The ambition to “level up” is real, but will come to nothing unless Whitehall lets go—not least of the levers of revenueby Paul Collier / September 8, 2020 / Leave a comment
The decisions to be taken this autumn will determine the course of British history. Down one path is reversion to business as usual, down the other is the transformation of provincial Britain—the “levelling-up” agenda across the regions for which the government was elected.
Boris Johnson, newly returned to Downing Street with strong support from England’s industrial rust belt last year, has made clear which path he aspires to take: his aim is a New Deal that resets history for the better. But between aspiration and achievement lies strategy. The yawning productivity gap that has opened between the south east and the rest of Britain was entirely avoidable: it hasn’t happened in Germany. But rectifying it is much more difficult than avoiding it. When it comes to reversing rather than avoiding regional divergence, we are largely in the dark. Just as in coping with Covid-19, it is an instance of radical uncertainty: no model can guide us.
The dragon to be slayed is clear enough: Whitehall is a labyrinth of fiefdoms and established practices which continue to marginalise most of the country. Time after time, and to an embarrassing degree with Covid-19, Whitehall has indulged in fragmented decision-taking and ineffective implementation. The fate it deserves is obvious, and the departure of so many mandarins, including the cabinet secretary, could be a sign it is already in process. The open question is what St George does afterwards. Does he liberate those who suffered from the dragon, or instead become tempted to supplant it?
Cummings and a chancellor’s going
That temptation will be stronger than you might think. If the only problem was fragmented decision-taking, it could be solved by centralising power in the newly-combined No 10 and No 11 operation. The two came together after Johnson aide Dominic Cummings forced out the previous chancellor, Sajid Javid, for seeking to retain his own advisers with their own agenda. Such centralisation was certainly needed; for those problems where we know what to do, the fiefdoms impeded an integrated response. But many other problems remain.
The current government plan for the autumn is a white paper that reviews the…