Thursday, 25 March 2021

Slogan and substance


The very essence of a truly great political slogan is that it should resonate with as many people as possible whilst being essentially meaningless or, at the very least, sufficiently vague so as not to commit its authors to actually taking any particular action. The current government’s mantra of ‘levelling up’ is a masterpiece of the genre. What’s not to like about the idea of boosting the economy in areas which feel as if they’ve been left behind? In practice, however, it’s selective; it only applies to areas which voted for the Tories.

The concept of ‘levelling’ has a long tradition in English history – as does the idea of that levelling being selective. The Levellers of the Civil War period almost four centuries ago were also in favour of equality for all, although their definition of ‘all’ only extended to males (excluding servants and wage-earners of course), and some wanted it only to apply to heads of households or property owners. If Johnson had a political philosophy, he might almost have stolen the gist of it from that movement (although obviously he would have more than a little difficulty with their opposition to corruption or nepotism).

Its selective application isn’t the only way in which the practice differs from the slogan. It also has little to do with ‘levelling’ – there is absolutely no intention, and never has been, to bring all areas up to the level of the richest. It is, from the outset, a means of using public money to attempt to ensure the continued electoral success of the Conservative Party. The funds are being consciously and deliberately directed to those constituencies which the Tories need to retain or win in order to maintain a majority. The rest will remain as forgotten and left behind as they have been for decades, because Johnson simply doesn’t need their votes. That which is presented as egalitarian and unifying is implemented so as to divide and discriminate.

It should have been obvious from the outset that this would always be the result, although it seems not to have been for many. For any party wedded to the erroneous household budget analogy it is impossible to put more resources into one area without taking them from another. For those of us who understand that ‘money’ is not limited other than by the capacity of the economy, that isn’t a problem; but for fiscal conservatives like the Tories it is always the case that additional money spent in one place has to have come from somewhere else. Levelling up can only be a one-way process for those who accept that there are additional resources available, a category which excludes the current government. Fortunately for the government, it’s a category which also excludes the main opposition party, as evidenced by a report today that a Labour MP is demanding that no resources should be transferred from the wealthiest part of the UK to the poorer areas. That’s right – the party which tells us that ‘the union’ is all about pooling and sharing is at the same time demanding that there should be no transfer of wealth from the richest to the poorest. It’s an odd kind of ‘pooling and sharing’.

There is a reason why one part of the UK is richer than the rest; regional inequality is not an accident. It’s not being ‘anti-London’ to highlight the facts. At its simplest, we have an economic system which drains talent and resources from the periphery and concentrates them in the centre; London’s wealth has grown by transferring that wealth from the rest of the UK (and from overseas colonies before that). It is not an accidental result of some impersonal process; it is the inevitable result of an economic system set up to work that way. It means that ‘levelling up’ can only happen in one of two ways: by identifying and directing additional resources to the poorest areas, or by redistributing those resources which currently exist. Which of those you choose depends on your view of economics, but what is certain is that neither the current governing party nor the official opposition have any intention of doing either.

Levelling up is an utterly meaningless slogan, but it works. The compliant media are still attaching the label to everything that the government tells them is part of the plan. People fell for it in 2019, and are still falling for it now.

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