Those looking for a place-based approach to the reconstruction of England’s economy should seek out David Skelton’s Little Platoons, published in 2019 on the eve of the general election. Known as one of the few Conservative policy experts who understands both the North and the Left, Skelton himself has origins in a Durham mining community, the town of Consett. It’s through this lens that Little Platoons takes its departure point before looking to recommendations for the social, economic and political revival of England.
The June 2016 Brexit Referendum forms a central part of the narrative of Little Platoons, a hinge about which the extent of the UK’s regional divide became apparent. As an entire region, the north-east unanimously voted Leave, signalling the sense of abandonment. Ever since Blair’s government promised a referendum on Britain’s involvement in the EU, the north-east has considers it views on the national agenda to be forgotten, and its legacy forgotten. Skelton reminds us: Newcastle was the only city to vote remain in the north-east, and only by 1%.
Yet Skelton’s aim is reconciliatory and encompasses both sides of the regional and socio-economic divide. Stated early, the purpose of Little Platoons is “to help consider the foundations for a renewed economic and political settlement so that it works for someone in Consett as much as it works for somebody in the City of London.” Skelton is successful in outlining the backstory to the disillusionment felt around UK politics in June 2016, a time when party leaders spending weeks preparing speeches for party conferences despite being absent from their constituency. Throughout the book, Skelton reiterates that the contract between politicians and voters has been broken for decades - all parties could do with a reboot.
Beyond the sentiment behind the Brexit result, another guiding light is political philosopher Edmund Burke, the founder of Social Conservatism. At numerous points, Little Platoons - named with reference to Burke’s favoured social model of small communities - Skelton reinforces a message that might rankle Europeans - that England’s conservative nature has helped it become the best country in the world.
Yet the socio-economic status of England is currently dire and compelling data is used to frame just how far the country has fallen. A first move is to identify the extent and distribution of communities, as a cantilever to the role of London. The UK has 12 core cities, 102 large towns (75,000+ residents), 243 medium sizes town (30-75,000 residents) and 559 small towns (10-30,000 residents). Not only is the UK the political capital, but it is also the city which gets far more per capita benefit for public money, namely in transport.
De-industrialisation is the clearest manifestation for the decline. The closure of factories explain for a loss of community identity in towns that developed from the early nineteenth century, communities that, thought tiny, were known and etched on products that built the new world. This unbundling of England’s fortunes is further felt with the closure of post offices - 22,000 dotted the UK in 1979, now at less than half by 2019. The downward trends in pubs has followed a similar course 25% pubs have closed 2001, while participation in churches and building societies also lags.
At the worker level, a failure by employers to create good, well paid jobs has coincided with the dehumanising effect as entire facilities closed and unions faltered from the 1970s. While roles in the economy have flourished for knowledge workers, the “prestige of blue-collar work” hasn’t tracked this prosperity. Frontline workers can no longer buy homes, with UK national home ownership at 65% at the close of the decade (Norway’s is 84%). More acutely, 52% of private renters are living off the national living wage.
The second half of Little Platoons presents a blueprint for England’s reconstruction, with the foundations of Burkean Conservatism used in relation to other competing political ideologies. According to Skelton, libertarianism won’t cut it:
There is no real laissez-fair response to the crisis in low wages, low productivity and low skills in many of our towns, and no laissez-fair response to the shortage of infrastructure that is holding many communities back. Laissez-faire alone cannot possible respond to the challenge posed by rapid economic change, particularly given the important condition that individuals are not as flexible or moveable and communities not as malleable as ideology would have us believe.
This has already been seen in the technological development of pockets of the UK, which isn’t enough for Skelton. “The ability to have a meal delivered or oder a relatively inexpensive taxi from your mobile phone does not make up for the lack of a secure job…” Instead, Roger Scruton and Burke have each highlighted the importance of continuity, with the former repeating the maxim, “good things are easily destroyed, but not so easily created.”
Identity politics also get a good ringing - “Where a patriotism unites, identity politics divides.” Labour squandered the opportunity to stitch the nation together under Blair, now a party for the middle class and urban, hipster elite. In the end, the nation is still important and continues to act as the most powerful common bond, one that supersedes transnational technocracy. For Skelton, if conservatism is going to make a resurgence, the ideology would do well to remove the Thatcherite legacy and look to ideas from the likes Disraeli, MacMillan or Churchill - it was their politics that contained a social benefit.
In calling for an update in this next decade, Skelton requests for bold reconstruction are at a national scale. Spending on infrastructure should return to post-WW2 levels and be elevated to the point of creating the best infrastructure in the Western world. Skelton references the cities of Detroit and Austin as taking the lead in the U.S. - towns in England could become the “advance party for the revolution in skills and vocation.” Meanwhile, education should be modelled on systems in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, allowing a dual track to divert attention from “an obsession with academic education.”
Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map is available to order at all local bookshops.