Levelling Up: There Needs to be Substance Behind the Soundbite | Benedict Shaw
Since the shift away from heavy industry and the thrust towards finance and services in Britain’s economy, money has centralised in London and the benefits have seldom moved past Watford Gap. The failure of Thatcher and her successors to pass the opportunities afforded to the South nationwide have culminated in the growth of separatism, disdain for our institutions and, importantly, unacceptable levels of deprivation. The legacy of Boris’ administration is dependent on his success at bridging this divide.
While on the train to Conservative Party Conference, I passed through the former industrial heartlands of Britain: coal and slate in Wales, minerals in the West Midlands and textiles in Manchester and much of the North-West. Many of these places are beautiful, filled with hardy and admirable people, but they look exhausted and unchanged from the 80s, perhaps the harshest contrast to travelling to the capital. It made me sad, and it perfectly summarises the elephant in the room, the North-South divide.
Northern, and by extension Welsh, deprivation is a serious issue. While low costs of living sound enticing, they are an important tool to demonstrate the low wages and opportunities for locals. Local Welsh news recently outlined how Aberystwyth students pay more for accommodation than locals – yet Aberystwyth University has some of the cheapest rent in the country. University rent is normally cheaper than the surrounding area, but low wage growth and poor job prospects meant the wealth disparity compared to travelling Southern students is exemplified. It’s part of the reason why the North is popular with students, cheap food and rent due to locals reliant on small and low revenue industries.
Even as a Conservative, I believe the Iron Lady showed disdain for those in the North and abandoned them at their hour of need. Successive governments chose to ignore or sweep the issue under the rug. Major knew fighting for seats his administration intentionally neglected was a lost cause, Blair was guaranteed Northern success. The first candidate to address this overarching problem was Cameron, and while he is, rightly, perceived negatively for his role in austerity, he’s the catalyst to this discussion. The Northern Powerhouse is the steppingstone he placed, and his half-hearted attempt to make sure the rift didn’t extend because of the Global Financial Crisis.
Yet it hasn’t had the intended impact. Instead, London’s commuter corridor has grown, as bank bailouts have inflated the industry and created South-centric expansion. My hometown of Northampton, at the heart of the commuter corridor, has become filled with Euston-bound workers. These jobs should have originally been given to re-trained coal miners’ and steelworkers’ families; an emphasis on education and training should’ve been front-and-centre in the 80s, and again there was a lost opportunity after 2008 to rectify this. T-Levels and Boris’ controversial retraining programme are intended to rectify this, whether they will have the intended impact is yet to be seen.
Again, there are serious steps being taken to help those in the North. The modern Conservative Party is often criticised for promoting spineless liberalism, but equality of opportunity is an important pillar of liberal ideology and the push to give Northern towns and cities better opportunities is a manifestation of that. The appointment of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Levelling Up is a powerful statement, and a vital stride in this direction. It is a sign of intent; Gove is known for his assured and proper job in every department he enters, and I have no doubt that he will “Level Up” the North, in whichever way that demonstrates itself. Discussing with fellow party members after his short speech, we knew that Gove would turn a nothing department into a something department, and that something department would deliver for the North.
This delivery for the North of jobs, cashflow, and opportunity is perfectly poised as we recover from the pandemic. The Prime Minister’s slogan “Build Back Better” is a favoured soundbite of his that irritates me like a bug bite, but post-lockdown recovery can solve many of the issues our country is hurtling towards. The UK has a net outwards cash flow, as the host of the world’s financial capital and a large services sector; we could capitalise on our souring relations with China and France, some of our largest imports of manufactured goods and energy, as well as our climate targets, to build Northern nuclear facilities, Northern car manufacturers, and use freeports and tax relief opportunities presented by Brexit to increase Northern-International trade.
While Brexit and Coronavirus have dominated the first two years of the Johnson ministry, ultimately the Government will be judged by history on their ability to deliver the opportunities that the North deserves. While the Conservative Party Conference is dominated by “Build Back Better” and “Levelling Up”, these will be the definitive litmus tests to whether his time as Prime Minister was successful; we can push to reverse Blair’s legislative legacy, but delivering jobs and equal opportunity is more important for voters and the country than ideological battles.