17 SWEET DREAMS
The great crime novelist James M Cain could knock out a decent and sometimes classic thriller in 35,000 words. His two earthy and bold masterpieces were Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Those two books alone gave Cain glory, fame and fortune. Albert Camus once described Cain as the greatest American living writer, and the influence of Cain is evident in the Camus classic L’Etranger. This was good news for Cain because it meant that the pulp author had something to talk about at expensive dinner parties. But we all have disappointments. James M Cain established a truth that the publishing industry and its readers continue to deny. This is that the average crime novel of 100,000 words is burdened with excessive and unnecessary padding. The Levelling Up report has 332 pages. Many of the spending commitments quoted are part of normal government business and fail to take the regions to the standards that existed before 2010 and the arrival of the Cameron government. Not everything in the Levelling Report is awful. Any modern thriller, whatever the baggage, is obliged to have a plot, and a thick report on how to improve the economic performance of the underdeveloped regions of England will, by default, wave the flag of progress. But not everyone that waves a flag is Henry V. The stout stirred hearts needed a plan at Agincourt. Henry V had archers and neither did he have twelve missions to worry about.
Gove and the Levelling Up occupied the English media for a couple of days but a photograph of a bottle of champagne that found its way into a ‘work event’ appeared and Gove was gone although his absence will not be as prolonged as that of Met Commissioner Cressida Dick whose resignation has been welcomed by predictable puns. We all know Michael Gove has energy and is determined. Breathless enthusiasm can inspire action but it is important to watch where your feet land. Gove does not have a reputation as a dancer. His brains, energy and motormouth created chaos at the Ministry of Education. Gove treads on toes but that happens on his better days. At his worst his enthusiasm produces misjudgements that precipitate betrayals. They are on his record, just ask Pfeffel and Mrs Gove. How as a young man he treated drug dealers we do not know.
And now Gove has a partner in crime or he would have if Pfeffel ever thought about strategy. A sensible Tory Prime Minister would have Mogg and Gove work together to transform the economy. Gove could shape investment and development, and Mogg would be the process-man looking at the details. So far there is little evidence that Gove and Mogg realise what links them. Jacob Rees-Mogg has written in The Sun newspaper to ask its readers to list which Brexit rules they find annoying. This assumes that people groomed since childhood by Murdoch can identify Brexit rules.
Rees-Mogg is a chest beating Catholic, a reactionary that produces children in significant numbers and yet remains trapped in a strange adolescence where there is someone to dress him for school. Newly created man of the people Rees-Mogg is a man that looks to his privileged past rather than the dark streets of neglected provinces. The antiquated behaviour of Mogg evokes the quiet and superior public schoolboy that titters at the antics of more daring schoolmates but who also giggles when the troublemakers are punished for their crimes. Farage and Pfeffel are for Mogg the successors to Flashman and Bunter. Brexit for Rees-Mogg has been a chaotic romp and fun. Pfeffel also understands fun. He thinks fun is like champagne and that there is always another bottle. Pfeffel has now blessed Mogg with the title of Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities but not because they share a sense of fun. Mogg is there to placate hostile right wing Tories who think that what is happening at Number Ten is good gossip but anything but funny.
Even if sense applied it would take something a lot stronger than the Catholic faith that Mogg treasures to imagine the weird duo of Gove and Mogg transforming the British economy and making it an economic powerhouse. These two men are limp versions of Batman and Robin, best imagined as Dell Boy and Rodney going to a fancy dress party dressed as the cape crusaders. Pfeffel, their leader, has been practising fancy dress for some time. The wacky alien in the TV show Mork and Mindy watched afternoon TV and decided that Elvis Presley was the most versatile actor in the movies. Must be, said Mork, Elvis has played a singing racing car driver, a singing trapeze artist, a singing helicopter pilot and so on. Pfeffel has appeared on TV as a confident hospital worker, a confident building site manager, a confident police officer, a confident hospital worker, a confident schoolteacher and all the rest. Perhaps we should feel sorry for Gove. It cannot be easy to push progress while your partner in crime is not much more than a signal to the reactionaries on the Tory back benches that the yearnings for the past have been recognised and will be reinforced in the vision of a man so creative he has to wear identical suits every day.
For all his faults Gove does give the impression he listens to people, if only some. Rees-Mogg acts like a man that stopped listening to others when he was fourteen years old and decided on his daily dress, hairstyle and glasses. These are not serious people, and this is not inspired casting by movie director Pfeffel. No one should be surprised. The liability of Pfeffel to pick suitable people for jobs is revealed by the number of people he subsequently sacks. It is one of the many characteristics he shares with charmless Donald Trump. Disappointment beckons. Rees-Mogg will substitute nationalist and hierarchical symbolism for an economic vision and continue to put the income from his capital into tax havens. Michael Gove will become lost in alternative avenues of thinking and fail to identify essential schemes and projects that will make a difference. HS2 might have been an idea that would not have produced the economic results claimed by George Osborne but there would have been some outputs and extra jobs. There is nothing as concrete or as ambitious in the Levelling Up report.
The Financial Times in a review that was short, the brief length is ominous, described the twelve mission statements as proposed benchmarks for the future. Read that sentence again and it is clear that the confusion in understanding process had already begun before the report was printed. The EU is moving forward with a Green Deal. The hope of European bureaucrats is that like their European digital utilisation plan the Green Deal will transform the economy into something superior and fitted for the future. Compared to that straightforward objective the Levelling Up report from Michael Gove looks inappropriate and ineffective. The EU administrators, like Camus and Cain, realise that less is more. Padding is padding. Instead of two clear ambitions that are responsive to a changing world and will make a difference, the Levelling Up report is a bulky collection of red herrings and hyperbolic prose. Welcome to the Thriller of the Month book club.
Flawed fundamental assumptions do not help. London and the south east do not define the economic powerhouse assumed in the introductory remarks. The affluent area of England is restricted to a modest triangle that connects London to Oxford and Cambridge. The southern coast is as underdeveloped as parts of the north, and even the modest or ‘golden triangle’ has black spots. This is because the economic problems that haunt the British economy are fundamental and not regional. Britain is quoted constantly as the sixth largest economy in the world but size is determined by collating GDP figures, and they only measure what is spent by consumers. Although industry is not extinct in the UK it has been much reduced since Thatcher arrived. Britain now survives as a retail economy that has the benefit of an imperialist history and easily available debt. The economic success of the past means that rich people remain and are around to spend money. Imagine the purchasing power of the British without inherited wealth and the housing market. Chester is in the north of England, has a shortage of skilled labour and is anything but a productive economy but because wealthy people have lived there for a long time the presence of their descendants creates an affluent retail sector. London has that advantage and others. It is also a global capital and, like all global capitals, has cheap immigrant labour, central government and CEOs that reckon the capital is a good base for their companies. It also benefits from having a finance sector. This, though, is a one note trick that was played when Clinton deregulated the finance market in the States. Thatcher used it as a get out of jail card after her misguided economics had depressed annual increases in productivity. Money may flood into the finance sector in London but, because it is unregulated, the Stock Exchange underperforms as an investment engine for business and industry. And London is just as unbalanced as the rest of the country. Some London boroughs have the highest unemployment rates in the country. The existence of a retail economy means that local prosperity is shaped by the presence of affluent customers rather than successful industry. This is one of the reasons why Sunak and Pfeffel were desperate to avoid lockdowns. Take away the hospitality industry and there is little left to drive the economy. Regional variances exist because we have a retail dominated economy. To reduce those variances the retail economy needs to be complemented by more industry and improved growth in productivity. Since 1979 the Tories have been in power for 29 of those 42 years. Thatcher shrank the manufacturing base, Osborne shrank the economy, and, according to a report from Imperial College, the dithering of Pfeffel in 2020 created 45,000 unnecessary Covid victims. Do not hold your breath.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Long After This is now available here.