When it comes to riots, it’s all relative

In his superb memoir Jackdaw Cake, the late Norman Lewis told the story of his upbringing in uttermost north London in the 1920s. His parents were a wacky pair who professed spiritualism and held seances at which ectoplasm was teased out of Lewis père's mouth and made to assume phantasmagorical shapes. More bizarre was the way that, during the interwar period, Enfield advanced across Middlesex in a flying column of cul-de-sacs, armed with telegraph poles, creosoted fences and pebble-dash facades. I grew up in a not-dissimilar suburb, East Finchley, and remember finding Lewis's account almost supernatural - since, even as an adult, I found it hard to believe that the suburbs hadn't been there since time out of mind, so immemorially dull did they seem.

In the space of less than a century, Enfield has gone from greenfield site to brownfield riot territory. When I heard the news,
I pictured Women's Institute members setting fire to privet hedges and chucking Molotov cocktails at leylandii. However,
I soon got a grip: the ebb and flow of gentrification in our cities means that no district escapes the undertow of deprivation, whether material or - gulp! - spiritual.

All the world's a stage

The kind of deprivation that animated these riots seems to have been highly relative: our disaffected youth may now lack after-school clubs, courtesy of the 70 per cent cuts in such services, but they still have BlackBerrys to co-ordinate these acquisitive thrusts against the soft underbelly of late capitalism. These were the riotous goings-on not so much of the alienated (although I have no doubt that they are) as the early adopters.

Having witnessed a fair few riots in my time - some of them, such as the poll tax riots of 1990, beautifully blocked out and scripted - I have no problem in seeing them as street theatrics. So, if the medium is the BlackBerry and the CCTV system, then the message is as much ennui as anomie. The hoodie-clad kicker-in of plate-glass windows may have had Garbo-like incognito but he was still playing for the cameras. In short stories and several novels including his last, Kingdom Come, J G Ballard hypothesised that willed and destructive mayhem might become the only therapy for the mass psychopathology of consumerist society; a malaise that he characterised as - in two words - utter boredom.

Raising the dead

The dominant trait of the crowd is to reduce its myriad individuals to a single, dysfunctional persona. The crowd is stupider than the averaging of its component minds. In a culture in which every consensual sexual act and narcotised state is, in effect, permitted, Ballard would argue that violence becomes the only remaining form of stimulation. I agree with this unreservedly - yet what struck me still more forcibly was the folly of the crowd of politicians and police who attempted to shame them into conformity with the law.

Back from sashaying across Tuscan hillsides, the have-mores returned to call time on the have-less. Having encouraged an economic system that devalues all social capital in favour of pelf, while ramping up the consequent financial inequalities, the so-called political class professes itself astonished by the childish greed that is sanctified by their hallowed free market. Yes, the looters may only be "relatively" deprived - but then, the politicians are only relatively corrupt, the police are only relatively on the take (and relatively prone to shooting unarmed men) and the media
is only relatively likely to invade privacy by whatever means possible. Relative to each other, all four estates are absolutely morally bankrupt.

That brings us full circle: back to Enfield. Spiritualism was a quasi-religion that scintillated in the dying embers of Christian faith in the afterlife. Following the hecatomb of the First World War, the bereaved sought to contact their deceased loved ones through mediums such as Lewis's father. Just as the distraught relatives saw the faces of their fathers, sons and lovers in the fake ectoplasm he extruded, so our finest theorists read the statistical vital signs, desperate for that quickening economic pulse. Spiritualism is no crazier than attempting to resurrect a dead economy by stimulating "demand" among the (relatively) impoverished. Theresa May calls them rioters. I see them as overenthusiastic but misguided shoppers.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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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.