Hitchens, Gandhi and me

"The Hitch" says Palestinians need a Mandela, not a Gandhi

My column in last week's magazine focused on the need for a Palestinian (and an Israel) Gandhi figure, to renounce terror on both sides and end the destructive "cycle of violence" and mutual fear and distrust:

"...neither side has ever come even close to producing viable leaders committed to non-violence and able to articulate an authentically Gandhian vision for ending the conflict. On the Palestinian side, Yasser Arafat's approach can be summed up in his warning about having an olive branch in one hand but a gun in the other. On the Israeli side, Yitzhak Rabin, the joint architect of the Oslo Accords, will always be remembered by the Palestinians as the man who also ordered Israeli troops to "break the bones" of protesters during the first intifada.Those considered to be peacemakers fall hopelessly short of being a latter-day Gandhi or a Middle Eastern Martin Luther King. Waiting for such figures to emerge, even in the Holy Land, could be like waiting for Godot."

Now Christopher Hitchens has emailed me to say that I may be focusing on the wrong role model - it is a Nelson Mandela that the Palestinians need, not a Mohandas Gandhi. He writes:

"Edward Said used to talk and write about the need for a Palestinian Mandela. I think that might lead you - and such Israelis and Jews as will listen - in a better direction than Gandhi. But the ANC wasn't pacifist in name or in fact, despite the Mahatma's early input."

The Hitch - and the late Professor Said - have a point. Given his long, and much-deserved, walk to political sainthood, it is easy to forget that Mandela was never a Gandhian pacifist and had militant roots. After the banning of the African National Congress in 1960, it was Mandela who argued for the setting up of a military wing within the ANC.

Is there a Palestinian Mandela today? The one plausible candidate is secular Palestinian politician and former Fatah militant leader, Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli jail. He is the man who has played a major role in mediating between Fatah and Hamas and he is the man behind the "Prisoner's Document" which calls for negotiation with the state of Israel in order to achieve lasting peace.

Liberal Jewish blogger Richard Silverstein singles him out for similar reasons:

"Now, I am not saying that Barghouti believes in non-violence or that he is by any means a holy figure or even the perfect leader. All leaders, both Palestinian and Israeli seem immensely flawed.But Barghouti is someone who could unify both Palestinian factions. Someone who, like Mandela, spent years in the jails of the enemy, who speaks his language, understands his psychological identity, both its strengths and weaknesses. Until he is released from prison, we will not know whether Barghouti is just another corruptible thug, or a powerful leader with a vision for ending the conflict and securing his people's future."

In January 2007, the then Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres declared he would sign a presidential pardon for Marwan Barghouti if elected to the Israeli presidency. However, since becoming president, there has been no sign at all that Peres plans to fulfil this pledge.

Talking of Israeli politicians, if the Palestinians need a Mandela, who is the Israeli De Klerk? Sharon (and even Olmert perhaps?) could have tried to lay claim to the mantle of the peace-making Afrikaner leader - but Netanyahu? You must be having a laugh...

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.