The Conservatives’ plan to “level up” Britain cannot be taken seriously. Here’s why | Aditya Chakrabortty

Swet reader, do you long for a slight relief? Well, I have just what you need! A test. Below are three statements made by a prominent politician in the not-too-distant past that would be unimaginable to any government leader in these days of “leveling off.” So what backtrack told them?

1) “A pound spent in Croydon has much more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde.”

Who could it be, Chuka Umunna?

2) “The city is the best place to exchange ideas. It is the best place for economic activity. People in the cities live longer than people who live in the country; they do. They are better educated… They are better fed and there are many more breeding opportunities in the city than in the country. It’s absolutely true. “

Nick Clegg?

3) “London is to the billionaire as the Sumatran jungles are to the orangutan … we are proud of that.”

David Cameron?

How did it go? Since this is a column, not a detective novel, let’s cut the suspense and reveal the answers:

1) Boris Johnson said it in 2012, although today frets: “By turbocharging … London and the South East, they raise prices even more and force more and more people to move to the same expensive areas.”

2) Again, Johnson, who now the Mint that “for many people, geography turns out to be destiny.”

3) Guess who? If he Prime Minister! Who at the Conservative party conference last week deplored how “we have one of the most unbalanced societies and unbalanced economies.”

You could write a book about the vast gulf between the first set of quotes and the second. They are not only amiably disagreeing, muttering among themselves: they are diametrically opposed philosophies.

One side of the dispute says: that the rich get richer while the rest of us hunt for their crumbs, that the oligarchs rule London and that the capital rule over other cities and towns. The other proposes: prevent the country from being overwhelmed by the needs, desires and fashions of its southeast corner, share the wealth and power, and, to coin a phrase, level up.

Yet these rival projects received a one-man voice, and not as a spaff-first-think-later columnist, but as an elected politician. While the first argument may have been made by Johnson as Mayor of London, it goes far beyond municipal advocacy. This is not a repeat of London as “the greatest city in the world”; it is a highly redacted version of the capital, eliminated from its housing crisis and children in poverty. And it expresses a worldview taken directly from Matthew: “For whoever has, more will be given, and they will have plenty; but from those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them ”.

That Johnson is nothing like the one we have today, champion of equality and tribune of the workers. So, either you reject everything you said on the subject until very recently, or you are lying now. What is it? And what does it say about British politics that is now in debt to a complete shedding of the skin?

“And that?” you could say. This is Mr. Two Columns we’re talking about here. Trolley is how the trolley does it. This is the guy who supported Theresa May’s Brexit, then scrapped it, then came to his own deal with Brussels and now wants a whole new deal on Northern Ireland. Except if there is a political project that Johnson wants to be defined by, he is leveling up. It was the big theme of last week’s conservative bacchanalia, in which Michael Gove, our new Secretary of State for Level Up, declared the “do or die” agenda. And as the political-media class always does when faced with a powerful man who speaks in common places, they took everything very seriously.

The mail on Sunday calls Leveling up “as bold as anything Maggie has ever tried,” the BBC commissioned hours of airtime and thinktanks diligently publish their reports. The view is similar to seeing some of our best minds wallpapering a gigantic black hole. For all the government departments and the 10th executing units dedicated to the program, exactly what it is, how it will be implemented and how its success will be measured, all of this remains undefined, almost two years after this administration.

When a smart young conservative, Neil O’Brien, is named leading thinker on the subject, the press lavishes him with superlatives. “As close to the perfect candidate as possible,” says The Economist. It was never mentioned that while O’Brien ran the Policy Exchange, David Cameron’s favorite think tank, he published a paper in 2008 arguing that struggling northern cities should go to the urban equivalent of Dignitas, and their residents move to London: “For people in regions that are not neighboring London, this has an obvious and unavoidable implication: if you want to share the success of London, you may have to move to London … As the old phrase goes, if you can’t beat them, join them. “Less leveling up than migrating downward. However, O’Brien defended the newspaper, saying that the press had misinterpreted it, even after Cameron requested that its author be sent to Australia.

My argument here is not with O’Brien, who I liked when we met courtesy of the BBC during a debate in which I advocated greater regional equality, while he called London “the goose that lays the golden eggs.” I can respect your point of view, which until very recently was the standard conservative line. But therein lies the problem: it is a right wing argument. As a New report from the Urban and Rural Planning Association shows, the government’s planning model undermines the promise of equalization, eroding the local democracy it is supposed to safeguard. It cannot disguise itself as social justice or “left on economics, right on culture” or any of those other terms used to allow conservatives to hold on to their new voters in the north. Some of the best ideas about regional development are being made to the left, not to the right, and not in Westminster but in Cardiff, where ministers are trying to combine local procurement, in the style of Preston, with protection of the daily economy.

I’m not surprised to see politicians change their clothes, but there is something deeply wrong with a political and media culture that simply applauds every costume change; who is enthralled when George Osborne launches a “northern power” but never asks why in the end all public sector jobs were created in London, even as it was being cut back in the north, while many more pounds per head were still being spent on the capital’s transport needs. It is a culture that breathlessly reports every manifestation of the Brexit negotiations without acknowledging the bad faith with which Johnson and David Frost came to the pitch; who deplores Trumpian post-truth politics, while ignoring the role of the media and the rest of society in auditing politicians’ lies.

Skeptics like me will no doubt be confused when the white paper on leveling is published and all the loose ends are covered. But I’m not so sure. To develop its work, the Cabinet Office last month brought together a group of high-level scholars and experts from across Western Europe. The big roundtable was called “What do we mean by ‘leveling up’?” As basic as the shrug and head as a scratch. Maybe next time, Issue 10 will have a day off to talk about Emperor Johnson’s new clothes.

www.theguardian.com

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