(Billy Stephens)


December 20, 2023   10 mins

“Imagine a village consisting of a few shops, a public-house, and a cluster of dirty little houses, all at the base of what looked at first like an active volcano,” wrote JB Priestley after visiting Shotton Colliery in 1933. The volcano was the notorious Shotton Tip, a giant slag heap that towered over the Durham pit village, smoke billowing from its peak, children tobogganing down its slopes. Priestley had never seen anything like it. It was like Pompeii before the explosion, he wrote, evidently appalled.

Shotton is barely half an hour from where I grew up, but it is a world apart. Today it is not just a place of literary interest, but real political significance. In 2019, it was one of the last solid bricks in Labour’s Red Wall. Under Boris Johnson, the Tories managed to win over other mining towns in the area, but failed in Easington — home to Shotton. Many psephologists believed that the demographic trends which had swept the Tories into the area had not yet run their course and more parts of the Red Wall could still fall, including places such as Easington. Now though, according to the polls, Labour is on the brink of rebuilding the Red Wall all over again, throwing the Tories back not only in Easington but across the north east. I returned to Shotton to find The Most Important Man In Britain. Apparently he holds the key to the next election. His name is Deano.

Deano, I should stress, is not a real person. He is an avatar, an internet meme, a representation — the personification of a certain type who can be found almost anywhere in the country. He is an everyday man; a middle manager with a new-build home and a car on finance, a large TV and a PS4. According to one of the more popular memes online he is, more specifically, “deputy assistant head of sales targeting” who arrives home every day to a wife “already home from her work as a Team Leader in a call centre”. You can almost see the disdain dripping from the page.

To many, Deano is a figure of fun: a low-brow, low-status provincial man with bad taste and too much sway over the nation’s cultural life. But the more I read about him online, whether on Reddit, Urban Dictionary, Twitter or YouTube, the more I realise his was not a life to be mocked but cheered — and even envied. Deano owns his home, gets back from work early, and has enough disposable income for new furniture and nice food. He is doing well and is a responsible, decent citizen. He isn’t rich enough to dodge his taxes and is more likely to be found in the gym than in the pub or the bookies.

In some senses, Deano is a lifestyle choice as much as an identity, which might even be boiled down to not moving to London. For many London graduates, earning £40,000 but spending all their money on a shared rented flat, Deano is the road less travelled. Deano decided not to move somewhere else; he is happy to earn slightly less while enjoying more disposable income and more space. Ninety years after Priestley’s famous journey, I thought I would find this lifestyle in Shotton. Where there were once miners and children tobogganing down slag heaps, there would now be Deanos; not folk to feel sorry for or to romanticise — just ordinary people living ordinary lives. The problem was, after a few hours in Shotton, it was quickly evident that I was only half right.

Today, the colliery has disappeared and so too has the tip. Where Priestley’s volcano stood, there is now a monument to all the miners killed. A small industrial estate has been built next-door as well as a sky-diving centre. Call centres are now one of the main sources of employment in the area. At first glance, then, it should be a perfect home for Deano. And yet, if the old Shotton tip was a symbol of economic iniquity, a real-life metaphor used by Priestley to highlight the exploitation of ordinary workers, its disappearance seems to signify something just as bad: a loss of economic purpose which seems necessary for any community to thrive. The unfortunate truth is that Shotton is now a soul-sapping place. Pubs are boarded up, hotels turned into halfway houses, poverty high and drugs rife. Kids no longer toboggan down slag heaps but compete to torch cars. With no real industry in the area, or even an economy to speak of, old miners watch helplessly as their community withers. 

This was not the story I’d come looking for. In fact, if you were seeking the kind of lasting Northern stereotype that Priestley helped create, then Shotton was it. Judi, who I met in the community centre, had actually met Priestley when he visited in the Seventies. “He was a strange character,” she told me. “Very dry, very droll…” But while she didn’t like what he’d said about the village — “something about urchins wasn’t it?” — she liked him. “He was very English, you know. Very English. You don’t see much of that anymore. You have to hide it under a rock.”

This is exactly the kind of place that tickles Westminster’s imagination, a place about which well-meaning seminars might be held to discuss why it no longer feels represented by Labour and its liberal, metropolitan leaders, much to the frustration of those who live there. And yet, unlike other parts of the Red Wall, the surrounding constituency of Easington stuck with Labour in 2019 and will almost certainly do so again next year. In many ways, it is simply too poor for the Tories to touch. There simply aren’t enough Deanos. For the residents of Shotton, their primary need is plain and obvious: a big and redistributive state willing to spend more money on the area. And you don’t get this from the Tories.

Continuing my searching for Deano, I headed south to Stockton-on-Tees, another town Priestley had visited and disliked. “The real town is finished,” he wrote. “It is like a theatre that is kept open merely for the sale of drinks in the bars and chocolates in the corridors.” The problem was that even by 1933, the industry had gone and wasn’t coming back. Stockton just did not have the geography to sustain its industrial base. And so it declined. Today, the town feels as old and tired as it did then. Deano was nowhere. Cross the River Tees, though, and a different picture emerges. Stockton South went Tory at the last election, part of an unbroken Tory band of blue that runs from Redcar on the east coast to Copeland on the west. If Sunak is to have any chance of remaining Prime Minister, he’ll need to retain some of these seats. 

Stockton South might be one of his best shots. On this side of the river, traditionally speaking, you are in North Yorkshire, just a few miles from Sunak’s own constituency of Richmond. On this side of the river lie the prosperous suburbs of Middlesbrough and Stockton, as well as pretty little market towns such as Yarm, Eaglescliffe and Guisborough. But what really makes Stockton South interesting is an odd little place that didn’t exist when Priestley came touring, Ingleby Barwick. It is not a pretty market town or poor pit village. It does not fit the usual Red Wall iconography of terraced houses and working mens’ clubs. It is the biggest private housing estate in Europe, a sprawling suburb on the southern bank of the Tees, sandwiched between Middlesbrough and the north Yorkshire countryside. It is a place of red-brick homes and Audis in the drive. It is the land of Deano. 

“Probably not the main point, but why on earth do they live in a shit Deano Barratt estate newbuild?” wrote one journalist after photos emerged of Nicola Sturgeon’s Glasgow home being raided by police last week. Let’s just stop for a second to put this in context. Her home is worth around £400,000, has four bedrooms, a garage, garden, drive and conservatory. This is not a modest home, but a big one. Similar homes spread out, street after street, in Ingleby Barwick: big and detached with drives and garages. Ingleby Barwick is far from grim. It is home to thousands of people living good lives: teachers and doctors, small businessmen and middle managers. New schools have been built along with a swanky leisure centre at its heart. The latter costs £275 for the year, all-inclusive; a David Lloyd family membership in London is £300 a month.

The blog In The Sight Of The Unwise was one of the first to explain the political power of Deano to Westminster. Its anonymous author told me that Deano had been misunderstood. He is an aspirational figure, living the life most people aspired to — and governments of all stripes have long encouraged. Deano, he told me, enjoys a day at the races and weekend trips to Europe, spends money and owns his own home. There are black Deanos and Asian Deanos. There are also plenty of female Deanos. And while they might not read the Guardian, that doesn’t make them some kind of Jim Davidson parody. Their views are likely to be run of the mill, in line with the majority opinion of the country.

If Deano is in any sense working-class, it is upper working-class. But what he really is is nouveau riche — petty bourgeois. These people have always come in for more abuse than the romanticised northern worker. As Dr Dan Evans — author of A Nation of Shopkeepers: The Unstoppable Rise of the Petite Bourgeoisie — has pointed out, they are Harry Enfield’s “Loads a’money” character, Hyacinth Bucket, Boycie from Only Fools and Horses. Today, the author of the In The Sight Of The Unwise blog told me, they are Molly Mae from Love Island or the influencer Mrs Hinch.

“Look at Thatcher and Tebbit and how they almost take pride in the rigid populism of their political thought,” wrote Tony Blair in an admiring letter to the then Labour leader Michael Foot back in 1982. “The Tory party is now increasingly given over to the worst of petty bourgeois sentiments,” he concluded. Those petty bourgeois sentiments, of course, would win the Tories landslides in 1983 and 1987 and keep them in power until 1997, when Blair would take over, accused by his own party of pandering to the same apparently “petty” sentiments. Then and now, this same group is the key to winning elections. For what is Deano if not the “Essex Man” of today, or “Mondeo Man”, or perhaps even the “Worcester woman”? They are all ciphers, characters who most closely resemble the everyday man or woman of England who decides elections, not because they are concentrated in one swing town, but all the swing towns of the country: in Middlesbrough and Swindon and Batley and Droitwich Spa.

Deano is everywhere. And for the past year he has been screwed. 

Deano is not rich and he is not poor. He relies on cheap credit, low taxes, good public services and stable prices. All of this has disappeared. In the wake of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both public borrowing and inflation rocketed and so, in time, did interest rates. Then came the madness of Liz Truss who sought to light a fire under the British economy in order to burn away its problems, only instead to burn it all down — hitting Deano in the pocket all over again. 

In the chaos that followed the Truss budget of September 2022, as many as 1,700 mortgage products were removed in the space of a week. When they came back on the market, they were at rates 1-2 percentage points higher. For Deano in Ingleby Barwick, who might have a £200,000 mortgage left to repay, the monthly repayment costs would have risen over £500 a month — or around £6,000 a year. The interest rate rises have also increased the cost of leasing a car and anything else bought on credit. And this is before the food and energy price rises are taken into account. For the first time in Deano’s life, his standard of living has dropped. He was born into a world of low interest rates — and that has suddenly disappeared.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan asked voters whether they felt better off than four years earlier. The problem for the Tories is that their core constituency of voters clearly does not and are almost certainly not going to by next year. Perhaps that’s why those now advising the Conservative leadership on its election strategy are urging a greater focus on the Deano class that handed the party its victory in 2019: stop focusing on the poor in places like Shotton who do not vote Conservative, and start focusing on the petty bourgeois in Ingleby Barwick who do. These are the voters the Tories need in 2024: Deano and Deano’s parents. They are also the “hero voters” Labour is targeting as well. What that means for Shotton and places like it is a depressing thought, for they remain nobody’s priority.

It is fashionable to think of today’s post-Brexit Conservative Party as being some kind of seismic shift away from its traditions, not only from the moderate One Nation Tory leaders such as Macmillan and David Cameron, but also from Thatcher. The truth, though, is that the Tory coalition of 2019 marked something of a return to the traditional Disraelian coalition of the wealthy elite and the provincial petty bourgeoisie. This is the coalition the Tories have always needed to win. David Cameron never quite managed to assemble it in the way that Macmillan, Thatcher and Johnson did. When Margaret Thatcher stood against Ted Heath for the Conservative leadership in 1974, she gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph setting out her vision of conservatism. Headlined “My Kind Of Tory Party”, she argued that the party had failed the people by failing to control inflation and losing focus on the day-to-day reality for ordinary people. There was nothing wrong with defending “middle-class values”, Thatcher argued. “International interest rates must be thought of in terms of the young couple’s mortgage as well as of the balance of payments.” The same is true today.

One southern Tory MP told me their 2019 coalition was the closest the party had got to Macmillan’s landslide-winning bloc of 1959. And Macmillan, of course, rose to prominence as the MP for Stockton. For the Tories, Deano has always mattered. Today, Deano’s mortgage is rising and so are his taxes. Meanwhile, the few state benefits he does have access to are means-tested and the public services he uses are deteriorating. In short, he is not on the breadline, struggling to put food on the table, but he is paying more for less and can feel it. Another Tory MP, this one from a Red Wall seat, told me he worried Sunak’s vision of the North was as a great extension of Richmond: all dry-stone walls and market towns basking in gentle, rural prosperity. It’s a vision as out of touch as that which sees the North as one giant Shotton. In fact, the bits of the Red Wall that the Tories won in 2019 are not so very different from anywhere else in the country. 

Priestley came away from the North East exasperated by the failures of economic governance that had left people and places to rot. “The planning did not take into account the only item that really matters — the people,” he wrote. “The final question must always be, not how are England’s imports and exports, not how many ships we are building, how many tons of coal we are getting out of the ground, but how are the English People.” He is still right. But the English people do not fare well if nothing is being imported and exported, built and sold, for without it an area is robbed of its purpose. Where there is economic life, there are Deanos. And for the Tories, where there are Deanos there is life.

 

This piece was first published in April, 2023.


is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague