A very political monk

Why do we think the Dalai Lama is a living saint?

This Sunday, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu will be awarded the Fetzer Prize for Love and Forgiveness at the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit. I have to admit that I'd never heard of this prize until today, but I can tell you that it's worth $100,000 (£63,000) and that the Fetzer Institute is based in the town of Kalamazoo, Michigan, previously best known as the place where, according to the 1942 hit record, the Glenn Miller band's singer had a girl (or rather, a gal).

I am delighted for Archbishop Tutu, who has always seemed to combine astounding cheerfulness and compassion with a highly accurate moral barometer, calling it right, for instance, on Robert Mugabe -- he described him as "a caricature of an African dictator" -- when too many of his fellow countrymen chose to keep silent about "Comrade Bob's" destructive behaviour.

The Dalai Lama, though, I'm not so sure about. It's not just that I'm suspicious of the amount of time he appears to spend hanging around with Hollywood stars struck dumb by being in the presence of a "God-King", and a "Boodist" one to boot. Nor is it just that I've not been totally convinced of his great holiness since my old colleague at the Independent Johann Hari came back from interviewing him and declared to the startled office: "I've just been called 'fat' by the Dalai Lama." The exchange appeared in the paper as follows:

"Why do the rich need so much? We each only have one stomach. Well, not you," he says, looking at my belly. "You appear to have two."

Every action he takes carries the possibility of political repercussions, and it is misleading simply to see him as a religious leader. He and Tibet have become pet causes in the west, while the Dalai Lama is now such an icon that nobody ever questions the wisdom of what he does any more. Now, I'm not saying that Tibetans may not have very good cause to feel that they have been conquered and oppressed by the Chinese. But so do the Uighurs of Xinjiang, of whom the world became briefly aware in July when 200 died in riots in the province. They, however, have since been completely forgotten again. If only they had a great spiritual leader to capture our attention . . .

This August "His Holiness" visited Taiwan after the island had been hit by a typhoon, and in November he is due to visit the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh -- a region China calls Southern Tibet. The Chinese claim both areas as theirs, and just as his trip to Taiwan infuriated Beijing, so will his forthcoming jaunt. "The visit further reveals the Dalai clique's anti-China and separatist essence," a spokesman from the Chinese foreign ministry told a reporter from Asia Sentinel. "China's stance on the so-called Arunachal Pradesh is consistent. We firmly oppose Dalai visiting the so-called Arunachal Pradesh."

He can claim that his activities are spiritual, but the Dalai Lama's appeal to the west has political ends, and as a result of that he deserves a little more scrutiny. Rarely aired, for instance, are the views of some who think he has actually set back the cause of Tibetan independence, or those who argue that China's invasion released Tibet's population from feudal serfdom, in which the peasants were slaves of the lamas.

So three cheers for "Arch" Tutu in being awarded this prize. But I think I'll hold off the ovation for the very political monk whom we've elevated into a living saint.


Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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.