In this week’s New Statesman: Unholy War

2011: The year in pictures | Mehdi Hasan on religion and violence | Norman Lamont on the euro | Slav

unholy war

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Mehdi Hasan: Prophets of peace

In this week's New Statesman cover story, Mehdi Hasan argues that the Arab spring has "undermined" claims by atheist intellectuals that religion is a source of violence and conflict.

Hasan highlights the writings of Jawdat Said, a little-known Muslim scholar in Syria whose advocacy of non-violence has helped inspire the protests against Bashar al-Assad's regime. Responding to secular commentators who claim that the non-violent activists behind the Arab spring drew on western, non-Muslim sources for inspiration, Hasan responds:

This isn't just simplistic, but patronising, too. Credit should be given where credit is due. Arab Muslims have been at the forefront of the non-violent protests against the region's tyrants and autocrats – and not just in Syria. In Yemen, the hijab-clad Tawakkol Karman, one of the leading organisers of the non-violent struggle against the tottering dictatorship of the country's US-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a devout Muslim and a senior member of al-Islah, the country's conservative Islamic opposition party.

Citing Buddhist campaigners in Burma and Tibet and Jewish peace campaigners in Israel, and referring to the work of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Hasan writes:

Countless non-violent campaigns of resistance across the world today have been inspired and bolstered by individuals and groups rooted in religion.


Norman Lamont: The euro is strangling the world economy

In the Economics Column, Norman Lamont, chancellor of the exchequer under John Major from 1990-93, dissects the current eurozone crisis and looks back on tensions between the UK and Germany in 1992 over the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM):

Now all the talk is of fiscal union," Lamont writes. "But the Germans do not mean what we mean by fiscal union." For the UK, this would mean a common treasury and tax system, under a single finance minister; by the German definition, however, it means "more rules, more restrictions, more external supervision of national budgets". According to Lamont: "That is unlikely to work."

If the eurozone achieves fiscal union through treaty changes, he warns, the UK must be sure to protect its own interests:

The government may have to invoke the so-called Luxembourg compromise, a little-used provision conceded to General de Gaulle, which allows governments in extremis to opt out of measures affecting important national interests.

He argues that "denial has been a constant theme of the crisis" and that although the "Germans want the euro to survive . . . they are not prepared to depart one iota from the rigorous [economic] discipline that has served them well". Although this does not surprise Lamont, he is "seriously" worried by Chancellor Angela Merkel's recognition that it may take years to resolve the difficulty in the eurozone – "a threat to our economy and, indeed, that of the world".


2011: The year in pictures

Also in this end-of-year special, Alex Preston reflects on a turbulent 12 months for the seven billion people across the world, from Japan's nuclear meltdown and the English summer riots to the eurozone crisis and the Arab spring.

Preston's article is accompanied by a ten-page picture essay, curated by the NS photo editor, Rebecca McClelland, which brings together the most unforgettable images from a year marked by earthquakes, tornados and floods, phone-hacking, Bin Laden's death and social unrest from Tahrir Square to Wall Street.


Slavoj Žižek on Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus

This week's Critic at Large is the Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek. Anticipating the release next year of Ralph Fiennes's big-screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Žižek endorses T S Eliot's view that the play is superior to Hamlet:

Ralph Fiennes (with the writer John Logan) has done the impossible . . . he has fully broken out of the closed circle of interpretative options and presented Coriolanus not as a fanatical anti-democrat but as a figure of the radical left.

Fiennes's Coriolanus is like the eyes of God or a saint in an Orthodox icon: without changing a word in Shakespeare's play, the film looks squarely at us, at our predicament today, offering us the figure of the radical freedom fighter.

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Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at 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.