Little Platoons: How a Revived One Nation Can Empower England’s Forgotten Towns and Redraw the Political Map
By David Skelton.
Biteback Publishing, 2019.
Paperback, 304 pages, £12.99.
Reviewed by Gerard T. Mundy
The 2016 popular vote in favor of the United Kingdom’s independence from the European Union (“Brexit”) is the starting point of reference for David Skelton’s recent book, Little Platoons. Skelton contends that the social and economic issues that led to the people’s Brexit revolt remain unsolved, and for there to be a prosperous future for all Britons, those issues must be addressed.
Rather than Brexit being the result solely of resentment toward an enlarged European Union bureaucracy, Skelton argues that Brexit “was also a protest against a British political and economic status quo, which had long neglected towns and villages across the country.”
Over the last several decades, Skelton argues, the economic changes resulting from the loss of industrial employment shattered many British towns. Many of these towns, he writes, lost their “sense of dignity,” while “security was replaced with one of economic disenchantment and cultural insecurity.” Skelton finds as compelling the many statistics on “Leave” voters, such as one of his cited analyses that reveals that forty-one out of forty-two former coalfield areas voted for Brexit.
Skelton asserts that there are two major areas on which to focus if one is to understand the causes behind what has most maimed Britain’s “forgotten” towns and communities. First, a leftist-induced “identity” politics has marginalized people and their communities, and second, an economic system has left behind many people and their communities.
On identity politics, Skelton argues that “Political rhetoric, which came to be dominated by phrases like ‘openness’ and ‘mobility,’ meant little to people who actually yearned for security and control over their own lives.” Among the influential social classes, Skelton asserts that a great elitism exists, and that these social elites look down upon “white, working-class communities—with many regarding respect for locality as ‘small-mindedness,’ patriotism as ‘xenophobia,’ and concern about the impact of globalisation as ‘bigotry.’”
Indeed, Skelton identifies a major problem. For in Britain, as in the United States, the progressive left is trapped most tightly by the reality paradigm that gives praise to the fads and fashions exhorted by the momentary demands of the elusive idol of “Progress.” This reality paradigm consists of submission to a social zeitgeist that focuses on bizarre “identity,” social “justice,” and environmental politics, among others, all of which command cultish-like devotion. These progressive, socially subservient followers-of-the-trend often lambast those who are not sufficiently “tolerant” and “inclusive,” with their judgments on these matters contingent on that which is determined by whatever trendy, unreliable, invalid, ever-changing, and inconsistent barometer they are utilizing at the moment.
From the Social Progressive Left to Classical Liberal Economics
In addition to the progressive left’s assault socially and culturally, Skelton says that the British economic system has forgotten many people and their communities. For Skelton, “Both economic and identity liberalism have made society more atomised, have reduced feelings of solidarity and cohesion[,] and resulted in social issues such as loneliness, alienation[,] and a diminished sense of community.”
Skelton tells the story of the town of Consett in County Durham, in the north of England, which was for about 150 years dominated by industrial steel production (German settlers had come even earlier and, pre-industrial production, created steel for swords and cutlery). In 1980, the “steel town” changed when the steel company left.
Skelton writes that Consett steelworks, as it was called, “played an important role in the social and sporting life of nearby communities. Consett cricket and football clubs were both built by the steelworks, and nearby social clubs also had close connections to the steel plant.”
Fortunately, Skelton does not blindly wax nostalgic when recalling the past jobs of his ancestors, a trap into which many of his contemporaries fall. His family has a tradition of industrial work in the area, with one grandfather working in Consett steelworks and the other in an area coalmine. Both of them, Skelton reports, “died in their early sixties from factors related to their workplaces.”
Consett’s steel company, says Skelton, was no model employer, especially in terms of the dangers in which it placed workers and the resulting adverse health effects of the industry on employees and locals, as well as the industry’s detrimental impacts on the environment.
It was not, however, a love for “town companies” that created community, Skelton writes, but “rather, it was the loss of community spirit and the fact that nothing remotely equivalent was found to replace them.” What Skelton chronicles in Consett is analogous to the downfall of many American towns, and he observes rightly that it was not a pure love for the capital-loving business that gave life to a town. It was, rather, simply that the company provided the means for the community institutions, in which a chance at human flourishing can be found, to prosper.
Indeed, when one removes the “town company,” every one of the six communal institutions—the nuclear family, the extended family, the neighborhood, the church, the voluntary association, and the employment association—is affected negatively, and decent life cannot exist without these institutions. If the local employer—as good or as bad as it may be—is funding and facilitating the beginnings and continued maintenance of communal institutions, then when that employer leaves without a suitable replacement, the local communal institutions will suffer.
As Skelton says of Consett: “Secure jobs were replaced with insecure ones and the cultural cohesion of the town diminished.” The result, Skelton notes, was some of the highest European unemployment in the 1980s, followed by population decline. For the children who remained, educational performance plummeted—not because overnight the natural aptitude of Consett children changed—but rather because the town was now a deprived and depressed one.
Skelton observes something to which many who grew up in a deprived and depressed town or inner-city neighborhood could also testify: “I saw there people who were brighter and smarter than many of the ‘high fliers’ I see in London now but who were failed by a system that all too easily forgets people like them.” As also seen in American towns and neighborhoods, many of those who did leave for university, Skelton observes, would not come back, and, he says, these were precisely “the young people who might have helped to turn it around.”
Politics Must Benefit the Ruled
Neither Aristotle nor Thomas Aquinas were democrats, but both argued that politics must always benefit those who are ruled. For Thomas, this meant development of a common-good politics. In this vein, Skelton writes that “Brexit represented a rare occasion in which working-class voters, particularly in towns, thought that they could make a difference in a politics that seldom reflected their concerns.” Skelton cites research that demonstrates how those who felt as though they were doing poorly economically were more likely to have voted to leave the European Union. The political and economic systems, Skelton is trying to convey, were not benefitting the ruled majority.
Indeed, globalization, contrary to the assertions of many of its proponents, has not spread power throughout communities, but rather has concentrated power in fewer people, places, groups, and organizations. When power is concentrated at the local level, each local community retains some share of power proper to that community. The contemporary world has extrapolated much of that power from local areas and placed the aggregate power into central cities and government, and into fewer organizations, companies, and people.
The economic academics react to the currents of the moment; their discipline does not search for the eternal and the timeless. For there is no everlasting truth that can be found in economic models and systems, all of which are man-made conceptions. Economic ideologues, therefore, trade in worldly fashions; for there is no exact form of “good” economic intervention that would be applicable everywhere and at all times.
Skelton argues that classical liberal economics resulted in material gain, but that many failed to “foresee that viewing the market nexus as the sole or primary basis of decision-making would weaken many of the other institutions that conservatives had traditionally held dear. In many areas, this means growing atomisation and a splintering of community institutions, a weakening of the family and its bonds, and a diminution of social structures.” Skelton’s analysis is representative of the type of non-ideological Kirkian and Catholic social and political teaching that places people and their communities first.
Skelton calls for moderation, admonishing the false dichotomy that demands allegiance to either socialism or unfettered capitalism. It is false, he writes, “that society must face a choice between doctrinaire, reductionist economic liberalism on the one hand and doctrinaire and reductionist old-style socialism on the other.” Like Russell Kirk and other non-ideologues in his mold, economic planning is not an ideological pursuit, but rather any element in economic systems that is good for men and their communities must be explored.
Skelton insists that, for the United Kingdom to regain its footing, a new nationalistic sentiment is requisite. Conspicuously missing, however, is any mention of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It is difficult to discern the intent of the omission. Was Skelton intentionally being ambiguous—for political purposes—in terms of which countries his nationalism would include? He also uses the terms England, Britain, and the United Kingdom nearly interchangeably, making it even more difficult to discern his intent (as a result, this review essay often reluctantly and with frustration does the same in its quotations and words, for it is simply impossible to discern Skelton’s intent with the interchangeable usage).
Perhaps a nationalism for England would at least be more proper than for that of the vast United States, but if Skelton’s book intends to include Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales in his definition of nationalism, then he would be severely diluting some of his good assertions about the need for cultural, social, and linguistic unity.
The latter part of the book advocates for a political philosophy and practical program, which in Britain is called—the term is not utilized in the United States—“one-nation conservatism.” Many of his underlying principles are correct, but some of his nationalistic solutions (especially the omission of the topics of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) are slightly confounding, considering that his attractive principles are communitarian and localist in nature.
Skelton nonetheless realizes that the strongest loyalties are in the most localized communities. Skelton writes: “The English have always been a nation of strong towns and villages, and within these villages, strong communal institutions have prospered. These places have had strong local pride and an identity of their own, [and] a strong communal ethos …” He further argues that “Rebuilding these ‘little platoons’ must be a priority for today’s decision-makers” (quotes surrounding “little platoons” added).
Another significant point of contention is with Skelton’s considerable faith in the will of the people. This argument is perhaps one of the most disagreeable in the book, for it is the case that the people’s will and judgments, often enflamed by the passions, must always be questioned and tempered. What often makes Catholic saints, for instance, is that the saints do exactly the opposite of what the many are doing.
Skelton’s solutions to Britain’s problems ultimately rest on the renewal of local communities. In terms of government, Skelton argues for increased local control, and his underlying principle sounds similar to the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, as when he argues: “The more power is devolved to the neighbourhood or community level, the more relationships, as opposed to impersonal data, matter and the more local people feel an urgency and a need to get involved and make things better for their local area.” Among the duties of local leaders, Skelton writes, is to enhance a sense of community, especially through the creation of public places and revived town centers, as well as to direct the economics of localities.
Skelton argues that government must have an active role in moving “to boost the private sector and entrepreneurship across the country.” The role for national government, he says, is funding, while the direction of this funding is to occur at the local level. Among the most significant additional roles for the national government, Skelton contends, is the empowerment of business in local towns by making companies’ moves to these communities hospitable through such tax schemes as a zero percent business tax with a view toward creating low-tax “prosperity hubs.” The national government should begin the process, he argues, by moving their own offices out of London and into these towns.
In terms of infrastructure, Skelton notes how investment in London public transport has increased while in the forgotten towns, investment has decreased and fares are often more expensive. The national government, he argues, should fund considerable infrastructure projects—led by local leaders—in the “forgotten towns,” thereby enticing businesses to locate to these towns.
In terms of housing, Skelton advocates for a national housebuilding program that would fund housing construction and transform the country into a state of homeowners in abodes that “are beautiful and encourage communal mixing.” Skelton argues that local natives should have affordable opportunities for homeownership in their hometowns. Also for locals, Skelton proposes increased vocational education, middle and lower class tax cuts, pay raises, and increased worker’s rights.
A Traditional Conservative Current Events Book
Overall, the book fits squarely in the “current events” genre, providing a summary of the issues that have arisen over the past many years, as well as concrete solutions that can be employed to remedy those issues.
Most of the underlying principles are traditionalist conservative in nature. For instance, Skelton demonstrates affection for community, localism, and knowledge from the past, and his economics are non-ideological in nature and reject doctrinaire proposals of “good” and “bad” economic systems. He also shows distrust of concentrated power, bureaucracy, large government, unrestrained immigration, and the worship of progress and the fashions of the moment.
For the academic reader, the simplicity of language might bring frustration, most especially his liberal use of contractions, as well as the poor attention to the construction of sentences. Writers who balance transmitting information and the meticulous writing of all words—laboriously constructing and tuning every sentence with as much care as possible—are the writers whose words shall endure. The book also seems to be written hurriedly and is poorly constructed, as it does not quite flow well; and rather than intelligent repetition, the book features disorderly repetition without a clear structure.
Skelton, however, does not seem to be aiming to create a great work of thought that will endure on bookshelves, but rather to influence—he would probably say to save—Britain. Indeed, he argues that the problems that led to Brexit “have remained unaddressed and the political and economic settlement remains unchanged.” For all of the focus on Brexit over the last four years by the media and societal elites, Skelton argues that little has been done to help the people and communities who revolted against those elites.
Gerard T. Mundy is a writer and teaches philosophy at a private college in New York City.