Consett, a small town on the tip of the Pennines, is Britain’s answer to Youngstown Ohio. The US steel town immortalised by Bruce Springsteen as a picture of American failure shrank rapidly after losing its mill in 1977 and has struggled to find a purpose ever since.
Consett was similarly “murdered” in 1980, according to longtime residents, when its vast steelworks was shut and thousands lost their jobs. Now home to a slew of supermarkets and discount stores, this chilly corner of northern England remains a place that lost its reason to exist. In 2016, just as Youngstown voted for US President Donald Trump, Consett went strongly for Brexit.
The town is also the childhood home of David Skelton. His new book, Little Platoons, digs deep into the challenges facing Britain’s struggling towns and the trends that delivered Brexit. Named after Edmund Burke’s description of small communities, this manifesto against economic liberalism also posits solutions for these beleaguered places.
Over a beer, Mr Skelton explains he wrote the book at a time “people were briefly obsessed with left-behind voters and genuinely seemed interested in why people voted for Brexit”. But after an initial flurry of interest, when places like Consett frequently appeared on news bulletins, “It soon went back to the [Westminster] horse race and we were forgotten again,” he says.
Little Platoons, which was written with Consett in mind, makes the case for rebalancing the British economy through state intervention. Wandering down Middle Street, the force in his argument is abundantly clear. Charity shops and bookmakers vie with empty windows and fast food outlets. The town centre feels aimless.
Yet it is not all disheartening: the outskirts are full of shiny shops for motorists living in new-build communities in the surrounding valleys. “Consett is not some kind of a post-industrial dystopia, there’s other towns that are struggling more,” Mr Skelton says. “But the problem here is the lack of an empowered community. There aren’t enough businesses in the town with jobs that have the same level of pride that working in the steelworks did.”
His thesis can be described as conservative communitarianism: he values a community ethos above ever-increasing growth, but twins that view with enthusiasm for private enterprise. In Mr Skelton’s view, politicians of all stripes have let these communities down: the Labour left has devalued the party’s traditional heartland, while the Conservatives have placed too much faith in free-market capitalism.
The way forward, Mr Skelton says, is rooted in lower levels of controlled migration, encouraging local residents to stay in their homelands. His book calls for governments to hand down political powers aimed at helping individual communities make up for decades of neglect. “Places like Consett need devolution and investment — to give people a much greater say in their own lives,” he argues. He wants to create what he calls “prosperity hubs” by giving towns greater powers to raise finance and attract capital. The communities could then become centres for specific industries and house “great vocational institutions”.
As Britain veers towards another election, these ideas could become increasingly relevant. Boris Johnson, prime minister, is betting that Brexit is tearing up the UK electoral map. He believes that his promise to pull the UK out of the EU will overcome decades of antipathy towards the Tory party, who are blamed in such towns for destroying jobs.
But Mr Skelton disagrees. “Go into places like the Steel Club in Consett and they’re still talking about the Tory past in a very negative way,” he says. “The Tories aren’t going to win an election without these towns we’re talking about. A campaign by Boris has to be about Brexit, but also a transformative economic agenda for Consett and places like it.”
The anger of overlooked English towns like Consett helped propel Leave to victory in the EU referendum three years ago. But politicians have not addressed the decades of careless failure that produced such pent-up fury. Consett adjusted to its new reality four decades ago. Westminster must do the same.
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