Boris flounders like fish on inequality because it's not in his Conservative equation - Joyce McMillan

A FEW WEEKS ago, in Coventry, Boris Johnson launched - or re-launched - his plan for “levelling up” the UK, in a speech that was widely greeted with derision and criticism, even by some members of his own party. In fact, the Prime Minister’s waffly sentence structure and speaking style may have made the speech appear slightly more vacuous than it was.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks, onboard the Esvagt Alba during a visit to the Moray Offshore Windfarm East, off the Aberdeenshire coast, Scotland, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. (Jane Barlow/Pool Photo via AP)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks, onboard the Esvagt Alba during a visit to the Moray Offshore Windfarm East, off the Aberdeenshire coast, Scotland, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. (Jane Barlow/Pool Photo via AP)

Somewhere in there, there were some serious, if not quite new, undertakings on matters like infrastructure investment that might indeed - if well implemented - have some impact on the UK’s well documented regional income equalities, which currently show six English regions among the ten poorest in northern Europe, in terms of GDP her head.

What was most striking about the speech, though, was its chronic and almost embarrassing evasion of the central feature of those inequalities; the massive failure of income distribution that concentrates a huge proportion of the UK’s national wealth in the south east of the country, and leaves every other region or nation struggling to keep up, with varying degrees of success. It’s not that Boris Johnson is unaware of these inequalities; he is clearly very exercised by them, not least by their impact on health and longevity.

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Yet faced by the disparity between life expectancy in Glasgow or Blackpool, as opposed to Rutland, the Prime Minister’s astonishing response is to ask “why do the people of Rutland live to such prodigious ages? Who knows – but they do.” He resorts to a supposedly amusing rhetorical device, in other words, to disguise the fact that everyone with any interest in the subject knows exactly why the people of Rutland live longer; it is because, on average, they are richer, and consequently live in better housing, eat better food, suffer much less stress, have more opportunities for healthy leisure activities, and can retire when they feel like it.

And having avoided this basic truth, the Prime Minister then has no option but to veer off into a series of ridiculous riffs about how poorer regions will only prosper when they have better law and order and how a £50 million investment in new football pitches will somehow transform the nation.

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Finally, the PM observes - accurately enough - that Germany does this levelling up thing much better than the UK; he also notes that this has something to do with strong regional leadership. His conclusion, though, is that the Westminster government should impose new forms of local leadership in a top-down manner, insisting on elected city mayors here, and new county deals there. The idea of genuinely autonomous regions like the German lander, electing their own governments, raising their own taxes, and setting their own priorities across large areas of policy, never seems to enter his head when it comes to England; and clearly displeases him greatly when it comes to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In dealing with the great theme of inequality, in other words, Boris Johnson’s adherence to the Conservative ideology of the last 30 years leaves him floundering like a fish out of water, unable even properly to name the problem, never mind to give a well-organised and lucid speech about how a functioning 21st century democracy might tackle it.

The truth about the Prime Minister is that he cannot deliver the goals of social democracy because he is not a social democrat, nor even a decent German-style Christian democrat. In his book, the only real function of democracy is to give an occasional stamp of legitimacy to the self-enriching antics of the shortsighted boss-class he represents; and the idea that it might actually be used to shift the balance of power in a country, to empower people at the grass roots, and to change patterns of wealth and influence for good, is clearly as alarming to him as to any other advocate of unchallenged privilege.

All of which, of course, is more than relevant to this week’s Prime Ministerial visit to Scotland, a country which has never had much truck with the myths of neoliberal ideology, and which, to judge by its voting patterns, would rather - in a majority of about two to one - be governed in a social democratic manner, as part of the European Union or at least of EFTA. Boris Johnson’s approach to Scotland seems to boil down to an assumption that if he keeps refusing an independence referendum, and keeps throwing Union Jack-badged money directly to Scotland’s cash-strapped local authorities, then he can somehow ride out the current wave of support for independence, and bring this notoriously prickly nation back to heel.

What Conservatives like Johnson fails to grasp though - although a swift glance at shifts in Scottish opinion over the last four decades would make it clear to them - is that the vast majority of Scots are pragmatic in their attitude to the Union, and that support for it depends on the UK having a coherent progressive project under way that seems likely to deliver something more like a north European social democracy - now with new interventions to support the massive transition to a low carbon economy.

Small wonder, therefore, that Boris Johnson’s superficial catch-phrases about tackling climate change and “levelling up”, unmatched by any serious understanding of the profound shift in economic thinking and practice that would be necessary to achieve either goal, cut little ice here; and leave him looking like a largely irrelevant figure, making heavily-policed visits to venues that match his current slogans, and talking to almost no one except the small minority here who share his political views.

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In that sense, the Prime Minister’s refusal to meet Nicola Sturgeon during his visit - which he of course promptly denied, even though the letter had already been published - is symbolic of his refusal to “meet” Scotland as it currently is, rather than as the compliant and resource-rich northern fiefdom of his dreams. And the longer Westminster continues to refuse a dialogue of equals with nations and regions disadvantaged by 40 years of right-wing economic thinking at Westminster, the more precarious the future of the Union will become; and the more difficult it will be to co-ordinate a successful transition to the new economic world that must come, if all of us, on these islands and beyond, are to see a future worth having at all.

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