John Penrose is MP for Weston-super-Mare.
When politicians talk about opportunity, life chances and how to escape poverty, they tend to make two particularly well-worn assumptions.
The first is that the best route to success is middle-class, white-collar professional work; an office job that doesn’t involve overalls, oily rags or heavy lifting. Something like law, accountancy, teaching or IT.
It’s not a stupid assumption either; these are all well-paid, high-skill jobs which have international scope, open doors to huge networks of helpful contacts, and offer clear, well-understood career paths as well.
But it leads most politicians, whether they are from the political left or right, to focus heavily on improving access to good academic teaching and qualifications at schools and universities, and less on the dozens of other routes to success in modern Britain.
The second presumption is that there’s a finite amount of opportunity, so that someone who starts with more must give up something for everyone else to succeed. It’s a zero-sum view of the world; the sense that what’s holding you or me back is obstruction by other people who don’t want to be leapfrogged on the ladder of life. This ‘opportunity hoarding’ is emotionally comforting because it gives us people to blame if we aren’t happy with the way our lives are turning out, but is the precise opposite of what both One-Nation Conservatism and ‘Levelling Up’ is all about.
Opportunity should be infinite
We believe that opportunity is – or can and should be – unlimited, providing we organise ourselves properly. The answer to the advantages and better life-chances of one person’s excellent education isn’t to destroy the good school they went to, but to make every other school as good as theirs, or better. And the answer to spiralling house prices and generation rent isn’t to demonise private landlords, but to build lots more homes (in the right places) so everybody can afford to buy one if they want.
In other words, levelling up is generous, big-hearted and open-handed. That’s why I’m really excited by the breadth of ideas in this collection of policy proposals. Of course education – particularly in academic subjects – matters hugely, but these ideas range far more widely than that. They acknowledge that, for many people, being good at academic exams isn’t the best or only route to happiness and success, and that other things matter too.
Character and community
Like what? Well, let’s start with character traits and community attitudes towards people who are ambitious; do their families and friends build them up, or cut them down? And do they instil emotional resilience and encourage people to bounce back from failure, or tell them they shouldn’t have tried in the first place? How do we instil those attitudes in communities and families where they haven’t been strong for generations?
Then there’s independence and self-reliance. Whether it’s running your own business or owning your own home, having control over more parts of our lives makes us feel happier, more secure and more fulfilled than depending on the good opinion of a landlord, a boss or a bureaucrat. So what will help more people take the first steps towards either or both of these things?
Confront the tough questions
Some of the things that matter most are difficult to discuss, because they ask hard questions that it would be easy to shy away from. Like why some places, or social classes, or races, are more or less successful than others in modern Britain?
What is the secret sauce which makes London and the south-east so much more productive than almost every other part of Britain, and how do we apply it everywhere else as well? And, equally, why do so many Chinese and Indian children do so much better at school than their black, Bangladeshi or white working class male classmates, and how can we close the gaps?
The squeezed middle
And then there’s the ‘squeezed middle’. The middle-income, middle-class, mid-career families who will inevitably end up shouldering most of the costs of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not because it’s their fault, or because they have the broadest shoulders, but because it happened on their watch. So the extra taxes to repay the – truly enormous – costs of protecting their grandparents from infection, and helping their children make up lost time on interrupted schooling, or the cuts to public services if taxes don’t increase, will inevitably fall mainly to them.
That isn’t fair or right, but it is happening nonetheless. So how do we help? How can we make things like housing more affordable, or retrain people with higher skills in mid-career, so they can earn more in a more productive economy and avoid a lifetime of grindingly high taxes or eroded public services instead?
These essays don’t pretend to provide all the answers – they aren’t a complete or rounded election manifesto – but they offer some thought-provoking ideas about how this One-Nation Conservative government should set about ‘Levelling Up’. They point towards a post-Covid and post-Brexit Britain that is hopeful, optimistic, energetic and positive: where people can succeed no matter where they started from, or who their parents were. Where your success doesn’t come at the expense of mine, so I can be generous and take pleasure in celebrating your achievements, rather than living a pinched or jealous life because you have something I don’t.
A happier, fairer, country, in other words. If you’re at all interested in how we could create it, then I hope you will read on…