Levelling up means everything and nothing — and that's the point
If you wanted to understand why Britain is about to enter its twelfth year of Conservative rule, Michael Gove’s speech at conference yesterday offers some important clues.
Gove is now leading a new jumbo ministry, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, with a grand new title: the Minister for Intergovernmental Relations. His responsibility is to make Boris Johnson’s promise to ‘level up’ the country into a reality.
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Both the concept and the minister are fluid, amorphous and hard to truly pin down. Education, Justice, and the Environment have all been Gove-led during the last decade. He was a Cameroon, then a Brexiteer, and now has the most important job in the post-2019 Conservative party. Like his boss, he is breathtakingly adaptable.
Gove’s speech determined nothing, detailed nothing, and gave very little away. “We want everyone to have the chance to choose their own future,” he said. Well, who could ever disagree with that?
The new Tory mission, he announced, was to ensure people “live their best life”, a wine-mothery phrase that could have been accompanied by the word “hun”: live your best life hun xoxo.
When I asked Conservatives outside the hall what levelling up meant to them, they suggested — airily — that it was about the North, about opportunity, about a bit more state intervention in the economy, about empowering every part of the country… When Michael Gove’s department was asked the same question a few weeks ago, they sent a journalist an 81 word definition, with a 395 word supporting statement.
The emptiness and the shapelessness is deliberate. In his speech, Gove mentioned Benjamin Disraeli, a politician he has a soft spot for. Disraeli advocated “just, necessary, expedient” policies over ideology.
Disraeli’s views were indeterminate, perhaps even non-existent. Like today’s Tories, he was protean. Being ‘principled’ was a platitude. It could always be sacrificed for power, which in turn could only be seized by telling large majorities of the country exactly what they wanted to hear. As he said at the outset of his political career:
Call it the ‘Beaconsfield Position‘. It is the one that the Tories and Michael Gove have held to, both by accident and design, for years now. You move through the world on the world’s terms, without trying to change it too much, and without surrendering to it; it is nimble and reactive, cheerfully hypocritical, and bewitchingly successful. It has a habit of piling up problems for the future.
Whether your most cherished principles survive this process, and whether the people are rewarded with the leaders they truly need, is a different question.