My recent visit to Sheffield forced me to think about the language of policy and how we express things – and how, very quickly, the way we describe what we are trying to achieve in policy gets worn out.
Read the 1942 Beveridge Report today, the only bestselling government report ever published, carried into battle by soldiers, sailors and airmen for the rest of the Second World War, and the policy language is so creaking as to be practically warped out of shape.
Beveridge gargled with the concept of ‘social security’. It is a powerful phrase – or it was. You could see what it was originally intended to mean, but seven decades where ‘social security’ became a byword for intrusive bureaucracy and big grey buildings full of computers, and dull, formulaic and aggressive job centres, has drained it of useful meaning.
There are political parties which still borrow the political language of the 1940s – ‘education for all’, ‘homes for all’, and so on – though it really just goes in one ear and out the other. The ‘for all’ promise has long since been made and broken and it doesn’t help just to repeat it in exactly the same words.
There is a supplicant element to the economic language about
devolving powers to the north, despite the powerhouse clothing.
Why did this matter in Sheffield? Because I was going up there to speak at IPPR North’s conference on the Northern Powerhouse, and very interesting it was too, especially since I spoke immediately after Lord Prescott. And it was Prescott’s speech, more than anything else, that bothered me.
Despite all the devolution agreements being negotiated in the UK, his language seemed to be still stuck with a whiff of imperialism. It is still about begging for money rather than using the assets at our disposal – and our own people in particular – to earn it.
It demonstrates that the Old Guard have not yet embraced the new world of devolution, either in Westminster or Whitehall. They are signing their agreements with the Treasury to draw down more responsibility for public money but, in their hearts, they are still holding out the begging bowl.
This is not to say, of course, that the government should not be investing in cities – of course it should. But don’t let us delude ourselves that this is localism. And when the chancellor can congratulate himself during the autumn statement on launching a potholes fund, it became clear that he was about as far from grasping what localism might mean as the opposition. When Whitehall gets excited about filling potholes, you know things have gone too far.
The idea that people are the assets a city has remains largely rhetorical. There must be a connection between the fact that people live there, that they have needs and imagination and the potential of economic activity – but we have forgotten what it is.
The language of the Northern Powerhouse is still about attracting investment to the north, building them roads so that other foreign corporations can truck their goods more easily in and out, and a little will trickle down and stay put. There is a supplicant element to the economic language about devolving powers to the north still, despite the powerhouse clothing. It is dependent.
So what is getting in the way of the Northern Powerhouse is not just the lack of skills, or lack of outside investment, it remains the horror with which Whitehall still regards local economic revitalisation. They still think all local economic activity is simply shifted over the border from somewhere else. It is a kind of imperialist reductionism.
But the levers are in the hands of the cities if they did but know it. They need to stop thinking like supplicants and ask themselves – if the economy of this city depended on the people who lived here, what would we have to do, what institutions would we need, and where would we have to invest?
David Boyle is a director of the New Weather Institute.