The NS Competition No 4139

Set by Leonora Casement

As George Orwell wrote, those "who control the present control the past". Even if you don't fully accept the Orwellian viewpoint, it is inevitable that all historians begin their interpretations of history with certain basic assumptions rooted in their personal biases and backgrounds. We'd like you, looking back from the year 4010, to discuss everyday aspects of the 21st century from a 41st-century vantage-point.

This week's winners

A popular comp. We were sorry to lose Barry Baldwin ("These events occurred just before the Revolution, as is clear from the mention of Big Brother on the telescreens of the period") and John O'Byrne ("The most unusual thing about eating in 2010 was that it was done on ancient plasma screens, aka 'telly'") and hon menshes to both. The four winners get £25 each, with top dog Roddy Campbell also getting the Tesco vouchers.

It's their choice
The 21st century: primitive lives of abject misery caused by "choice". As Neanderthal hunters spent all their waking hours tracking food for survival, so 21st-century consumers exhausted their lives in hectic selection processes (sometimes referred to as "shopping") rather than submitting to the Master-State's logical solution of all problems. Instead of poetry and philosophy, their media (little of which survived the mini ice-age of 3666) consisted of irrelevant ranges of clothing, footwear, furnishings, places "to go". Not for them the 41st-century ideal of permanently rooted stability in three square metres per person, uniformly clothed and furnished by the Master-State. Seduced by false alternatives, swayed by ever-changing gimickry, their lives as second-stage pre-civilisation hunter-gatherers were wretched, brutish and wasteful.
D A Prince

Strange obsessions
It is with odd affection that we look back at times obsessed with sex, death and recycling; it is perhaps a thousand years since anyone attempted to remember anything and 500 more since archaeology was superseded by the Dewey-Google All-Matter Inventory, locating and tagging all atoms down to Molecule ViewTM. It is hard to imagine these Oilwellian times; five generations of "Fossil Fools" using hydrocarbons for heat, light and transport! Having installed MS-SunSystems' Sol Corridor to our beloved star, life without it is unthinkable, yet how could these people consider storing their rubbish for future generations? What were they thinking? Where were they planning to put the people? Fortunately, in those days, they did not have to concern themselves with issues such as Universalisation.
John Griffiths-Colby

Can you believe it?
A phenomenon of early civilisations was "travel", by which people moved from place to place to transact business or even, incredibly, for pleasure - although for centuries scholars have argued whether to categorise "travel literature" as fact or fiction. The present arrangement, by which we all occupy our ensuite personal space, leaving it only to procreate, dates from 2184, the year of the Great Gridlock, when all transport worldwide came to a halt after a "lorry" shed its load in central Colorado. That was when Saint O'Leary of Ryanair, descended from a 21st-century travelling salesman, introduced the prototype of today's personal modules, with integrated feeding and communications devices, forcing people to pay him their entire income in return for basic necessities.
Michael Leapman

What if . . . ?
What would have happened in the Year of Our Lords 2010 if the Libdems had formed a coalition with NooLabor instead of the rightful party of government? School pupils would have been mired in rundown "comprehensives" instead of attending Govean Freeschools in branches of
Tesco. The poor and the halt would have slowly withered on waiting lists instead of availing themselves of the And the economy would have spiralled downwards till GB plc was reduced to being a lowly partner in the, instead of being, as now, a healthy
and vibrant colony of the Indo-Chinese Empire. Truly, we owe much to the courage and vision of King David I and his civil partner, Queen Nicky.
Roddy Campbell

The next challenge

No 4142 Set by Leonora Casement
We'd like to hear about new diseases, their symptoms and possible cures.

Max 125 words by 2 September

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.