Paul Collier: ​Left Behind: A New Economics for Neglected Places

June 16 2024 / The Sunday Times

Left Behind: A New Economics for Neglected Places(Allen Lane)

In The Future of Capitalism, published in 2018, Paul Collier offered fascinating personal insight into why, since the Brexit referendum, he has written repeatedly about what he calls the left-behind places of Britain, most particularly South Yorkshire where he grew up in a working-class family. He was educated at the local grammar school in Sheffield and Oxford University, and then had a storied career as an author and development economist at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government.

His cousin, Sue, was not so fortunate. She was a teenage single-mother, and her life was troubled. Many decades later, Collier and his wife adopted Sue’s grandchildren who had been taken into care. The adoption process was tortuous: the Colliers were forced to jump through a series of humiliating bureaucratic hoops, and yet all they wanted was to offer these vulnerable children a loving and stable home.

The Future of Capitalism was one of the most important books of the immediate post-Brexit period: Collier was a Remainer but wanted his readers to understand why so many working-class voters opted for Brexit, apparently against their best economic interests, or so they were told by David Cameron. For Collier, Brexit was for many a kind of mutiny against an intolerable status quo. It was widely read by senior Labour politicians. Angela Rayner has privately called it her favourite book.

But some in Labour are suspicious of Collier because of remarks he has made in the past about immigration and the urgent need for greater social cohesion. They think he is a nationalist – a strange thing to say of an academic who has spent his working life studying poor societies. But he remains on the outside.

That may be about to change. I understand that Lisa Nandy, shadow minister for international development, is interested in his new book, Left Behind, which is not just about Britain – though there are long sections on South Yorkshire, described here as “the poorest region in England” – but more generally about what Collier calls left behind countries.

Why, he asks, do some states thrive – he cites Singapore, Botswana and China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping - while others fail? What makes for good public policy? Why is Denmark under the Social Democratic prime minister Mette Frederiksen one of the most cohesive and least unequal countries in the world while “class-ridden” Britain remains spatially and economically so divided?

Collier attempts to answer these questions and in doing so tells us what he dislikes – free market dogmatism, state socialism, over-centralisation – and what he likes – devolution, reciprocal obligations, communitarianism, a politics of the common good and contributive justice.

Collier says he is not on the left or right but politically occupies the “hard centre”: what matters to him is pragmatism and a willingness to learn from and adapt to context. He especially dislikes “place-blind policy” and those policymakers in Britain who consider the “market knows best, and the Treasury knows best of all”.

He used to teach the ideas of Milton Freidman with enthusiasm but turned against liberal capitalist universalism: too many people were suffering, there was a widening gulf between booming regions and cities and left-behind places. He cites examples in Germany and America where both public and private finance allowed cities to recover from the loss of their steel industries and contrasts this with what happened in Sheffield, which struggled to renew itself.

Left Behind is full of good ideas but its ambition can be overwhelming. It is episodic and written in short, discrete sections. There are multiple case studies and extensive footnotes and digressions. Collier cares deeply about the condition of England and mourns the diminished lives of those like his cousin Sue. He describes a “syndrome of fragility”: “Men lose their jobs, families collapse, people self-medicate on drugs and kids grow up in broken homes.” But his long experience as a development economist means he’s equally concerned about the plight of the “bottom billion” – the great mass of humanity who live abject lives. The poorest countries, he warns, are getting poorer.

In one section he analyses the corruption of Russia under the despotic rule of Putin, “the world’s richest man”, and then scourges the ANC for squandering the opportunities created by the leadership of Nelson Mandela. He tells the story of how Lew Kuan Yew set about developing Singapore and united its three main ethnic groups along the way: Chinese, Malays and Indians. He contrasts Yew’s achievements with what he calls the “near miss” of Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania. Nyerere was another visionary post-colonial leader who understood the need to build trust in his leadership as well as shared identity among citizens but was ultimately undone by poor economic decision-making.

At times, Collier can be too forgiving of autocracy. The leadership of Deng Xiaoping may have lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, but he also presided over Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre. Paul Kagame, an ethnic Tutsi, united Rwanda after the horrifying 1994 genocide creating through iron will a stable and increasingly prosperous country; Collier describes walking through the streets of the capital, Kigali, at midnight and feeling completely safe. But Rwanda is increasingly an oppressive police state in which dissent is not tolerated.

But you don’t have to agree with Paul Collier to enjoy this stimulating book, a call to heal the divisions in our societies by bringing justice to the left behind. It should be essential reading for the new Labour cabinet.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman