have our full-throated solidarity and support.

Conservatives should be quick to disregard the excesses of “wokeness” and identity politics. Phrases like “white privilege” and “white fragility” are deeply unhelpful, and the identity politics of the left seems more concerned with highlighting virtue and emphasising what divides us than seeking genuine solutions to important problems.

Endless debates about statues might create media opportunities for previously obscure academics but they won’t improve the opportunities for ethnic minority Brits. Equally, a continual chipping away at British history is not going to help build a strong and cohesive sense of national unity. The UK shouldn’t import the highly polarising rhetoric about race from the US, which is both divisive and unsuitable for our very different circumstances.

Instead, we should focus on an approach that shows zero tolerance for prejudice and also has a real focus on tackling the issues that harm the life experience for too many ethnic minority people in this country.  Addressing issues such the high levels of unemployment facing Britons from a black and Bangladeshi background will be important, as will taking on board the concerns that black Britons continue to have with elements of the criminal justice system and continuing health inequalities.

Black people are also more likely to work in low-paid, insecure work, meaning that steps we need to take to boost pay and improve dignity in the workplace will tackle barriers that impact based on both race and class.

The success of the England football team and the way in which they managed, for a brief period, to make the country both positive and united should give us inspiration. As conservatives, we shouldn’t pay heed to the divisiveness of identity politics, but nor should we indulge in the shrillness of US-style culture war rhetoric.

We should continue building a multi-racial, working class conservatism that has zero tolerance for prejudice, looks to remove barriers that still face  and builds a strong sense of national unity and solidarity. Whereas the Left seems determined to pull apart the ties that bind us, we should be doing all in our power to strengthen those ties.

Finkelstein shows that moderate, decent, pragmatic, intelligent conservatism is alive and well

5 Sep

Everything in Moderation by Daniel Finkelstein

One of the many merits of Daniel Finkelstein’s collection of his columns from The Times is that it sent me back, for purposes of comparison, to the two other collections by writers for that paper which I happen to possess.

Taking Sides, the first selection of Bernard Levin’s journalism to be published, includes his account of his mother’s troubles with the North Thames Gas Board, written in 1973. Rather to my surprise, it still made me laugh out loud.

Best Seat in the House: The Wit and Parliamentary Chronicles of Frank Johnson, edited by his widow, Virginia Fraser, includes the piece read at his memorial service by David Cameron, which was written in 1981 for Now! Magazine and begins:

“Unsuccessfully, as will now emerge, I had resolved from the outset that there were two subjects which had received sufficient airing on this page and would not be mentioned further: Wagner and Mr Roy Hattersley.

“Concerning the one: nobody in his right mind would deny his capacity for the sublime, his surges of lyricism, his sheer weight and scale, but there is also his torrential prolixity, his essentially outdated nineteenth-century attitude towards his art, his foggy symbolism and an epic tedium which modern audiences should surely not be expected to endure. These are some of the drawbacks of Mr Hattersley.”

Again I laughed out loud. Johnson was an even finer comic writer than Levin. They were among the wittiest figures of their time, gave enormous pleasure to their readers, and are now passing into the obscurity which awaits even the most celebrated journalists.

Finkelstein is not so brilliant a stylist as his two illustrious predecessors, but it is right to place him in this tradition, for since the age of eight, when he started to read The Times for its football coverage, he has been a devoted reader of that paper, and treats it with the high seriousness, one might say the reverence, which is required if one is going to do one’s best work for it.

He is now 58, has contributed to The Times since 2001, and brings to it several qualities which neither Levin nor Johnson possessed. One is a knowledge of politics as conducted on the inside: Finkelstein has worked closely for David Owen, John Major, William Hague, George Osborne and David Cameron.

His columns are informed by his experience of what works, and more importantly, what does not work. On 4th October 2006 he began a piece with the words:

“I am worried about David Cameron. I fear he will have too much policy. I am concerned that there will be too much substance and not enough style.”

Finkelstein proceeds to an exposition of political parties as “identity brands”:

“Voters make choices in order to make statements about themselves, to establish their own identity, as much as they do because of anything the parties offer them.”

I am allergic to the discussion of parties as “brands”, but Finkelstein does it so well that I always read him on the subject. Apart from anything else, he has invariably read some book, on, say, game theory or social psychology, which I know I shall never read myself, and has extracted valuable insights from it, which he proceeds to share with his readers.

The principal task of the social scientist is to establish, by the most laborious research, the truth of propositions which were already known, by anyone with a modicum of common sense, to be true.

Finkelstein gives us the best of this social science, without himself degenerating into a deluded policy wonk. As he goes on to say in his piece about brands:

“Policymaking…is a bit of a con. Manifestos pretend to be an entire programme for government when in reality even the most detailed of them only cover a few items. Voters don’t make judgments based on these programmes and they shouldn’t either.

“What matters is not such bogus ‘substance’, it is the governing style of the prospective rulers. Are they strong or weak? Interferers or liberals? Atlanticists or Europhiles? Moderates or extremists? Localisers or centralisers? Tax cutters or big spenders?”

And he applies this insight to the then Labour Government:

“Labour has spent much of the past five years undoing stupid things it committed itself to in opposition and then did in its first five years. The problem with politicians, you see, is not that they don’t do what they say they will, but the opposite – they try to do what they said they would do, even after realising it wasn’t a good plan.”

I’m sure Boris Johnson – who barely appears in these pages – would agree with every word of that. So would Lord Salisbury, who said “the commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies”.

Like all good columnists, Finkelstein acknowledges his duty to entertain the reader. For New Year’s Eve 2014 he reflects on how much time he spends writing individual replies to emails, and devises a number of standard replies to the most common emails:

“Thank you for your email. I would be happy to help you with your PhD on ‘Idiots who have given the Conservative Party electorally disastrous advice’. Please thank your supervisor for thinking of me. Since you need only four hours of my time, we must fit in a meeting. It might be difficult in the next twelve months, as it is election year, but I will make every effort to organise it. It would certainly be easier for me if I didn’t need to visit you in Sheffield.”

If Finkelstein had wanted to be a comic writer, he might have been in the Stephen Leacock class. But the charm of his columns lies in their mixture of deeply felt politics with a sense of his own absurdity.

Max Beerbohm said Trollope reminds us that sanity need not be philistine. Something similar might be said of Finkelstein. He reminds us that a devotion to compromise, moderation, loving one’s parents and getting on with one’s neighbours need not be philistine: are among the pillars of our civilisation.

He defends the suburbs, including Brent Cross Shopping Centre, and made me feel a bit snobbish for disliking that place so much.

And although he makes almost no references to English literature, not even to that eminently political playwright, William Shakespeare, Finkelstein knows more about our political history, and our 55 Prime Ministers, than just about any other columnist now writing.

When he suggests that “the British voter never gets it wrong”, and the right party has won every election for the last 80 years, he is not indulging in windy idealism, but has at his fingertips the arguments needed to support his case:

“You see, for all that the Conservatives fell apart in the 1992 Parliament, I still think it was clear that a Kinnock government would have been worse. No one needs to tell me how bad things got by 1997, because I was there (I always insist on the retention of that comma). But I still assert with confidence that the voters did the right thing putting the Conservatives back in power.

“Neil Kinnock was entirely unsuited to being prime minister. His endless whirling speeches showed that. As John Major pricelessly commented, as Kinnock didn’t know what he was saying, he never knew when he had finished saying it.”

A collection of newspaper articles is like a box of chocolates: one fears that if one scoffs the whole lot at a sitting, one will end up feeling sick.

But with Finkelstein, I kept on saying to myself “I’ll have just one more”, and didn’t end up feeling sick at all. I felt that moderate, decent, pragmatic, intelligent conservatism is alive and well.

Iain Dale: How many Cabinet members would your fantasy Cabinet. I count five. And it gets worse.

20 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to defend what’s happened over the last week or ten days with exam results.

Clustershambles doesn’t really cover it. And the trouble is that it has affected a huge number of people, not just the students and teachers concerned, but their parents and grandparents too.

Add them up, and we’re talking several million people, I imagine. Like the Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip, it’s had cut-through.

The latest YouGov poll, out on Wednesday should a four point dip in the Tory ratings to 40 per cent. While that is still a two point lead, it’s not difficult to imagine that next week Labour could be ahead for the first time in, well, many years.

Optimists might point out that we are three and a half years away from a general election and that time is a great healer. Maybe, but once a Government gets a reputation for crass incompetence it is very difficult to shake off.

– – – – – – – – – –

It was reported by The Independent (yes, it still exists online) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation on Monday, but that it was rejected by the Prime Minister. Only they know the truth of this, but it certainly hasn’t been denied by the beleaguered Education Secretary.

If he did indeed do the honourable thing, all credit to him. But surely if you resign, you, er, resign. It’s all very well for the Prime Minister to have said (if he in fact did), well, you got us into this, you get us out, but in the end once a politician loses the confidence of his or her client groups, it’s very difficult to get things back on an even keel.

Your Cabinet colleagues look at you as a dead man walking. Your enemies can’t wait until your inevitable denouement, and your “friends” melt away at the first whiff of grapeshot. If you’re going to survive, you don’t have long to plan how to do it. In Williamson’s case, he has until Christmas, given that I am led to understand that the reshuffle is now planned for January.

– – – – – – – – – –

The trouble with this Cabinet is that it has a distinctly second-rate feel about it. How many of them would make it into a Thatcher or Major cabinet. Very few, I would venture to suggest.

I interviewed Alastair Campbell on Wednesday (it will be on the Iain Dale All Talk podcast next Wednesday), and he reckoned that most of the current crew wouldn’t have even made it to Minister of State in Mrs T’s day.

Do it yourself. Go through the whole cabinet, and think how many of them would make your own fantasy cabinet. I just did so and came up with a total of five. Lamentable.

But it gets worse. Look down the list of Ministers of State – the ministers who would normally be next in line for the cabinet. I count five that are cabinet material. This is a dire state of affairs.

But it gets even worse. Normally you have a range of former ministers who you could think about bringing back to add a bit of weight and gravitas. Trouble is, most of them left Parliament at the last election. Looking at the greybeards on the Tory benches with cabinet experience you have Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, John Redwood, Maria Miller, Greg Clark, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Cheryl Gillan, Chris Grayling, Damian Green, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Esther McVey, Andrew Mitchell, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers.

Now, how many of those could realistically be restored to cabinet status to bring something extra in terms of political weight, gravitas or character? I’ll leave that to your impeccable judgement.

– – – – – – – – – –

So far this year, I haven’t taken any holiday at all. However, next week I’m on holiday in Norfolk – apart from the fact that I’ll be writing this column, doing several podcasts and appearing on Any Questions.

I realised last week that I’ve lost the art of doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’ve got my laptop open and I will be flicking through Twitter or something.

Next week, I’m going to try to do some reading, and I mean reading for pleasure – not reading something because I have to for my job. Talking of which I have just done an hour-long interview for my Iain Dale Book Club podcast with Danny Finkelstein. He’s just published a book of his collected columns. What a truly fascinating man he is. The podcast will be released on Friday 4 September.

Garvan Walshe: Italian governments have failed to revive Naples for centuries. What are the lessons for Red Wall seats?

30 Jul

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. 

A mad weekend dash for sun has just taken me to Naples. The city, its old historical centre, continuously inhabited long before the Roman Empire, lived up to its long-standing reputation for liveliness and chaos.

From the tiny alleys on a Roman street plan overlooked by eight or nine storeys, the abbeys built by Angevin kings, decaying masterpieces of baroque architecture, to fishmonger-restaurants with live produce and massive loins of tuna selling for €10 a kilo, and traffic that makes Rome’s resemble a sedate town in Baden-Württenberg, forty-eight hours there subject you to constant sensory bombardment.

The energy offers the thinnest of disguises of poverty we think vanished from Western Europe. The better-preserved old districts look like East Berlin; the worst reminded my companion of her childhood in Communist Albania. Prices, as well as physical conditions, reflect people’s limited purchasing power.

Below the Port’Alba (a city gate named after the Spanish viceroy notorious for his brutal suppression of the Dutch revolt) hang two nets to prevent falling masonry killing pedestrians that pass through it. The second net has been hung to catch the rocks that pierce the first one. It’s a city heavy with the pall of lost greatness, unable to pay to maintain the memory of its glorious past.

This can’t merely be attributed to the destructive effects of organised crime. Palermo, for instance is in far better shape. Rubbish collection, once a disaster, now compares favourably with that of Brussels.

The city betrays evidence of attempts to revive it through physical and cultural infrastructure. A smart new subway station adjoins the main railway terminus, though the square above it resists attempts to gentrify it with a success only matched by Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens.

A whole new commercial neighbourhood, the Centro Direzionale, replaced former warehouses with Canary-Wharf style towers. The National Archeological Museum and the art gallery in the former Bourbon Palace of Capodimonte are superb and show signs of plentiful public investment.

Rather, they show the limitations of public-spending-led regeneration that concentrates on physical capital, and present a warning of how the Government’s attempts to revive the economy in the “red wall” seats could go wrong.

At its height under the Spanish and later the Bourbons, the Neapolitan economy thrived because of its position as a political centre. The aristocracy extracted wealth from the peasants on their estates and used it to commission palaces, paintings, and other luxury goods, and for political patronage.

This stimulated a strong service-based economy that fell into decline following Italian unification. Though, as Italy’s largest port it had docks, it never had much industry.

The financial and legal services that had served the Kingdom of Two Sicilies were displaced by Milan and Rome, leaving a void as big as the decline of industry in Manchester or Sheffield. Post-war Italian governments tried repeatedly, but without success to fill it. They could reallocate resources from the north, but never managed to get a southern economy to grow on its own.

Naples also stands out as being the largest European city never to have had a home-grown governing class. It has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Spanish and finally Bourbons, before being reluctantly integrated into modern Italy.

The Bourbons stifled the enlightenment while post-unification Italy focused its energies on the interests of the industrialising north. Anyone who has spent time in the North of England will recognise its identification as unruly, authentically peripheral and ungovernable: the ironic rejection of central authority a badge of honour that covers up the fact their city doesn’t exercise it any more.

Here’s the first trap into which infrastructure-based redevelopment falls: it is liable to be seen as charity for which its recipients, already struggling with a chip on their shoulder, are supposed to feel grateful.

In this respect Naples has much in common with the de-industrialised communities that form the “red wall”. They lack infrastructure, of course, but it is control over the means to define their own purpose that matters more. They lack the political institutions to revive themselves, not only the money to pay for it.

But to receive money is also to give up power: to the ministries in Whitehall and Rome that control the funds, and want, on behalf of the taxpayers to which they are accountable, to ensure the money is well spent (the principle applies even more strongly to the EU’s Covid rescue package, in that the taxpayers and spenders are accountable to entirely different publics).

The second is that it mistakes the results of economic regeneration for its causes. Successful attempts at revival, like Dresden’s or Manchester’s for example, involved making the places attractive for ambitious and creative people to move to.

Now, as Richard Florida and Daniel Finkelstein have observed, that the age of capital-intensive mass manufacturing is over, people don’t move to jobs, but jobs move to where the people are. This means that expanded to include schools, childcare, decent housing, good entertainment and other things that make it easier to have a good life in a town or city, matter more than glitzy new stations. Get these things right and private capital will follow.

This is not to say that depressed areas cannot benefit from financial help, but that if public spending-based revival is to work, it has to be done in a way that enhances the power of the communities into which it is invested, rather than turning them into recipients of the end result of central government cheques paid to large infrastructure companies. If not we’ll end up with a load of melancholy mini-Napleses, but without Neapolitan food, sunshine, or views of Vesuvius.

Neil O’Brien: No, more economic prosperity doesn’t depend on more social liberalism

13 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Danny Finkelstein took issue with Boris Johnson’s idea of “levelling up” in the Times the other day. He reviewed the work of Richard Florida, a thinker dubbed the “patron saint of avocado toast” for highlighting the role of bohemian urbanites in driving economic regeneration.

Danny concludes from his work that, “Social liberalism and economic prosperity go together.” He argues that: “in order to match the success and power of metropolitan areas, non-metropolitan places need to become more… metropolitan.  The problem with the metropolitan “elite” isn’t that there is too much of it. It’s that there aren’t enough members of it, drawn from a wide enough background and living in enough places.”

I hesitate to disagree with one of the smartest columnists on the planet. But economic growth and social liberalism don’t always go together.

What about the Victorians, combining breakneck growth with a religious revival and tightened public morals? What about Japan during their postwar decades of blistering growth and conservative “salaryman” culture? Over the last 70 years, Britain has become more socially liberal as our growth rate has slowed.

Even in Britain today, it’s highly questionable. London is the richest and fastest growing part of the UK.  But where is opposition to homosexuality and pre-marital sex strongest? London. Where is support for censoring offensive speech highest? London.  The capital mixes liberal metropolitan graduates with religious immigrants. Its success is shaped by both.

Danny’s other argument has more important implications. Is it really the case other places must emulate London to succeed? Like other capital cities across Europe, London has grown faster than the rest of the country since the 1980s. The shift to an economy based on “office jobs” over has favoured the centres of larger cities.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away by the idea that hipster-powered megacities are sweeping all before them. For starters, there are successes elsewhere. Cheshire has high tech in a rural setting, with productivity and wages above the national average.  Milton Keynes likewise, because it’s easy to build there. Productivity in Preston has grown faster than average because it’s a transport hub with advanced manufacturing.

On the surface, large cities outside London have done well.  Since 1997, our 16 largest cities grew their GDP faster than their surrounding areas: Leeds grew faster than West Yorkshire, Manchester faster than Greater Manchester, and so on.

But on average, those cities saw also slower growth in income per head than their surrounding areas. In other words, people became more likely to work in city centres, but that growth was fuelled by people commuting in from smaller places around them. Their growth has been powered more by smalltown commuters than flat-cap wearing uber-boheminans.

It’s right that there are cities outside London that have things in common with it, and might benefit from similar investments. Lawyers in London will soon get Crossrail. So why have lawyers in Leeds waited 20 years for a tram?

But too often Richard Florida’s work leads politicians to focus on shiny cultural facilities. A cool art gallery in West Brom.  A national museum of pop music in Sheffield. It’s not just that these projects flop and close. It’s that they distract from two bigger issues.

First, most people aren’t graduates – so we need a plan to raise their productivity and wages too.

Second, places outside urban centres are perfectly capable of attracting high-skill, high income people – with the right policies.

Britain’s economy is unusually unbalanced compared to other countries.  Pre-tax incomes in Greater London are nearly 60 per cent higher than the national average, but more than 20 per cent below average in Yorkshire, the North East, Wales and Northern Ireland.  These imbalances mean our economy is overheating in some places and freezing cold in others, slowing growth overall. There are no major economies that are richer per head than Britain which have a more unbalanced economy.

But these imbalances don’t represent pure free market outcomes. It’s true that low-skill, low wages places can get stuck in a vicious circle. True that some places on the periphery have very deep problems. Nonetheless, the British state doesn’t do much to stop that – in fact it does a lot to unbalance growth.

Consider how we spend money. Capital spending on transport infrastructure in London is nearly three times the national average. Research funding per head is nearly twice the national average. Nearly half the core R&D budget is spent in Oxford, Cambridge and London. Spending on housing and culture per head in London is five times the national average. We’re “levelling up” the richest places.

We’ve rehearsed these problems for years, but not fixed them. Instead of chasing flat white drinkers, we need to find a cool £4 billion a year to level up R&D spending in other places to the levels London enjoys. Fancy coffee can come later.

Consider our tax system. Overall, the tax rate on business in the UK is about average.  But we combine the lowest headline rate in the G20 with the lowest capital allowances. The combined effect of this is a huge bias against capital intensive sectors, particularly manufacturing.

That in turn has a regional impact, hurting places more dependent on making things: manufacturing accounted for only five per cent of London’s productivity growth since 1997, but nearly 50 per cent in the north west. A hostile tax system is one reason Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country since 1990, and why manufacturing’s share of the economy is half that in Germany or Japan.

Manufacturing should be a key part of levelling up outside cities: it needs space, not city centre locations. In English regions outside London, wages in manufacturing are about nine per cent higher than in services, and manufacturing productivity grows faster than the economy as a whole.  But Britain’s excessive focus on professional services makes it harder to grow high-wage employment in non city-centre locations.

Consider where we put our key institutions. In Germany the political capital was Bonn, and is now Berlin. The financial capital is Frankfurt. The Supreme Court is in Karlsruhe. The richest place is Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen. There are major corporate HQs spread across the country. TV production is dispersed because central government is banned from running it.

In Britain, all these things happen in just one city. We’ve talked about this for years, but made little progress.  In recent years, we managed to move one chunk of Channel 4 to Leeds, and a bit of the BBC to Manchester. But that’s about it. Whitehall only wants to move low-end jobs.

The debate on levelling up is frustrating, because we know some things work, but we don’t do them. “Regional Selective Assistance” boosted investment in poor places with tax breaks and subsidies.  Thanks to evidence from natural experiments, we know it boosted growth. Yet it was allowed to wither.

I don’t want us to be just another government promising the world, then not delivering. Politically, it’s vital we deliver. Lots of people who haven’t voted Conservative before put their trust in us last year. It’s telling that the centre point of the seats we won is just outside Sheffield.

We won on a manifesto combining centrist economics, (50,000 more nurses) mild social conservatism, (ending auto early release) and national self-confidence (Getting Brexit Done).  Levelling up is central to all this. We promised voters steak and chips.  We could serve up avocado toast instead, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the voters don’t thank us.