For an empty slogan from a disgraced source, “levelling up” has come far. When the Conservatives adopted it in 2019, it seemed no more likely to achieve distinction than those Johnsonian relics, abject even at the time: “build back better”, “get Brexit done”, “oven-ready”, “unleash Britain’s potential”.
But, three years older and still vacuous, the phrase has been sanitised even beyond the point of not requiring a “so-called” or inverted commas to tong it into political debates. Non-Conservatives, individuals who pride themselves on never calling Johnson “Boris” will now echo the phrase as if it really were more meaningful than “build, build, build”. Thinktanks treat it as a worthy concept; the TUC has been happy to advance the Tory-burnishing slogan with its own contributions on the “levelling up agenda”. Among the more surprising organisations currently dignifying a term that usefully distances Johnson’s party from the inequalities it cultivated, we find Arts Council England (ACE) citing this synonym for improving something as its reason for defunding or threatening some of the most valued cultural bodies in England and Wales.
Bryn Terfel’s petition to save one casualty, the 91-year-old English National Opera, from being levelled out of existence currently has 60,000 signatures. Another, Welsh National Opera, has just cancelled performances in Liverpool because of its new role in ACE’s levelling up – a 35% reduction to its funding. In 2019, even the then loyal Dominic Cummings thought “levelling up” was rubbish. “It’s a vapid SW1 slogan like ‘Global Britain’ that *objectively does not work*.”
After he’d gone, Johnson did a whole speech on it. Taking inspiration, perhaps, from the criminals who covertly damage elderly people’s roofs then quote for the essential repairs, he styled himself the saviour of people his party had, from George Osborne onwards, systematically immiserated. Largely stream of consciousness, it featured one clear message: “We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies.” He was “not robbing Peter to pay Paul, it’s not zero sum, it’s win-win for the whole United Kingdom”.
More reassurance followed in the levelling up white paper, an interminable document designed to dignify the glib slogan and which did say sensible things about the “moral” requirement to consider the needs of everyone or, as other people might think of it, to govern.
With the help of Michael Gove, his levelling up minister, Johnson’s effusions about “the ketchup of catch-up” were translated into learned passages about emulating Renaissance city states, so as to make places the Tories had stripped of libraries, swimming pools and Sure Start centres more like Florence under the Medicis. The scale of repairs required the deadline for significant levelling up be as distant as 2030 (2035 for improved life expectancy). “By 2030, pride in place, such as people’s satisfaction with their town centre and engagement in local culture and community, will have risen in every area of the UK.”
On culture, the white paper said more would be spent regionally, also ACE would identify some national and smaller organisations “that wish to establish a presence outside London, and provide them with support to succeed”.
ACE’s prompt campaign of cultural destruction offers the clearest illustration, to date, of what levelling up can mean
Exactly how this proposal for voluntary relocations by 2030, backed by win-win assurances, translated into ACE’s unexpected assault on the ENO and other arts flagships, has become only less clear since the cuts generated an outcry. Initially, explaining why the ENO had 24 hours notice of total defunding if it did not sort relocation within 20 weeks, ACE executives said they were responding to levelling up orders from Nadine Dorries. In her zeal to comply with Johnson’s slogan, the pioneering I’m a Celebrity contestant-turned-culture minister had evidently missed the caveats about not pitting region against region and protecting the tall poppies.
Though we can’t be sure this formidable heir to the Medicis would place the targeted opera companies, theatres, museums and the capital city itself in that category. “This is national funding. It should benefit the entire nation,” she tweeted. “With the changes I’m making today, it will.”
“Nadine Dorries made me do it.” This excuse for extreme vandalism not being widely shared outside ACE, its chief executive, Darren Henley, produced another reason for dismembering the ENO: his wish for opera to “re-imagine” itself. “It is clear some things must change,” he wrote in his now legendary Guardian apologia: “A new generation of audiences is embracing opera and music theatre presented in new ways: opera in car parks, opera in pubs, opera on your tablet.”
Though it was hard to know where to start with these false incompatibles – the tablets are showing actual opera, the car parks were for Covid, opera in pubs and opera in vast theatres fruitfully co-exist, in and out of London – you concluded that Henley, himself, must certainly have been reimagined since 2016, when he thought London should have two opera houses. “It remains our devout wish,” he wrote.
The British composer Thomas Adès, who first experienced opera, aged 10, at the ENO, compared Henley’s reimaginings to Stalin’s interventions. It seemed a little unfair. Stalin, though he interfered in their music (“Comrade Stalin said that the time was ripe for the creation of a classical Soviet opera”), did not eradicate established companies. Even the Bolsheviks, according to an account that might usefully be read by ACE’s leveller-uppers, “were very sensitive to the charge that they were uncouth barbarians”.
Henley reminds me more of Liz Truss: happy to be unpopular, insensitive, divisive, wrong and in a hurry. Such is the reluctance with which Johnson’s own party is enacting even basic aspects of his mission that ACE’s prompt campaign of cultural destruction offers the clearest illustration, to date, of what levelling up can mean in practice. So now there’s no excuse.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist