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Mind the Gap

Has “levelling up” had its day?

Cosmo Landesman, Boomer, debates with Róisín Lanigan, Millennial

Róisín: Here’s something I never thought I’d say (particularly to you, Cosmo): I have a certain degree of sympathy for the Tories in a world that makes no sense. When Britain became hotter than Athens in July, it was hard to care about working at all – let alone striving for fairer treatment of lower income families. When you’re living through a climate apocalypse, culture wars, a leadership race, and chaos at Dover (meaning your Audi’s stuck in queues and you can’t reach your third home in Brittany) you simply don’t have the brain space to care about social mobility. So it’s no wonder the whole concept of “levelling up” seems to have been quietly abandoned.

The beginning of the end came in early July, when Boris Johnson elected to sack Michael Gove, Minister of State for Levelling Up, for disloyalty – even though the intent to “level” was only added to the Housing and Communities department’s title in 2021, while sacking Gove for treachery is like ditching your Labrador for chasing a ball. Gove’s department was supposed to become the engine for social mobility, making sure poorer citizens had access to decent housing and community facilities. Ask any millennial renting a tiny flat with six mates for a squillion pounds a month how well they think he did in the role. But then the casualness with which Gove got the chop betrayed the fact Johnson saw the role in much the same light as people look at a management consultant, or an influencer – a make-believe profession. The only job any Tory cares about is prime minister, which is why half the party put themselves forward for election once Johnson was defenestrated.

Never mind Gove’s sacking, the task of “levelling up” Britain was always a doomed one – not least because no one knows what such a vague term means. How can you level “up”, when levelling means reducing everything to a horizontal plane, ie flattening? I suspect some Tories envisage “levelling” as a team of bulldozers sweeping the great unwashed away. It was doomed from the start because you can’t rely on current leaders to care about levelling the playing field when the UK is so divided to begin with. It’s divided – as I’m sure our correspondence has proved! – along generational lines. It’s divided by national borders. No sooner did Boris’s empire fall than Scotland and Ireland began demanding a timeline on independence and unity referendums. It’s divided by north and south, by wealth and by education. Of course, divided educational opportunities benefit wealthy politicians and the other wealthy people who influence their decisions. An uneven country is to their advantage.

What possible interest could multi-millionaire Rishi Sunak, an old boy of Winchester College, take in addressing the fact that poor kids languished without internet access or laptops for home schooling during lockdown, while private pupils scored inflated grades? Liz Truss can’t be expected to level up society if she believes, like her role model Margaret Thatcher, that there is no society, only the individual – in her case, one who’s had a personality bypass.

What’s the answer then? Well, you can’t rely on Tories to level up Britain when they’re so privileged that in practice it would mean levelling down their circumstances to match the plebs.

For as long as I’ve been alive (not very long, lucky me) Britain has been handwringing over being broken, divided and unequal, and it’s never managed to fix itself. Perhaps because it keeps electing Tories, which means levelling up is simply not possible. There comes a time to throw in the towel. Let Scotland have their second referendum and convince Plaid Cymru to be less milquetoast about following them. Let’s endure the ignominy of an Irish border poll and allow Broken Britain to fracture into pieces. Then let’s build it up into something new. It might not be much better, but it can’t be as broken, bad and boring as now.

Cosmo: I confess I felt kind of down hearted reading your rant against the evils of those wicked Tories and their “doomed’ and deceitful plans for levelling up. It typifies a kind of political argument – typical of your generation, anyway – that is high on rhetoric and low on reason. It’s an attention-grabbing meme posing as serious polemic.

I don’t mean to sound mean. But you social media babies always want to be entertained; hence you complain that contemporary Britain is not only broken but “boring”. (You’ve got your beloved TikTok to keep you entertained!) Ideas like levelling up aren’t fun or sexy to actually study or discuss.

So you dismiss levelling up as “too vague” to be of use. But if you read the Institute of Fiscal Studies report on the government’s original white paper for levelling up, you’d see that for all its flaws it was actually a very detailed and ambitious project. Yes, it was a bit fuzzy on how it would be funded. But the idea and aspiration were good.

Yet you are happy to sit back and watch the idea of levelling up die simply because it’s tainted with the toxicity of those nasty Tories. What’s at stake here is not Gove’s job or Sunak’s ego, but people’s chance to make some sort of a decent life for themselves. Screw the Tory party – we’re talking about real people and their life chances. But your generation is more interested in gender inequalities than regional inequalities of opportunity.

Instead of arguing for a politics of change you simply regurgitate a kind of extreme left pantomime view of the – boo hiss! –Tory Party. Tories for you are just TERFS in a different form of political drag. (Yes, that makes no sense, but I like it!) I know you will be shocked by this suggestion, Róisín, but not all Tory MPs are power-hungry, nasty, uncaring evil bastards who dream of bulldozing “the great unwashed” away!

“You can’t rely on Tories to level up Britain when they’re so privileged that in practice it would mean levelling down their circumstances to match the plebs”

Of all your bizarre swipes at the Tories my favourite is the suggestion that “you can’t rely on Tories to level up Britain when they’re so privileged that in practice it would mean levelling down their circumstances to match the plebs.”

Excuse me? Is this an example of millennial satire? Are you Jonathan Swift or Dave Spart (see Private Eye)? Millennials don’t do political satire, so I guess you’re being serious.

However, you do raise an interesting question when you say you have sympathy for the Tories trying to level up in a “world that makes no sense”. I wonder if this sense that the world makes no sense is a London-centric experience? If you’re stuck in a small city in the Midlands where opportunities for a good education and a well-paid job are slight, life does makes sense – it’s our economic system that doesn’t. Hence the idea of levelling up.

You say that any step towards greater regional equality is impossible because we are too divided as a society. In that case you might as well give up on all notions of political progress or social change. We’re not too divided to fight for gender neutral toilets or LGBTQ rights are we? Just too divided for the rights of the working-class, eh?

What worries me is your overall casual dismissal of political engagement and change. “What’s the answer?” you ask and then suggest we just give up and let Broken Britain totally fall apart and maybe from the ruins something better might emerge. And anyway, you argue, it can’t be any worse than at present.

Oh yes it can! To give up on the idea of greater opportunity, meritocracy, social mobility, levelling up – call it what you will – is to give up on the core values of our social democracy. And in particular the idea of fair play. When that happens people and communities feel left behind and angry – and then politics can turn really nasty as the rise of Trump showed us.

Róisín: First of all, Cosmo, my sincere apologies for making you feel downhearted. Unlike the cold, uncaring evil bastards over in Westminster (I’m not shocked by your suggestion that there are warm-hearted Tories, but sadly I’ve never met one) I’m not made of stone! But spare a thought for us millennials – we’ve been downhearted for years. I truly don’t think you can blame us for our so-called casual dismissal of any real political change, nor of our growing political apathy. The Conservatives have been in power for my entire voting life. In that time, despite the best-laid plans of the lads over at the Institute of Fiscal Studies, things have gotten… bad. I’m not being contrarian or miserable, it’s just true. Social mobility has declined, austerity reigns, the gap between the wealthy and the poor has only grown. Levelling up hasn’t happened. Someone smashed up the Overton Window. People already feel left behind. You say that my suggestion to break up Britain and start over is worrying, and I admit it’s extreme. But really (I’m asking again!) what alternative is there? Please don’t say vote Lib Dem.

Cosmo: Róisín, I get why you feel this kind of political disenchantment. We Boomers were lucky; we came of age in a time of optimism when anything seemed possible. You lot came of age in a time of crisis and collapse. But all the points you make here are a good argument for why you should resist the temptation to throw in the towel. Instead, I suggest you become politically more engaged. Britain is broken because our politics are broken. Your country needs you! That’s what people like you – and me – forget: it’s our country too and we have a duty of care towards it. What’s my alternative to giving up? Find an alternative you can fight for. Or make one up.

Journalist Cosmo Landesman believes that journalists should not bore readers with lists of publications they’ve written for or books they’ve published

Róisín Lanigan is a writer and editor based in Belfast and London

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