Devolution and the Medici model

Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, has been musing in a way that may or may not mean something to readers about the definition of the term that gives his position its title. Levelling up, apparently, is a version of the Florentine Renaissance six centuries later.

In an interview with James Forsyth in The Spectator magazine, Gove mentions the Basque country, Pittsburgh and east Germany and the formation of Dutch Republic as historical examples of levelling up, but the one to which he pays most attention is what he calls the ‘Medici model’ after the ruling family of Florence which was at the height of its power in the 15th century.

In recent weeks, reports Forsyth, Gove has written a blueprint for levelling up that has been circulating around government. It features handwritten buzzwords (‘Productivity’, ‘Place’, ‘Quality of Life’, ‘Leadership’) which lead to subcategories covering everything from safer streets to university pride.

Forsyth writes: ‘His [Gove’s] plan is, he believes, the modern interpretation of the methods the Medici family used to transform Florence in the 15th century’.

Gove doesn’t think that levelling up can be reduced to one thing — better infrastructure, for example, writes Forsyth. He points out that Florence scored on many fronts.

He quotes Gove as saying: ‘The human flourishing at the time of the Renaissance in the cities of Italy was as a result of a number of different factors coming together… It was the home of new methods of banking. It was the home of breakthroughs in architecture, in art, in literature and also in city governance. Obviously, we need a different Medici model now, but these are the key elements of it.’

 Asked by Forsyth for his own definition of levelling up, in a sentence, Gove replies: ‘Making opportunity more equal.’ That is actually no different in essence from the statement in the Conservative Party Manifesto 2019 that: ‘Talent and genius are uniformly distributed throughout the country. Opportunity is not. Now is the time to close that gap’.

Readers of this website will also recognise that the buzzwords mentioned above – productivity, place, quality of life, and leadership – are very similar to the four elements of levelling up mentioned here on November 26.

Remaining in the 21st century, Gove says he wants to extend devolution to rural areas, saying he likes the idea of a governor of Wiltshire. This confirms speculation here as long ago as March 11 that County Durham may do a go-it-alone devolution deal, and as recently as December 10 that it appears the Levelling Up White Paper will be directed largely at the question of how to bring devolution to counties across large parts of England, mainly in the Midlands and the south, where local government responsibilities are split between county and district councils.

Gove’s statement that levelling up can’t be reduced to one thing, such as better infrastructure, may be taken as a warning that there is going to be no more money for infrastructure – another warning this website gave on December 10

However, as it seems all we can do until the White Paper is published next year is speculate, some of us at least might think it useful and enjoyable preparation to spend Christmas brushing up on the history of Florence in the Renaissance. There we will learn, among other things, that the ruler who was probably the city’s most famous, Lorenzo the Magnificent, was in the words of historian Francesco Guiccardini, quoted in Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘a tyrant in a constitutional republic’, while the even more famous Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, also as reported in the Britannica had a reputation as ‘an immoral cynic’.  

Musing like Gove on parallels between Florence in the 15th century and the North East today, one can only hope that devolution to this region, if it ever happens, will not include either the Florentine model of tyranny, even if benevolent, or that city’s political philosophy of immoral cynicism – if those hopes are not already too late.