I'm an F1 fan but I can't watch the Bahrain Grand Prix

The race will put a veneer of respectability on a despicable regime.

Formula One’s decision to go to Bahrain this weekend is a massive mistake. It’s not about the safety of the event itself, or the competitors, though that is a concern; it’s about legitimising a regime that has committed appalling crimes against its own people by holding a three-day carnival of glamour and speed.

The whole thing must jar with everyone involved, to be thinking about petrol bombs rather than petrol heads, to just hope that an event ends safely and with as little harm as possible instead of enjoying the spectacle. And for what? What will F1 have achieved by going to Bahrain in the first place? It’s a big shiny thumbs-up, a stamp of approval from the world sporting community and television audience, to a kingdom whose recent record on human rights is atrocious.

Is it really worth it? Bernie Ecclestone, the tiny grey figurehead of Formula One, thinks it is. While he casts doubts about races elsewhere in the world, he has been determined, it would seem, to press ahead with the sporting circus in Bahrain, despite last year’s event having been called off due to security fears. There is talk of "civil unrest" but this is more than a few protesters. This is a reaction to torture on a widespread scale, and it is being glossed over with a glamorous sporting event. Look at the shiny cars! Don’t look at the teargas and the batons!

I say this as an F1 fan. I’ve watched the sport for years, and loved its twists and turns. Sure, it’s elitist, it’s a massive waste of money, it’s a ridiculous pantomime at times, it can be horrifically tedious and boring at others; it’s environmentally atrocious, yes, I concede all of that – but for me and many others it’s one of the finest sporting spectacles in the world. I was lucky enough to see Senna, Prost and Mansell up close in their pomp back in the 1980s, and from then on I was hooked.

But I cannot bring myself to watch this weekend’s event. This weekend is not about sport; it’s about a huge bundle of cash being handed over in return for putting a veneer of respectability on a despicable regime. Deep down, the drivers, sponsors, teams and journalists must know that something isn’t right. How can you enjoy the thrill of the contest itself when you know that’s going on at the same time?

This whole shabby episode brings to mind those shameful cricket and rugby tours of apartheid South Africa during the 1980s. Sure, a lot of people are going to make a lot of money this weekend – some with a heavy heart, others just doing their jobs and trying to block out what’s going on in the background. But deep down the drivers, sponsors, teams and journalists must know that something isn’t right here. Something is deeply wrong, and by agreeing to participate, by saying that they will be there, they are letting it happen, and letting it continue.

By Sunday night, all will have been forgotten. The celebration rosewater will have be sprayed on the podium, and the fastest cars of the whole weekend will be the taxis back to the airport to get everyone the hell out of there as soon as possible.

Hopefully, Bahrain will not disappear from the headlines, and if nothing else this weekend, the only positive to take will be that more people than before knew about the human rights abuses going on there. That will be some semblance of a success to take from this grubby, grubby mess.

Bahraini children hold up pictures of tortured democracy activists. Photograph: Getty Images.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.