Michael Gove channels his inner Disraeli
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.
The other side of leveling up is resilience. We used to have lots of small abbatoirs, ,livestock markets and local supply chains. EU rules changed that, and yes I on balance voted Remain. Having left, let us make virtue out of necessity and downscale some things and bring purpose and bustle back to market towns. Also, I haven’t seen mentioned is getting rid of VAT which is one of the most regressive tax regimes out there.
VAT is the biggest sleight of hand ever. At a stroke it removed tax from people’s pay where it was clearly visible to being hidden amongst product prices. It also moved the tax burden from the wealthy towards those who spend almost their entire pay packet on living costs. It’s a regressive tax and should be scrapped
I listened to Gove after his speech, in discussion with Seb Payne of the FT, who’s book Broken Heartlands, which deals a lot with leveling up, I’ve just finished reading.
It’s clear to me (and it should be clear to you after watching the discussion) that Gove is fizzing with practical ideas about what leveling up is and what it isn’t. He’s also clear on the nature of the task – tidying up the High Street and/or microeconomic adjustments like in-work benefits really only alleviate symptoms and don’t address causes.
This is why Blairism failed the Regions – it’s mix of new public buildings, Surestart and mind-bogglingly complex personal tax credits ultimately did nothing sustainable. They were a 10 year sugar-rush.
Productivity improvements through better education and increased automation and quality work genuinely moving long-term out of the south-east will be the real drivers of sustainable leveling up.
Focusing on a specific point here but…
Does Her Majesty’s Government really have a “Department for Levelling Up” now? Is this really what we’ve come to as a country, ministries named after a concepts in video games rather than the austere and dignified names of the past?
If there are any budding investigative journalists out there with time on their hands, I would suggest investigating how the £4.8 Billion Levelling Up Fund (announced in the spring spending review) is being spent. The intention was to “support town centre and high street regeneration, local transport projects and cultural and heritage assets” (quote from gov.uk) which all sounds very nice. I “hear” that a lot of this money is being spent by policy wonks and city-based consultancies on drawing up environmental / sustainability / inclusivity etc. strategies for those economically deprived regions, i.e. creating lots of work for metropolitan graduates to produce some nice reports but providing little or no meaningful employment opportunities or benefits for those that actually live and work in those economically deprived areas. I know that the politicians can’t even agree amongst themselves what ‘levelling up’ is supposed to mean, but I think most people’s idea would not entail creating more jobs for metropolitan graduates. It sounds to me that the £4.8 Billion fund was set up with no idea as to how it should be spent and could be money going down the drain (or worse, being counter-productive).
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