In place of strife

The British pub was once a mainstay of working-class morality

All over Britain, in town and village, in the suburbs and in the countryside, you will come across public houses, some still named from the animals - hare, hound, deer and fox; horse, cow, pig and cockerel - through which the leisure and labour of the countryside were once defined, some sporting local coats of arms and noble titles.

More and more of these buildings are being boarded up and festooned with "for sale" signs. Some of them will find other uses as offices, restaurants or flats. Some will be preserved as listed buildings, lingering on in hope of a use. Many will be demolished. And their demise signifies the passing of a culture and a way of life.In our village there are still two pubs. They survive as restaurants, frequented by people who drive out from Swindon, or by locals with something to celebrate. They still have their core of regulars, who will drink in the pub out of a rooted sense that this is how drinking should be done; but the regulars cling to the pub as sailors cling to a stricken ship, conscious that the refuge is temporary.

The British pub was kept going by two features of ordinary life: male bonding and the sacred nature of the home. Men would assemble there on weekday evenings to offer each other ritualised hospitality through the "round of drinks" - an institution often sneered at by wealthy people, who see in it only the obligatory stinginess of the poor, but which is in fact a way of squeezing from poverty the real moral benefits of gift-giving.
The round of drinks was an instrument of peace and reconciliation among neighbours, the way in which people could express and enjoy the affection on which, in moments of competition and conflict, everyone depended.

Drinking in the pub therefore added to the moral savings of the community. And on weekends, men would come with their wives for some special event, by way of gaining female endorsement for this largely male preserve - the men dressed in suit and tie, the women in their finery.

That ritualised celebration of sexual difference was not likely to survive into our time and it didn't. But in rural areas the home continued to be valued as a vice-free zone. There were things you did only in the pub, and the most important of these were drinking and smoking. The sanctity of the home therefore kept the pub in being. But smoking has been banned, by one of those vindictive pieces of legislation in which our current parliament specialises, and people have discovered wine - a drink that costs next to nothing, and does not depend on a tap, a barmaid and a barrel.

For those two reasons the pubs are now closing. And the simple vices that were turned to good use by the pub are being transferred
to the home, where they can only do damage.

Roger Scruton's final Drink column will run in a fortnight's time

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.
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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.