Grand plans to level up have produced results – great art venues levelled to the ground | Catherine Bennett

Under Arts Council England, the ‘win-win’ agenda has proved a losing one for some of the UK’s valued cultural organisations

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”.

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

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at


Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Observer view on the use of dirty tactics to bolster Boris Johnson | Observer editorial
This corrupt government risks damaging public trust in democratic institutions

Observer editorial

23, Jan, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Secrets and lies: fears of a liberal ‘deep state’ are a phantom conspiracy | Nick Cohen
For this Tory party, Owen Paterson and many others are ‘victims of the elite’

Nick Cohen

13, Nov, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson is peddling new lies in a desperate attempt to save his skin | Andrew Rawnsley
Ludicrous claims that he was brought down by a leftwing conspiracy show how frightened he is

Andrew Rawnsley

05, Mar, 2023 @8:30 AM

Article image
Who needs ethics advisers when your one aim is to keep your party in power? | Nick Cohen
If the government has its way, there will be no independent checks on its activities

Nick Cohen

18, Jun, 2022 @6:00 PM

Article image
Our European allies dread Brexit, and they have good reason to fear it
The ambition of some anti-Europeans goes further than pushing Britain out. They hope to destroy the EU

Andrew Rawnsley

29, May, 2016 @4:30 AM

Article image
Europeans in Britain used to feel at home. Now they have their doubts | Nick Cohen
Promises to protect EU migrants in Britain and Britons abroad have been broken too quickly

Nick Cohen

05, Oct, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Putin is up to no good. But Johnson needs little help in creating chaos | Nick Cohen
The ‘gobocracy’ that surrounds the PM is capable of doing Russia’s work for it

Nick Cohen

27, Jun, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
The civil service is right to be paranoid about Boris Johnson’s Gang of Three
The purge of Whitehall’s senior officials strokes a chilly finger down the spines of all other civil servants

Andrew Rawnsley

05, Jul, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Brexit is lost in toxic masculinity. No wonder women are turning against it | Catherine Bennett
Bare-chested displays of wartime bravado are unlikely to win the day in the event of a second referendum

Catherine Bennett

09, Sep, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
There are liars and then there’s Boris Johnson and Michael Gove | Nick Cohen
The Brexit figureheads had no plan besides exploiting populist fears and dismissing experts who rubbished their thinking

Nick Cohen

25, Jun, 2016 @5:05 PM