The not-so-fantastic Mr Fox

We always knew he was a hawk not a dove.

From today's Guardian:

William Hague was forced to clarify the government's thinking on Afghanistan today when he declared that he would be "very surprised" if Kabul's military was unable to take the lead by 2014 . . .

He clarified the government's thinking after [Liam] Fox waded into a row in Washington over the withdrawal of Nato forces. In a speech to the right-wing Heritage Foundation he said an early withdrawal would risk a return to civil war and betray the sacrifices of soldiers who gave their lives.

An early draft of his speech made no mention of [David] Cameron's declaration last week. In the final version of his text Fox endorsed Cameron's view, though he later told the BBC that British troops would be among the last to leave Afghanistan.

There has been much discussion in right-wing circles about the prospect of a split between Fox and Cameron over the direction of defence and foreign policy, in general, and over the strategy in Afghanistan, in particular. But as the Spectator's James Forsyth rightly argues:

There is, though, a feeling in Westminster that Fox is vulnerable. Fox has already used up a rather large number of his nine lives -- think of the "13th century" comment on the eve of a visit to Afghanistan, saying that military pensions are ring-fenced when they are not and publicly announcing the departure of the Chief of Defence Staff outside of the Downing Street grid.

But Fox has a significant source of protection. He's one of the few representatives of the Tory right in the coalition cabinet. Only he, Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson are regarded as being on the right by the right of the Conservative Parliamentary Party. If Fox was to leave government, Cameron would find his right flank dangerously exposed.

Fox is not just a right-winger; he is, as commentators on the left and right have argued, close to the hawkish and neoconservative faction inside the party on foreign and defence matters. He set up the Atlantic Bridge think tank in 1997, with the aim of "strengthening the special relationship" with the United States (though it is now being investigated by the Charity Commission). The Defence Secretary was also an ardent supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So it was surprising to see his earlier non-neocon remarks on Afghanistan:

We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken, 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.

He sounded a bit like a realist, more Ken Clarke than Paul Wolfowitz. But the not-so-fantastic Mr Fox is now back on form, telling the Heritage Foundation in his speech that he did not favour what he called "premature withdrawal" (and, in fact, he plans to keep British troops in Afghanistan longer than other allied nations, according to the BBC) because:

To leave before the job is finished would leave us less safe and less secure. Our resolve would be called into question, our cohesion weakened, and the Alliance undermined.

It would be a betrayal of all the sacrifices made by our armed forces in life and limb.

Who says Afghanistan ain't like Vietnam? Here are the same sort of absurd and illogical arguments from the same sort of cold, dead-eyed defence officials -- we have to stay longer because we have lost lots of men already, so we have to stay longer and lose more lives, and then we have to stay even longer to make sure those lives weren't lost in vain, and so on and so on, ad infinitum . . .

Perhaps the Defence Secretary should be reminded of John Kerry's remarks to the Senate foreign relations committee on 23 April 1971. Then a decorated, 27-year-old navy veteran of Vietnam and a high-profile member of the anti-war movement, Kerry asked:

How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

Four decades on, does Liam Fox have an answer to this question?

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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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.