4 March 2022

Why libertarians should love Levelling Up


Ukraine has saved Boris. The headlines have moved from cake ambushings to missile strikes, allowing the Government to recover some stability. Boris thrives on the doorstep more than at the despatch box. So he must hold this new composure until the next election. His flagship agenda to ‘level up’ the country can help him do just this.

The long-awaited ‘Levelling Up White Paper’ has been mocked on this site for its highfalutin history lessons and moral assertions. But what is government for if not to define and pursue a vision of the good life? And what vision of the good life is not informed by historical events and moral instincts?

The global pandemic and invasion of Ukraine reveal the remarkable fragility of ordinary life. As novelist Paul Kingsnorth observes, ‘How many of our activities are made possible by the impression of stability that pattern gives?’

The levelling up agenda – to revitalise left behind places – builds national resilience by strengthening associations and institutions that can absorb the shock of crisis. Levelling up represents an unusually long-term plan for policy, and a welcome diversion from the failed models of the past.

Thatcher’s project of deindustrialisation followed by Blair’s centralisatising spree reacted to new forces like globalisation. But these forces are now changing – if anything, current crises have revealed the weaknesses of a highly integrated world.

Successive governments failed to future-proof the nation for the new normal: deadly disease, the threat of world war three, and fuel shortages.

Places have been left to dwindle, and communities without any recourse to rebuild pride of place, which is key to attracting investment.

We need a new model for policy making, and the emphasis on devolving power to create better places in the Levelling Up White Paper does just this.

It reads ‘We need to mobilise all the forces that drive progress and human flourishing – investment, skills, innovation, finance, trust and institutions. And we need to bring all sectors of society together, with the very best of government, the private sector and civil society working in partnership.’

This marks a welcome end to government by algorithm. It’s no longer good enough to rely on Whitehall bods churning out ideas replete with built-in naive assumptions.

The politics work too. Empowering communities to govern themselves places the Conservative Party in the perfect position to unite the right.

For the freedom-fighting libertarians, levelling up represents ‘taking back control’ mark 2. First from Brussels and now from Whitehall. Boris can use the agenda to shrink the state by reducing demand. And this time, the Conservatives can actually realise the ‘big society’ through handing power from Whitehall to communities.

For those busy fighting the culture war, the focus on places rather than causes sucks oxygen out of the liberal obsession with personal identity. Boris can prepare for electoral success by attending to the real concerns of ordinary ‘common sense’ voters, like somewhere to belong.

For the not-so-new intake of Tories, naturally communitarian and proud to represent their hometowns of Workington or Stocksbridge, the agenda gives them something to boast about. New powers to seize local community assets like pubs, parks and pitches from the clutches of cash strapped councils will prove popular with voters.

The impressive victory of James Daly, MP for Bury, who managed to save Gigg Lane football stadium from development, has undoubtedly secured the seat for the Tories for another seven years. Perhaps Chelsea FC is next?

Michael Gove is a fixer. With proper investment, the policies in the white paper will punch above their weight, stretching beyond the remit of the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities.

Devolution deals, community ownership and volunteering rest on the principle that local people should be in control of local places. This approach has the power to transform public services, boost local enterprise and see individuals live happier and safer lives.

The White Paper offers a state-shrinking, community-minded, demand-reducing, power-sharing agenda, capable of uniting the right to make peace with Boris.

Wrestling control from centralising forces in the market and the state marks a welcome break from both Thatcher and Blair. Strengthening communities will fortify national resilience.

Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’ speak of the militia power resting in the strength of everyday local associations and institutions. The youth clubs and luncheons for pensioners slowly but surely build trust within communities and solidarity across the nation.

Levelling up will prove its worth both at the next election and in the face of the next inevitable crisis.

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Imogen Sinclair is Director of the New Social Covenant Unit,

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not reflect the view of CapX.