Little Platoons: How a Revived One Nation Can Empower England’s Forgotten Towns and Redraw the Political Map, by David Skelton (Biteback Publishing, 352 pp., $13.20)
The vote to leave the European Union has changed many things in British politics—including vocabulary. These days, headlines and Westminster chatter are filled with language that had little to no political meaning only a few years ago: Brexit and the backstop, deal and no deal, unicorns and fudge. Another phrase that has gained currency since the referendum is “left behind”—shorthand for the economically depressed parts of the country that voted Leave in 2016. When the British press latched onto this idea, a caricatured version of left-behind Britain quickly emerged: white, poor, provincial, and angry. Like all caricatures, it was an exaggeration; like any good caricature, however, it also expressed some essential truths, the most obvious of which was that the Brexit vote concerned much more than EU membership.
David Skelton, an influential Tory thinker, is from one of those parts of Britain labelled left behind and is the author of Little Platoons, a new book that makes the case for a “One Nation agenda” to “empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.” Skelton grew up in Consett, a town perched on moorland in County Durham in the North East of England. As he tells it, for a century and a half the town’s steel production wasn’t just its economic raison d’etre but also central to community vitality—the steelworks, for example, established the town’s cricket and football clubs. The works also engendered pride, with Consett steel used in Navy frigates and other engineering achievements at home and around the world.
When Consett’s steelworks closed in 1980, much else ground to a halt with it—and not just in the North East. Deindustrialization left towns across Britain paying a heavy social price. For Skelton, “the Brexit referendum marked the first time since the 1980s that the national media and politicians started to think about communities like Consett.” Before the reverberations of that alarm bell dissipate entirely, Skelton sees the challenge as taking “the message of the Brexit vote and us[ing] it to rejuvenate towns across the country that have lacked hope for so long.”
Visit such a place and it’s easy to see why the left-behind label sticks. Capital and jobs have moved on, and the wreckage is evident. And yet the story of “forgotten” Britain is more complicated than many, including Skelton, acknowledge. It’s certainly the case that socially and culturally, places like Consett have been written out of the story of modern Britain—and that Brexit was a reminder that they’re still here. But, contrary to familiar refrains about places neglected by the political elite, governments have been trying to resuscitate them for decades. Little Platoons includes accounts of such efforts: Margaret Thatcher’s industrial policy brought a Nissan facility to the North East in the 1980s; Michael Heseltine, a cabinet minister under Thatcher, and her successor as prime minister, John Major, devoted significant political energy to boosting Northern cities; the need for Northern renewal was “strongly felt” by Tony Blair’s government, with left-behind towns receiving their fair share of New Labour’s shiny new schools and hospitals; and David Cameron’s chancellor, George Osborne, made the “Northern Powerhouse” a pillar of his economic agenda.
More broadly, it’s difficult to find a politician who doesn’t believe that Britain’s economy is woefully imbalanced—in part because the numbers speak for themselves. According to Eurostat data, Inner London is the richest region in Northern Europe, but it’s the only U.K. region in the top ten. In fact, nine of the ten poorest Northern European regions are in Britain. By misdiagnosing British poverty as a problem of political neglect, Skelton and others who make similar arguments leave the impression that the solution is straightforward. An irony of the Brexit vote was how many British regions that received funding from the EU development fund—a pot of money that Brussels distributes to the continent’s poorest regions—delivered resounding votes for Leave. Political leaders are trying to help left-behind towns, but what they’re trying isn’t working.
Just as establishment indifference to the fate of places like Consett is an unconvincing explanation for their woes, Skelton’s claim that the blame lies in an excessive commitment to free-market economics is also hard to sustain. The British state has swollen, not shrunk, over the last 30 years, while the austerity policies implemented by the Conservative-led coalition following the financial crisis reduced by just £1 every £100 in government spending. Every twenty-first-century prime minister, Conservative or Labour, has supported state intervention to help parts of the country on the wrong end of economic trends.
Skelton is hardly swimming against the intellectual current on the Right. He finds himself broadly in agreement with the “One Nation” views of the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, and his immediate predecessor, Theresa May, both of whom support boosting spending for public services. May’s 2017 Conservative Party manifesto rejected “the cult of selfish individualism” and declared: “We do not believe in untrammeled free markets.” Johnson is poised to deliver on an election strategy of winning left-behind Labour heartlands.
Skelton is grappling with important questions, but at times his approach is unnecessarily antagonistic, pitting rich cities against poor towns and heartless free marketeers against a compassionate One Nation contingent, whom he deems the “real” conservatives. Little Platoons made me wonder whether the concern about left-behind towns is obscuring the underlying problems of the British economy with unhelpful zero-sum thinking. Consider, for example, the recent work of Stian Westlake and Sam Bowman, two figures from a less apologetically pro-market corner of the British Right than Skelton. Westlake and Bowman recently published a set of ideas designed to revive economic thinking on the British Right. They address problems that plague the British economy as a whole—woeful productivity growth and chronic underinvestment foremost among them. “A model of growth centered on cities and on expansion will be rejected by those who believe that focusing public investment directly on left-behind towns is the answer,” they write. “While we share the same aims of people who want to drive more growth in the poorest parts of Britain, we believe the way to do that is to better integrate these places into the areas that are growing strongly already, allow people to move more freely, and eliminate the geographical and other biases created by existing public policy.”
Thanks to Britain’s high population density, thriving cities could help nearby towns thrive. Consett, after all, is just 15 miles from Newcastle. Find ways to boost productivity and investment in cities like Newcastle, while loosening planning constraints on their growth and improving infrastructure links, and you will help people in towns like Consett, too. Tellingly, there is plenty of overlap between Skelton’s policy proposals and the suggestions made by Westlake and Bowman, including on devolution, infrastructure spending outside London and the South East, the importance of tackling a restrictive planning system, and the introduction of full expensing that allows businesses to deduct immediately the cost of any investment from their corporation taxes.
These policies could be an expression of One Nation conservatism, or an example of the Right’s laissez-faire tradition in a twenty-first-century form—or maybe they’re both. What is certain is that the Conservative party stands a better chance of long-term success if it focuses on policies that stand a real chance of improving voters’ lives, wherever they live.