This work briskly identifies the fissures that need binding. A geographic divide is recognised “between booming metropolis and broken provincial cities”. This is compounded by the social gap of differing levels of educational achievement. These national outcomes are overlaid with the consequences of global trade and migration.
The challenge is clear: “we need to devise a workable strategy for rebuilding shared identity that is compatible with modernity”.
The policy response gets off to an uncertain start arguing that it is too difficult to build a sense of common endeavour in multicultural societies. Identity-based politics is too divisive, creating echo chambers not empathy
If it were coherent, Collier’s solution might place him as the latest in a line of “moral economists”, broadly aligned with the centre left and stretching from RH Tawney in the 1920s, via Karl Polanyi to Edward Thompson, whose evolution is explored in Tim Rogan’s book The Moral Economists. Unfortunately, Collier’s solutions are not coherent, and about as likely to defuse populist anger as a Goldman Sachs away-day... There is a logic to the nostalgia... But it is a doomed project. First, because it frames the task of renewing capitalism in opposition to the social values of the rising generation. Second, because, unlike the project of the radical left, which seeks to free the young generation from debt peonage and stagnating wages, Collier wants explicitly to penalise them until their behaviour falls into line with the communitarian project. Third, because it avoids the root of the problem... To these problems, which are the source of radicalisation to the left, Collier’s solutions are timid.
This admirably lucid and concise book is a barely suppressed howl of rage on behalf of the “left behind” part of Collier’s family in Yorkshire, and a call for policies that would address their “humiliations”. To an extent, Collier is echoing the analysis of David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere (2017), with its division of British society into the “somewheres” (less educated, rooted to their place of birth) and “anywheres” (university graduates, geographically and socially on the move).
He also talks sense on diverging family norms and the case for more state support to help lower income families stay together. Collier can be a bit slapdash with his facts and perhaps tries to cram too much into one book, meaning some ideas feel half-digested. He has a good turn of phrase, though, and can be witty too, on the social bias of Spellcheck for example. This book is not an easy read but it is an important one — the revenge of the clever provincial biting the metropolitan hand that has fed him so generously.