Tag Archives: Politics

An Englishman’s Home is his Castle – but Why?

The English are obsessed with housing. The newspapers are full of articles about it, politicians argue about it, and young people struggle and worry about ever being able to afford it. John Lanchester points out that while 70% of Brits live in their own homes, only 40% of Germans do.

Why is this? There are many reasons why buying is a terrible idea: expensive repairs, a fall in prices will leave you in negative equity, you are less flexible …

Going into the credit crunch, the typical household in the UK owed 160% of his or her average income. In France a bank will only lend you a third of what you’re owning, and if you get into trouble paying it back, the bank can be sued for reckless lending. One of the reasons we can’t join the Euro is because there’s so many property owners, interest rates are too politically important to hand over to Brussels.

So why the Anglo-Saxon obsession with housing?

John Lanchester has a theory:

“Our longing [for property] is connected to the sense of dislocation which spread throughout British society during the industrial revolution. …

Countries with the go-go attitude to the free market, countries which pride themselves on their openness to competition, willingness to take a chance, lack of feather-bedding and protection from the laws of the jungle, might be expected to have a property market in which people were easy-going about rening and reluctant to tie up all their money in a single illiquid asset. On the other hand countries with more traditional, less capitalistic attitudes, less open to the cold winds of the markets and more willing to protect their citizens from market realities, might well have a conservative appetite for bricks-and-mortar. Instead it’s the other way around. Why? Well perhaps that’s exactly why. It’s precisely the most free-market, go-go countries which show this overpowering appetite for people to own their own homes. The less security there is in the workplace, the more exposed the rest of life is to the pressures of competition and uncertainty, the more people want to feel secure within their own four walls, at the beginning and end of the harsh working day.

The huge expansion in British home-ownership began during the 1840s, when the effects of the industrial revolution had spread sufficiently to create a new middle class with the economic means to buy their own homes. Because we were alienated and insecure at work, we felt an increased need to own the walls we live in, to feel safe and in possession of our own property. It was the psychic trade-off for the other losses of industrialization.”

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Jilted Generation

Probably the book which has angered, inspired and politicised me most in the last six months is Jilted Generation by Ed Howker & Shiv Malik.

Howker and Malik argue that the baby-boomer generation – those born between 1945 and 1965 – have enjoyed an uniquely privileged set of circumstances growing up – a set of circumstances which contrasts with the shoddy inheritance left to the generation after.

  • Housing. As well as the sell off of council housing – a massive windfall for the baby-boomers – baby-boomers only had to borrow (on average) three times their salary to buy their two-up, two-down with a garden. Their debt was also diminished by high inflation rates. Since then the decline in house building, strict planning laws, and population growth have caused house prices to rocket – making baby-boomers rich, and pricing the young out of the market.
  • Higher education. Boomers not only got their higher education for free, but once  gained, their degrees were highly valued in the job market. Starting wages were comparably high. Today young people face £9000 a year tuition fees, a jobs regime that requires many young people to work for free on  ‘internships‘, a lack of apprenticeships, and an economy that leaves one in five young people unemployed.
  • Pensions. Boomers joined companies with final-salary schemes. Now most companies don’t have ANY pension provision. The ones left are risky ‘defined contribution’ schemes, paid later and requiring bigger contributions.
  • Dismal government finances. We have a national debt of £867 billion, and that’s not including the PFI schemes and public sector pension liabilities that sit off the balance sheet. All the fuss at the moment about reducing the deficit (basically the nation’s overdraft) doesn’t touch the underlying debt.
  • And there’s probably half a dozen other things I’ve forgotten

These arguments have been set out elsewhere. David Willetts (now the higher education minister) in Pinch, calculates that with baby-boomers entering the job market later than the generation before (after going to University), whilst retiring in their 60s (earlier than those who will follow), combined with their long life expectancy, means they will take out 118% of what they put in to the welfare state.

What Howker and Malik do which is different

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Is Immigration Really Ignored by Politicians?

Deborah Mattinson, pollster and electoral strategist for Gordon Brown:

‘Immigration, perhaps more than any other issue, illustrates the disconnect between the voter and the Westminster Village. … Anyone watching or conducting political focus groups for the first time would often come back shocked at the voters’ vehemence about immigration. …

I think it is important to be clear here that the strength of feeling I witnessed night after night in front rooms around the country does not mean that most people are racist. This is one of the gravest misunderstandings between the voter and the political classes. Quite simply it is that middle ground voters felt he economic security of their own families to be permanently under threat.

I fed back voters feelings as faithfully as I could, as often as I could, but it was never top of anyone’s agenda, and there was never much of an appetite to listen or act. Politicians seemed in paralysis: unwilling either to make the positive case for immigration or to do anything about it. [Pgs 132-4]

If that was true during the last government, is it true now? Mehdi Hassan was arguing on 10 O’Clock Live on Thursday that this is a complete myth: we do nothing BUT talk about immigration: the first question in the first ever televised leaders’ debate was about immigration, we now have a government that has promised to bring immigration down to the “tens of thousands“, and Ed Miliband is making speeches about how Labour “got it wrong” on immigration.

60% of people currently think immigration has been bad for the country. If politicians are only just starting to have the guts to talk about the downside of immigration, they certainly don’t have the guts to talk about the good side. Until they do, that number won’t change.

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Exemplary concision

Millions upon millions of words have been written (and published) about the rights and wrongs, the whys and what-ifs, of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but I’d be hard pressed to find a more concise or persuasive summary, at least in terms of Blair, than Andrew Rawnsley’s in The End of the Party:

‘Idealism mixed with realpolitik, terror stirred with vanity, this was the cocktail of impulses that drew Tony Blair down the road to war.’

There’s something hugely convincing about such concentrated, well-constructed prose – would love to hear more examples…

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Let Them Watch Dallas

I’m half-way through Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (Allen Lane), an impressive and uncompromising polemic that seeks to dispel the illusion of ‘cyber-utopia’, i.e. the idea that free infomation leads to free people, that the internet inevitably generates democracy.  It’s dense, unrelenting, but immaculately researched and studded with fantastic examples.

Morozov refers on a number of occasions to the Cold War, which numerous triumphalists claim was ‘won’ by the west (the alternative theory, adroitly argued by Tony Judt in his now famous demolition of John Lewis Gaddis’ 2006 history of the Cold War, also published by AllenLane, is that it imploded under the weight of its own ineptitude). There were two separate, but related, theories about how access to Western media would democratize the Soviets – ‘liberation by facts’, whereby news and current affairs broadcasts would reveal to the oppressed masses the truth about their despotic leaders, leading the people to rise up and overthrow them; and ‘liberation by gadgets’, which basically involved spreading images and stories of ‘fast cars, fancy kitchen appliances and suburban happiness’, thus tapping into citizens’ natural and innate consumerist impulse and inciting, yes you guessed it, revolution.

So that was the theory, but sadly it didn’t always seem to work. Morozov highlights the German Democratic Republic, which was an unusual case to say the least: a communist country that for virtually all of its existence could receive western media. (I had no idea – as a fan of films like The Lives of Others, I’d just assumed there was blanket censorship). Were citizens more politically informed, more vocal in their opposition, as a result of being able to compare Western and Eastern versions of ‘news’ for the best part of a 30-year period? Apparently not. East Germans weren’t all that interested in tracking the latest developments from Nato – they preferred soft news and entertainment, such as Dallas, Miami Vice and Sesame Street. In interviews with East Germans conducted after the Wall fell, many said they didn’t believe what they heard on Western news; they just assumed it was propaganda (Morozov wrily points out that in their distrust and suspicion of ‘the Western propaganda apparatus’, they were ‘more Chomskian than Noam Chomsky himself’). When asked, in a separate study, what they thought of their country’s TV scheduling, they requested more entertainment and less politics. Eventually the GDR’s propaganda officials realised that the best way to get people to watch their ideological programming and propaganda reports was to schedule them when Western TV was running news and current affairs programmes – ‘which East Germans found to be least interesting’.

All of this taps into an ongoing argument about the role of media organisations, newspapers, broadcasters, indeed governments – should you give the people what they want? Or what you think they ought to want?

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Big Society

On Tuesday this week, a report was published by the health ombudsman, Ann Abraham. It was full of horror stories.

In one case, an 82 year-old died alone because staff did not realise her husband had been waiting to see her for three hours. In another, a woman was discharged from hospital covered in bruises, soaked in urine and wearing someone else’s clothes.

What’s interesting is that Ann Abraham did not blame this on cuts or lack of money. Rather:

“The findings of my investigations reveal an attitude – both personal and institutional – which fails to recognise the humanity and individuality of the people concerned and to respond to them with sensitivity, compassion and professionalism.

It put me in mind of Red Tory – a book by Philip Blond, one of the architects of the Big Society agenda.

He argues that we need to support the civic organisations – churches, unions, families – which find themselves squeezed on both sides: by Conservatives on the right who have traditionally supported a free-market system that leads to selfish, atomised individuals; and by Labour on the left who support a bureaucratic and oppressive centralised state. The Right focused on liberty, the Left focused on equality; now it’s time to focus on fraternity:

He is drawing on a rich tradition of state-scepticism that argues that over time the state has slowly taken over activities that used to belong to the private sphere, and when it does it does these activities badly.

Criticism has  come from the left as well. Michael Ignatieff, in The Needs of Strangers, argues that the ideas of justice that lie behind the welfare state are based on equality, but love is different. Love  is about seeing the individual in front of you as uniquely important.

At the end of the last parliament, there was much talk of a National Care Service – a state replacement for looking after Gran and Grandad. Of course defenders of the state point out, for people with no family or kids, the state’s care is better than no care. But how do you replace the love of a son or daughter? How do politicians legislate to make a bureaucracy treat patients not like numbers, but like people?

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