Levelling up – is the spirit willing?

Boris has been going on about the Government levelling up since the summer! But are we any nearer to understanding this odd phrase of governmental-speak that could mean many different things to different people – depending on whether they are at the top, or bottom of the social pile? The dictionary describes ‘levelling up’ as ‘to bring something to an equal level or position.’ But what particular ‘something’ is, or needs, to be focused on?

On one level, the government refers to the levelling up of regions, using projects like the new London/Manchester HS2 train service, which will supposedly encourage the spread of power, jobs and opportunities outside of London. Levelling up also refers to investment in the kind of infrastructures that will improve daily life across the UK: including town centre regeneration, local transport and cultural assets. But can this type of levelling up ever really cross that long established North/South divide, and unite our country? 

Levelling up for some means far more than infrastructure – it’s to do with people. The author of the book ‘Nomad Land’, on which the film was based, suggested that the ratio of difference between the lowest and highest incomes in America has reached an astronomical 320-1. Yes, that refers to America, but the overall message is similar and just as immoral. A line graph of that difference would lean more towards the vertical – than the horizontal. Levelling up indeed! The massive, and growing, difference between ‘have’ and have-nots’ across the world should make humanity feel ashamed. 

Should the government’s attempts to level up include more adults with SEND being enabled to work and earn? Figures indicate that between July and Sept 2015, 45.7% of adults with learning disabilities were in paid employment, compared with 78% of those without. The figures for unemployment are likely to include many people on the autistic spectrum. A book by Simon Baron-Cohen (The Pattern Seekers) identifies people as either ‘systemisers’ or ‘empathisers’: the former being more likely to identify patterns and to solve problems logically, while the latter are better at social and communication tasks. Society needs both types. Being part of a working environment enables people to maintain a sense of dignity. And in my view, part of ‘levelling up’ includes finding ways to close the employment gap.

I watched a repeated episode of Endeavour, set in the sixties – with viewers being given prior warning of its racial content. Thankfully, Britain has come a long way since a hair dressing salon would actually place a notice that read ‘No Coloureds’ in its shop window. A recent TV series, also set in the sixties, featured a black recruit to the police force having the words ‘Filthy N*****’ scrawled on his locker by his colleagues. Great strides have been made towards racial equality during the last sixty years, but figures still show that black and Asian children do not achieve as well as their white peers, mainly because they have a higher likelihood of coming from working class backgrounds, and being economically disadvantaged. The increase in the minimum wage, though a step forward, does little to address the huge economic and social divide. 

So, the term ‘levelling up’ can have many meanings, depending on how we think. The PM has acquired a ‘levelling up’ advisor, and the Chancellor has recently unveiled a £4.8 billion fund for the purpose. How will this money be spent? It may be naive to think that humanity can ever become as horizontal as the spirit level intends, but, for me, levelling up is about creating social and employment systems that enable equality of opportunity for all.

I have some odd thoughts and many of them are explained in my latest book, ‘Time of the Virus’, out now on Amazon. Be prepared for a bit of raving and ranting! 

Sylvia Edwards

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