Unfortunately, the Prime Minister declined to join his Levelling-Up Secretary in posing with Eric Morecambe’s statue during his visit to the Lancashire seaside yesterday. After a day of MP and Mayoral rancour over the latest £2 billion allocation from the ‘Levelling-Up Fund’, the Party would have liked being brought some sunshine, laughter, and a brand-new bright tomorrow.
Coming days after it was suggested that the Government was aiming to scrap the phrase altogether, that the 111 communities that received aid included affluent parts of North Somerset and Richmond (MP one Rishi Sunak), whilst ignoring swathes of deprived communities (and Tory constituencies) like Bolsover, it seems he was delivering on his campaign pledge to the struggling folk of Tunbridge Wells. Of course, Sunak was right to argue deprivation exists in even the country’s wealthiest parts. As the Grenfell tragedy highlighted, the ‘Two Nations’ of which Benjamin Disraeli wrote can live cheek-by-jowl.
But the pledge to regenerate “left-behind” parts of Britain is commonly understood as a way of delivering for those – sigh – ‘left-behind’ constituencies of the North and Midlands who voted Leave in 2016 and Tory in 2019. So perhaps shoveling cash towards areas one wouldn’t naturally associate with systemic inequality was a round-about way to avoid the charge that this fund is anything more well-barreled pork. If this is an effort to ply the Red Wall’s mouth with gold, it is hardly going well.
This reflects a wider confusion about what ‘levelling-up’ means. Dominic Cummings has suggested the slogan was thought up by Boris Johnson during the 2019 election “partly out of irritation with being told to focus” on core messages. Durham’s answer to Machiavelli claimed it was “vacuous”, tested badly with focus groups, and was understood by neither Downing Street staff nor voters.
With the obvious caveat that Barnard Castle’s most famous visitor is hardly an impartial source, polling suggests his charges have some credibility. As David Jeffrey has pointed out, only a quarter of voters knew what ‘levelling-up’ meant when asked, and another quarter had never heard of it. Twenty-five per cent of voters in the South East thought it meant less being spent on them, a statistic Sunak is clearly determined to change. Nonetheless, 59 per cent think action on levelling-up will be essential to their vote at the next election, rising to 70 per cent in the Red Wall.
This should be taken with a pinch of salt – who wants ‘levelling down’? – and as a sign, as so often, that politics is as much about ‘vibes’ as it is about genuine policy. Even though voters may not have yet perused Gove’s magnum opus on ancient Babylon, medieval Florence, and modern Germany, they can at least tell the policy has something to do with making the North richer; potentially, at the South’s expense.
Although the phrase may have emerged as a cry from a man so familiar with the North that he confused Teesside with Tyneside, the party has been using it since 1976. One could trace a concern with non-metropolitan Britain back to Disraeli, but Margaret Thatcher’s government did at least indulge in such quintessential forerunners of ‘levelling-up as the redevelopment of the Docklands and, erm, Michael Heseltine’s Merseyside flower festival.
Fast forward to the Coalition. George Osborne’s dalliance with his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was one of the few actual manifestations of the Cameroon desire to shift power out of London. Nevertheless, it did pave the way for the devolution deals that have granted Andy Street, Andy Burnham, et al useful platforms from which to demand more government money.
In fairness, the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was inspired by the vital objective of moving decision-making a little closer to those it affects, and improving our woeful transport infrastructure. That the phrase was first deployed by Osborne on the 23rd of June 2014 highlights the rather larger mission with which it would soon become subsumed. The Brexit vote turned moving power and cash to neglected areas from a sideshow into an essential priority.
The referendum was partly a reaction against the New Labour-Coalition continuum of a high-migration, city-based, South East-centric economy. Both Theresa May and Johnson were aware of the need to offer something to the Somewheres, and Johnson cast both the vote to Leave and his 2019 victory as being driven by a desire to tackle regional inequality. Addressing this was the route to an unprecedented fifth consecutive victory, with the spectres of Jeremy Corbyn and Brussels removed.
Sound reasoning. The problem arose in an inability to match it with delivery. Although his instinct may have been to distance himself from the Osborne years, Johnson’s approach to ‘levelling-up’ was hardly different. The ex-Prime Minister has yet to find a bridge, railway, or bus route he will not be tempted to invest in. This drove the overdue push to change Treasury investment rules to place more emphasis on areas outside of the South East.
But big infrastructure projects are expensive and time-consuming. For reasons of scale and constituency impact, a focus was also placed on smaller local initiatives to sit alongside his grand projets. This approach to ‘levelling-up’ is much more in the spirt of Rachel Wolf, co-author of the 2019 manifesto, and James Frayne, formerly of this parish. Their take on Johnson’s slogan was (and is) social policies designed to restore a sense of civic pride.
So a new bus route here, a safer park there, and a rejuvenated high street in between. All worthwhile, but difficult to achieve through the clunking fist of Whitehall. Its nebulous quality has to be squared with MPs’ desires for big-ticket examples of spending that they can shove on pamphlet. With an eye on slim majorities, a new A&E is always more welcome than a clampdown on littering.
Yet even this more limited objective has been largely junked. First, Covid knocked the Government off course and made everyone poorer. Then the defenestration of Vote Leave left Johnson wholly in charge of Number 10 – and he proved himself utterly incapable of forcing much past Whitehall. Finally, the original sin of ‘levelling-up’’ was starkly revealed: reversing decades of inequality between North and South is rather expensive, and the Government has no money.
As Peter Franklin has highlighted, the most obvious comparison for closing the gap between the ‘Two Nations’ is the catch-up of East Germany with the West following reunification. Economic output per head in the former East was only 60 per cent of its neighbour in 1990. It is now closer to 85 per cent. That may not sound spectacular. But it has involved most of the former Communist country becoming richer than much of Northern England.
Before one busts out the Riesling and Kraftwerk, take a look at the bill: an average of £71 billion per year between 1990 and 2014. That’s a little more than the Government’s £2 billion pot. A comparable initiative remains impossible in a country with minuscule growth and dysfunctional government spending. Hence why Labour are now pledging so much constitutional tinkering: it provides the illusion of radicalism, whilst being cheap.
So before any Red Wall Johnson-enthusiast rounds on Sunak for hobbling the Govenment’s “defining mission”, a few hard truths must be faced. Neither voters nor the Government were sure what ‘levelling-up’ meant. To close the North-South divide would be a hugely expensive and multi-generational project unlikely to curry favour with MPs preoccupied with 2024, not 2054.
Britain will remain politically and economically lop-sided for the foreseeable future – and ‘levelling-up’ will have done as much good for the North – and Tory prospects – as Heseltine’s flower festival.