ON MAY 1ST it will be 25 years since Tony Blair’s electoral landslide of 1997. To understand his Britain, watch “Billy Elliot”, a film that would be released three years later. It tells the story of a lad from a Durham colliery town during the brutal miners’ strike of 1984-85. He dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. Jackie, his father, is disgusted. Then he relents, and sends him south to London, and to dance school. It is a story of triumph over birthplace, class and gender norms.
John Prescott, Mr Blair’s deputy and a burly union man, wept at it. Upwards and outwards was the spirit of the age. Mr Blair preached an “opportunity society”, which would “put middle-class aspirations in the hands of working-class families”. To contend with globalisation, New Labour sought to swell universities’ rolls and break open the professions to the children of tradesmen. Social mobility also meant geographic mobility. New Labour was proudly metropolitan. Ministers recruited Richard Rogers, a daring architect, to advise on how to lure Britons to the cities that had emptied out a generation before.
For today’s zeitgeist, watch “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”. This film, released in 2021, tells the story of a working-class boy from Sheffield who dreams of escaping to become a drag queen. Like Billy, he is berated by his macho father. Unlike Billy, in the end he finds fulfilment without leaving home. Billy is a paean to the individual; Jamie to the community.
For the political tide has turned. Britain’s leaders want more Jamies and fewer Billys. A new consensus has formed—that something was rotten with the old idea of social mobility, and that labour mobility is a problem to be tamed. Britain has a badly lopsided economic geography, with graduates drawn into a handful of productive cities, and poor towns in weak regions often left to flail. The government’s “levelling up” agenda seeks to decouple social advancement from moving away, and to give voters prosperous lives in the places they were born, under the slogan “Stay local, go far”. Labour Party figures also declare that no one should have to leave their home town to do the job they want.
Billy no mates
Universities are out of fashion, accused by ministers of creating a “brain drain” that denudes poor towns of their talent and of churning out graduates with valueless degrees. The professions are also out in the cold. Ministers visit many factories and few law firms. Tory thinking is reflected in the work of David Goodhart, who, in the “Road to Somewhere”, argues that Western societies are divided between rooted “somewheres” and mobile “anywheres”.
The city has lost its shine, too. Brexiteers, says Boris Johnson, were “voting against London”. The 1990s produced Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary”, a witty novel about a singleton Bangor graduate who romps through the capital. Its contemporary counterpart is Jo Hamya’s “Three Rooms”, a bleak tale of a penniless Oxford graduate who flees London for her parents’ house.
The turn against mobility rests on noble intentions but sometimes fuzzy analysis. Despite perceptions of people moving ever more, overall migration between areas of England and Wales has been pretty stable since the 1970s, calculates Tony Champion of Newcastle University.
Poor towns are not suffering a great exodus of Billys. Rather, they are characterised by comparatively few people leaving and few arriving. The middle classes are more likely than their working-class counterparts to move away from home for work and degrees. And when people do move, they tend to switch between similar areas: from rich neighbourhood to rich, and poor to poor, notes the Social Mobility Commission, a state advisory body. The flow from poor areas to rich ones is relatively small.
Worries about a “brain drain” to universities are also misplaced. The problem with poor towns is not that their educated young move away, but that they are poorly educated to start with. A recent paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank, found that towns such as Grimsby and Wisbech are indeed net exporters of graduates: they produce more young people who get degrees by age 27 than they have graduates of that age in their populations. But the reason to be concerned is that the percentage of children educated locally who go on to get degrees is low. The paper found a similar net loss in wealthy towns with high enrolment rates and big graduate populations, such as Tunbridge Wells and High Wycombe—a phenomenon which causes politicians less anxiety.
The promise of creating highly-paid work everywhere is not credible, says Henry Overman of the London School of Economics. “The hyper-local version of this is wishful thinking,” he says. A more realistic strategy would try to encourage big clusters of graduate roles in a few northern cities to rival London. That would produce more high-skilled workers, who tend to reap greater pay rewards for moving than the low-skilled. They would then percolate between more places in Britain, as new and productive hubs emerged. In other words, if Britain were successfully “levelled up”, the result may well be greater migration, not less.
The turn against migration is a political project, not an economic one. It is addressed to those voters who felt disregarded or “left behind” as their schoolmates packed their bags and their towns seemed to decline. And yet migration can stir other emotions, to which politicians might also appeal. In the closing scene of “Billy Elliot”, Jackie travels to London to watch his now-adult son star in “Swan Lake”. As the score crescendos, and Billy bursts onto the stage, a father’s eyes well with pride. ■