Politicians are fond of comparing the UK to Germany – usually as a model of how we could do something better. A recent example is Boris Johnson’s speech on levelling up from last month. “I remember going to former East Germany in 1990 just after the wall had gone down”, he said, “and I remember being amazed at how far behind west Germany it then was – a place of strange little cars with two stroke engines and fake coffee”. But then he adds, “to a large extent Germany has succeeded in levelling up where we have not”.
It is helpful to look a little more closely at the process of levelling up in Germany. Thomas Fischer has written about the staggering numbers involved. First, the process took decades. It was underpinned a political agreement known as the ‘Solidarity Treaty’, and ran from 1995 until COVID struck in 2019. Second, it cost an estimated 1.5 trillion euros of public money (some estimates run even higher). Needless to say, the German model of levelling up – let’s call it the solidarity path – requires immense public funding, and a long-term vision spanning multiple generations.
There’s a second path to levelling up. Will Jennings and colleagues describe it as ‘spectacle politics’, expressing concern that the levelling up agenda means picking a few places to level up in order to craft a story of success in time for the next election. This might work to increase the Conservative Party’s chances of re-election (but the electorate, Jennings adds, will catch on at some point), but will do little to address the serious need for redistribution between people or regions, or reverse the uneven dynamics of economic development.
The solidarity path and spectacle path represent two courses of action for the government, and there are many possible paths that sit between the two. The direction will become clearer in the White Paper on Levelling Up, expected later in the year. But the track record of government on the topic is not encouraging. If we want levelling up to be more than the next ‘big society’, we need to hope for more solidarity than spectacle.