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Speaking to Bright Blue, the independent think tank for liberal conservatism, Chair of the Conservative Policy Board, Neil O’Brien OBE MP, has urged the Conservative Government to move away from Thatcherism and toward an integrated science and industrial policy inspired by countries in East Asia as the guiding policy for levelling up the UK after Covid-19.

Bright Blue interviewed the influential policy chief as part of the new edition of its Centre Write magazine, The Great Levelling? released today, on the theme of levelling up after the pandemic. In the interview, O’Brien said:

“It’s such a funny thing to talk about being a Thatcherite in 2021 given that Thatcherism was a policy response to the problems of Britain in the 1970s; literally before I was born. You can admire the achievements of that period, such as how they got inflation and the trade unions under control and removed bits of the state that didn’t belong there, but think that you’ve got to conduct economic policy on the basis of the problems facing Britain today.”

O’Brien claimed that debate on economic policy in the UK is behind the times and we need to look to East Asia for inspiration:

“The economics of how science and technology, industrial policy and finance come together and the economics of geography are the two biggest things to happen in economics over the past couple of decades. This hasn’t really been reflected in our national economic debate and certainly not in the papers … you wouldn’t see much mention of Hyundai or Samsung that have come into being as a result of government economic policies on the other side of the world. Taiwan went from having no semiconductor industry to becoming the world leader, all since the 1980s.”

He bemoaned the lack of a concerted economic development programme for poorer areas of the country by previous governments:

“Compared to what has been done in regional policy in other countries like Germany, it’s not on the same scale … Our R&D budget has been very low in the UK and we need to change that. Then after that you need to think about infrastructure like transport and connectivity that all support growth. In the UK, too quickly we move to a conversation about levelling up and transport spending. Really that is something that follows on from the initial economic development. In areas that have poor growth and demand, generally transport isn’t the main problem. Ireland has been very skillful with an aggressive inward investment strategy and we can learn from that.”

However, he dismissed Labour’s attempts to push a new ‘1945 moment’:

“Fundamentally, I don’t believe there has been a transformation of public attitudes in any ‘1945’ sense … For me, [the pandemic] has underlined, and this won’t come as a surprise, the importance of a robust industrial and technology policy. First we had a rush for PPE, then for ventilators, then for testing equipment, and now a global vaccine production race. It has shown the limits of depending on international supply chains as well as the incredible power of technology.”

He continued:

“The vaccine programme has clearly been a huge success … The combination of that and getting the exit from the pandemic right, as I think we are doing, now has the Conservatives pulling ahead of Labour in the polls again, even in the eleventh year of being in power. It’s incredibly striking and helps explain why Keir Starmer keeps doing these endless relaunches that don’t get anywhere.”

In his article for Centre Write, the Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, said of how the UK can show environmental leadership while levelling up:

“Clean growth is the only way forward to build back better. The economic challenges we will face as a country following the Covid-19 pandemic will be overcome by a strategic set of actions aimed at delivering sustainable growth across the whole of the UK. The main focus will be on developing resilience across all regions in the country to bounce back from economic shocks, investing to foster technological innovation, and creating new high value jobs, industries, and companies.”

“Particular emphasis should be on reducing avoidable plastic waste. This will include reforming and reconfiguring the packaging supply chain, increasing the producer’s responsibility, introducing a higher plastic tax, extending a deposit return scheme for drink containers countrywide, and a ban on specified single use plastics. Further legislation will follow in the coming years to implement such changes and boost recycling rates. The UK is on track to meet a target of at least 50% of household waste to be recycled by the end of 2020.”

In her article for Centre Write, the Rt Hon Baroness Finn, the new Downing Street Deputy Chief of Staff, said of the role of civil service reform in levelling up: 

“In the Brexit referendum of 2016, overlooked families and undervalued communities expressed their discontent with a political system they regarded as aloof, arrogant, remote, and centralised. A key part that the civil service can play in drawing together a renewed sense of common purpose is making sure that it draws on all the talents of every part of the UK, and ensuring that decision makers are acquainted with the challenges faced by those outside the metropolitan bubble.”

“It is not enough simply to relocate jobs. Those leading the civil service also need to think harder about cognitive diversity. Levelling up means not only geographical diversity, but respect for and inclusion of different voices and life experiences. 

“This means breaking up the current career ladder, welcoming people into the service not just for secondments but for periods of two years or more, so that the civil service can gain from people whose expertise is in, for example, renewable energy.”

In her article for Centre Write, Dehenna Davison MP, elected in 2019 in the former ‘Red Wall’ constituency of Bishop Auckland, said of how the Government can deliver for such ‘left-behind’ communities:

“With Covid-19 accelerating workplaces’ adaptations towards working from home, this creates huge opportunities for areas that those working for firms based in major cities may not have ordinarily considered living in. Towns like Bishop Auckland could begin to market ourselves as ‘digital commuter towns’. Why shouldn’t we aim to attract those in highly paid roles working for Manchester or London firms who are predominantly home-working? Why shouldn’t we aim to have more money being put into our local economy?

“Yes, Covid-19 has presented many challenges, but it has also presented opportunities. As we focus on a recovery that aids levelling up, we need to look at ensuring that young people have multiple reasons to want to stay in their hometowns. That they’re able to aim for local, high-paid jobs, or opportunities from further afield that the digital age makes possible. That they’re able to settle down in the streets they grew up in, and they enjoy spending their free time where they live. This is how we will truly deliver on the mission to level up.”

This edition of Bright Blue’s Centre Write magazine also includes contributions from Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, Paul Howell MP, Alicia Kearns MP, the Rt Hon Lord O’Neill of Gatley, Professor Michael Kenny of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, and many more.