This review is by Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation. Richard has written the piece in a personal capacity.
The story of Consett, a town 14 miles south west of Newcastle, is a familiar one in England. A once thriving working-class community famous for industry, was decimated by the closure of its steel plant in 1980. The immediate result was the loss of thousands of skilled jobs. Over the subsequent decades the failure to revitalise the town has meant that is has never fully recovered. Today, Consett is far from the most disadvantaged place. It serves as ‘a north-eastern commuter village’ to Newcastle and Durham and unemployment is low. But jobs in the town tend to be poorly paid and low skill and the town centre, like so many places, is dominated by charity shops, bookmakers and fast food outlets. Nothing has replaced the steelworks in terms of prestige and purpose.
Consett’s decline is documented in a new book by David Skelton, a leading thinker on the communitarian wing of the Conservative Party, who grew up in Consett. Invoking Edmund Burke, the book is titled Little Platoons. It examines the challenges facing many of England’s ‘left behind’ towns and outlines a way to revitalise (typically) former industrial and coastal communities. Skelton argues for a much bigger role for the state in rebalancing the economy while maintaining a pro-market, pro-business approach. It is also, like David Goodhart’s Road to Somewhere, a profoundly challenging read for the higher education sector. The book is critical of the expansion of universities at what Skelton perceives to be the expense of vocational education, causing the migration of skills from towns to cities.
The limits of the market and laissez-faire economics
As you’d expect from a Conservative author there are some sharp criticisms of Labour and the wider Left’s approach to working class communities. But the book’s most powerful chapters are when Skelton critiques his own side’s role in the decline of post-industrial towns and develops his ideas for renewing the communitarian or ‘One Nation’ tradition. At its heart this is a book aimed at convincing the Conservative Party to shift from economic liberalism – which has dominated the party since Thatcher – to economic Toryism, which Skelton believes is necessary to revive places like Consett and is the only way for them to be electorally successful in future.
Skelton is damning of successive Conservative governments’ over-reliance on the ‘free-market’. Rolling back the state in the early 1980s was necessary, Skelton argues, as the state had grown too large and the market too small, but the pragmatic response to the problems of the 1970s later ‘hardened to dogma’:
‘[which] seemed to suggest that all the state had to do was to get out of the way, and it had little to add when a reduction in state activity didn’t see economic revival in forgotten towns. This meant that a post-Thatcher Toryism became more and more economically determinist… In too many cases, the economically libertarian strain of Conservatism began to lack ideas beyond rolling back the state, even when it was clear that a smaller state wasn’t enough in itself to tackle deep-seated social and economic issues.’
Skelton also laments the impact of laissez-faire economics on national sovereignty and the ability of government to act independently to support its communities. He is scathing of policy which has made British firms more prone to foreign takeovers than any other country in the western world, highlighting David Cameron’s response to Kraft’s ‘disgraceful’ takeover of Cadbury’s which focussed on the importance of being open in a global economy but ‘ignored the fact that almost every other country takes a more interventionist approach than the UK.’ He links high foreign ownership with our research and development capacity which he claims, ‘tends to move to the home country of the owning firm, weakening the UK’s manufacturing industry further.’
The communitarian challenge to higher education
The final chapters provide Skelton’s plan for restoring prosperity and prestige to Britain’s forgotten towns. From empowering communities through greater devolution, to investing in poorer towns and regions, to providing economic security to workers, the book is full of thoughtful policy ideas a communitarian government (of either colour) could prioritise. The book is also correct to highlight concerns about further education and how well our tertiary system serves the people who don’t go to university. It is surely not right that there is such a disparity between what is invested in a university student compared to an adult in further education, as highlighted by the Augar review.
Skelton’s ideas draw from his ‘One Nation’ world view. A Tory tradition that distrusts abstract ideology of the libertarian right and socialist left, is sceptical of concentrations of power and supports institutions which represent ‘continuity with the past and inheritance of the future.’ But there is a real tension in Skelton’s philosophy with his views on higher education because he seems to dismiss the role and value of universities as institutions supporting national and local prosperity. His use of phrases such as the ‘fetishisation of university’ and ‘obsession with university attendance’ seem quite illustrative of his regard for the sector. Skelton also blames the expansion of universities for towns losing ‘economic talent’ to metropolitan cities. He says:
‘through an obsession with university and academia, politicians are effectively supporting a scheme that encourages young people in struggling towns to leave in order to provide their talents to already vibrant major cities.’
To overcome these problems Skelton advocates a ‘vocational revolution’ by establishing a set of new colleges linked with local and national business, which would provide a ‘shift in employers’ sole reliance on universities to provide education and training.’
Skelton’s analysis of the tertiary system and its impact on disadvantaged places is engaging and comes from a genuine desire to tackle the challenges many living in these places face. Yet the feeling I had from reading the sections covering universities is that his argument is a little unbalanced and overly negative, looking for big eye-catching solutions when evolutionary approaches would be better. Like so much commentary about the sector from the Right, Skelton artificially divides academic and vocational routes when the reality is a lot more nuanced. There is little recognition of the excellent vocational, professional and technical education within the university system.
The second point is that it is not just the large metropolitan cities which have benefited from the expansion of the sector. As anchor institutions universities have been the lifeblood of the economies of smaller cities and disadvantaged places. Bradford, Hull, Wolverhampton, Stoke, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Lancaster, Sunderland. All of these places would be less economically and socially vibrant without their universities. With almost 60 universities now signed-up to develop Civic University Agreements in collaboration with their local civic partners, there is a real appetite within universities to grapple with the challenges and opportunities of their communities and wider regions. The other obvious point is that people move from towns to cities to find good employment. If there were good jobs in post-industrial towns it is likely that graduates would move back to these towns in much higher numbers, hence why it is important to connect universities’ research, develop and innovation capacities to the post-industrial towns, which Skelton recognises.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, I’d argue a stronger and more coherent approach would be to build upon the existing strengths of the higher education system to close skills gaps, boost productivity and positively impact post-industrial towns. In the short and medium-term, government could invest in stimulating sustainable programmes which expand the role universities play in areas where there isn’t currently much HE provision. For example, in collaboration with industry or the NHS, universities could be funded to develop research or innovation in places like Grimsby or Mansfield. Government could pilot ideas about lifelong learning or technical skills through collaborations with further education colleges in places like Bury or Great Yarmouth. These programmes could play an important role in unlocking the potential of universities to reinvigorate the economies and quality of life for people of these towns. Residents of these communities are taxpayers after all, so the beneficial ‘anchor’ impact of universities should be spread directly to these places too. Over the longer-term, government and the sector ought to think seriously about the impending demographic upturn of 18 year-olds and whether this could be used to help stimulate the economies of disadvantaged places by encouraging universities in the wider region (or further afield) to establish branch campuses or university colleges in these towns. The examples of Coventry University in Scarborough and Dagenham, or the University of Exeter helping to get Falmouth University off the ground, could be used as a blueprint. These new institutions (like many others before them) put the economies of their places at the heart of what they do. This would also have the added benefit of mitigating the studentification issues which might arise from significant and rapid expansion of ‘home’ campus universities in smaller cities. There are of course several challenges for government and the sector to consider when anticipating future student numbers growth. Geography and place should be at the centre of that discussion.
Is this the future for our politics?
My issues with Skelton’s analysis of higher education shouldn’t put you off reading this book. Overall it is an excellent read which gets to the heart of Britain’s challenges. It underlines my view that place and community should be at the forefront of political thinking in order to rebuild the country from its current Brexit malaise. With a general election on the horizon it also gives us an indication of what a future programme of government might look like. For the Conservatives to win a majority they need to unite the Leave-voting suburbs of the south with the Leave-voting post-industrial towns of the midlands and the north. For Labour to win they need to defend as many of these places as possible. A redrawn political map with a greater number of towns becoming marginal constituencies may result in the economic interests of these communities taking centre stage. No longer forgotten, Skelton’s communitarian ideas to restore these towns could be potent for both left and right. Little Platoons is therefore well worth your time.