Consett in County Durham remains synonymous with steel – the steel that built British nuclear submarines and famous structures across the Empire. The town’s steelworks provided work that brought genuine pride to the thousands of people who worked there, including my grandfather. Pride in a job well done and pride that Consett steel was known and respected around the world.
The famous steelworks closed almost four decades ago and saw my hometown become one of the first to be given the unwanted label of “post-industrial”. A town that gained much of its meaning from the industry lost it all and with it 4,500 jobs. For a time it suffered the highest rate of unemployment in western Europe and it still has a justified feeling of righteous anger about the way it was treated. Big promises of re-training and re-investment didn’t amount to nearly as much as promised, and the town took several years to get back on its feet.
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Consett isn’t some kind of post-industrial dystopia today – much good regeneration work has been done by the local council and others. It is surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in England and, after a substantial dip in population, has now attracted many new residents who commute to work in Newcastle and Durham. But many of the new positions created in the town itself aren’t exactly like-for-like replacements for the high-skilled jobs that gave workers pride and dignity in their labour.
My hometown is one of many scattered around the country that has come to be labelled “left-behind”. All too often, these towns suffer from appalling transport links, decaying town centres and community spaces, ageing populations and a lack of skilled work. Old industries, often with well-paid work that instilled pride and dignity, have often been replaced with employment that is insecure, low-paid and low-skilled. Meanwhile successive governments have further hollowed out these towns by actively encouraging talented young people to leave for university.
It was the revolt of long-forgotten towns like Consett that drove the referendum result – a rebellion by voters who politicians had long stopped listening to and caring about. Little wonder that a message as compelling as “Take Back Control” reached receptive ears. Communities felt that things were done to them, and that any economic miracle the country experienced was something that only impacted other people and other communities.
Following the referendum, the political class started talking about places like Consett again and the media began visiting. But the interest soon waned and people became obsessed with the horse trading of the Brexit negotiations, forgetting about the factors that resulted, in places like Consett, in a decisive vote to Leave. This vote wasn’t just about genuine discontent with the way that the EU worked, but also a desire for a new economic settlement. Now is the time to deliver on that decisive message that came from places like Consett.
Laissez-faire liberalism has little to add to the structural issues that so many towns suffer and a state simply “stepping aside” would run the real risk of making divisions worse. A failed top-down socialism, which through its obsession with nationalisation and centralisation contributed to Consett’s decline, simply cannot provide the prosperity and dynamic private sector that these towns need. Between them laissez-faire liberalism and old-style socialism have contributed to high levels of estrangement and alienation.
Our country today is perilously at risk of becoming the “two nations” that Disraeli warned about and a new, genuinely One Nation approach is need to tackle the issue. In my new book, Little Platoons, I set out what such a new settlement should look like.
A new One Nation settlement
One Nation is used as a buzzword by everyone from Labour leaders to hardcore Thatcherites, to such an extent that its true meaning is at risk of being lost. To many in the media, it is now synonymous with being pro-European, while others portray it as neo-liberal economics with some social liberalism attached. Both of these definitions are preposterous, given that the whole point of One Nation Conservatism is a domestic agenda of social reform.
“One Nation” means strongly believing in the market mechanism as by far the best way of creating wealth, while rejecting the more utopian elements of capitalism. It is based on the concept that prosperity should reach all parts of society, and for this reason Disraeli deplored the early excesses of laissez-faire and the fact that while “immense fortunes were accumulating… the working classes, the creators of wealth, were steeped in the most abject poverty”.
Iain Macleod also eloquently warned that “you cannot ask men and women to stand on their own two feet if you give them no ground to stand on”. One Nation Conservatives understand that the state can be used intelligently to help create the basis for economic revival in communities that have long known only hopelessness and economic decline.
Two nation economic divisions are all too evident in today’s Britain. The City of London has a gross added value per head of over £300,000 while County Durham has one of £16,000. Since the banking crash, the FTSE 100 has risen by around 60 per cent, CEO salaries have soared and workers’ salaries have barely risen at all.
An equally stark divergence has occurred between the diminishing ranks of property owners, the number of which has fallen by 14 per cent in the past 19 years, and the rising number of people stuck paying expensive private rent (up 17 per cent in the same period) and unable to get on the housing ladder. If a One Nation approach isn’t found to these issues, then a more divisive one will surely fill the void.
Tory objections to laissez-faire economics are also centred around the impact of an unfettered market on those institutions that conservatives care the most about. In itself the market has little respect for tradition, family, community or nation – it is a dynamic and often atomising force. Too many social divisions can be seen in a country where some communities have become fractured, important institutions that brought people together have been in decline and issues such as alienation and loneliness have become more profound and worrying.
The un-conservative impact of unbridled economic liberalism was understood by Hayek, when he explained “Why I Am Not A Conservative” – arguing that “the liberal position is based on… a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead”. It was that “preparedness to let change run its course” that resulted in so many towns like Consett feeling left behind.
Whereas One Nation conservatives believe in the importance of place, continuity and the familiar, in contrast a free market that isn’t moored by social norms can emphasise the new and the faddish. One Nation Tories understand that, in the words of Sam Rayburn, “any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a good carpenter to build one”. Communitarian conservatism is based around restoring local communities as well as local economies.
A One Nation agenda for a renewed economic settlement should be bold and audacious, with the goal of transforming long declining local economies, empowering communities and bringing prosperity and a sense of control. Young people should be encouraged by the opportunities to stay in their hometown and those who have left should be excited by the opportunities of returning – because social mobility and “opportunity” shouldn’t be the same thing as “escape”.
A programme of national reconstruction would ensure that towns as well as cities have world class road, rail and digital infrastructure. Devolution should also be accelerated, and the most radical devolution and most substantial investment should be focused on economically stagnating towns.
The industrial heritage and emphasis on skill in many “left behind” towns should also be used as a foundation to build a new settlement. It’s clear that deindustrialisation has gone too far, with Britain doing so more than any other country in the G20. We should look to reindustrialise some forgotten towns with an ambitious industrial strategy that encourages and incentivises industrial investment.
An audacious vocational education revolution should also be developed, with new and ambitious vocational educational institutions established in partnership with the private sector.
Making our country One Nation again means turning around long-forgotten towns, strengthening communities and empowering people who have long felt disempowered. It would mean that towns like Consett were at the centre of political and economic thinking, having spent too long at the periphery. This would build a new One Nation electoral coalition for the Conservatives, transforming society and politics for decades.
Little Platoons: How a Revived One Nation can Empower England’s Forgotten Towns and Redraw the Political Map is published by Biteback
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