In The Times, Daniel Finkelstein argues that there’s a fundamental flaw in the government’s ‘levelling-up” agenda. He begins with the premise that, in order to level-up, “non metropolitan areas need to become… more metropolitan.” In other words, if the Tories want to help their socially conservative red wall voters then they must re-embrace the socially liberal values of the so-called “Creative Class”.
It’s a thought-provoking piece, but also profoundly wrong in a way that only the cleverest arguments can be. In fact, there are so many different levels of wrongness that it would take a much longer piece to explore them all. So, for now, I’m going to focus on just one weakness — which is the mismatch between the importance placed on the Creative Class and what they’ve actually managed to create.
If these highly-educated, open-minded metropolitan types really are the key to prosperity then where is it? On all the most important metrics — GDP, productivity, wages and innovation — the progress made in the last few decades has been lacklustre. Compared to the thirty or forty years after the Second World War, the neoliberal era has underperformed.
How did the grey-suited, corporate clones of the post-war era achieve so much more than their supposedly liberated children and grandchildren?
I don’t make the comparison to discount the value of tolerance and diversity. Indeed, quite the opposite — I’m lamenting the fact that the knowledge economy of the 21st century has done so little with the big advantage of a wider talent pool. The same could be said about the massive expansion of higher education — not to mention the vast store of knowledge made available through the internet.
And that’s not all. The creatives have dazzling global cities in which to work, live and play. Unlike previous eras, they can continually interact with one another wherever in the world they go. And they’ve been unshackled from the stifling social conventions of the past — free to be who they want to be. And what’s more they’re constantly celebrated for it, their cultural status elevated as that of the working class has fallen.
So why are the results so disappointing? Whether in economics, politics, the arts or the sciences, this is an age of stagnation in which the exceptions (because there always are some) prove the rule. And, make no mistake, the creative class — broadly defined — is the ruling class. The failures in our nation, and of the western world general, are their failures.
So before we before we tell the most neglected parts of our country to model themselves on the most privileged, let’s ask ourselves whether we really want more of the same.