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Tea with Queen Judi, bicycling in Amsterdam and hunting for WMDs with Hans Blix

Jon Snow's diary.

Conduct becoming

Monday, and I find Eriks Ešenvalds’s Passion and Resurrection still ringing in my ears from a phenomenal performance the night before. In the Georgian splendour of the Grosvenor Chapel, the Voce chamber choir had lifted the roof with this spectacular choral piece of 21st-century sorrow and joy, conducted by Suzi Digby, the Cambridge-based conductor and pianist.

Female conductors are rare; she is the match for any man I’ve ever seen on the conductor’s rostrum. Concise, certain, emotional and yet not extravagant, she has the capacity to get to the top, taking her choir with her. To be honest, when I discovered that the centrepiece of the concert was to be a major choral work by a 36-year-old Latvian composer resident at Trinity College, Cambridge, I feared the worst – something atonal, dark and brooding. Not a bit of it. The music was dramatic, melodic and exceptionally moving.

Gangland style

Midday on Tuesday. To the New Horizon Youth Centre near King’s Cross for our monthly meeting of the management council, which I chair. It’s a day centre for vulne - rable and homeless young people. We talk of finance and gangs – the former remains tough but survivable. As to the latter, “Not many gangs round here,” I venture. I come and go from the centre by bike, oblivious to the tensions in the streets around me.

The youth centre workers correct me. “We have one gang to the north, one to the south, and then there’s the Kilburn Crew out to the west.” Gangs are about identity, family even, for often deeply insecure, isolated youngsters who yearn for community and get it at the blade of a knife or worse.

That afternoon, I cycle over to the Noël Coward Theatre to interview Judi Dench, who is starring in her first post-Skyfall West End play – Peter and Alice. We squash our camera kit into the little rococo withdrawing room at the back of the theatre, all gold, blue and mirrored. Tricky to film without spotting one of the cameras in one of the mirrors. Dame Judi is an extraordinarily jolly yet formidable presence. At once apparently stern and then breaking out into a completely infectious laugh.

We get on like a house on fire as we discuss this real-life fantasy in which the “Alice” of Alice in Wonderland, at 80, meets the man who inspired Peter Pan, who is 30. Dame Judi is the most versatile and eclectic actress, game for any challenge. I suggest that if Danny Boyle were to make a film of his stunning opening of the Olympic Games, and should they need an old queen to chuck out of a helicopter, she’d be up for it. “Oh yes,” she chimes, “you bet!”

Hans’s solo mission

Wednesday. To the Frontline Club straight after the news, to chair a debate about lessons learned ten years after the invasion of Iraq.

I first visited the country in 1980 during the harrowing trench warfare that characterised the Iran/Iraq war in which a million people died. Twenty years later, we transmitted Channel 4 News from Baghdad for a week before the invasion. Even so late in the day, I could not believe anyone could be so stupid as to attempt to destabilise this incredibly complex entity. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a menace but he was an extremely contained one. A decade of RAF-led and UN-authorised no-fly surveillance had kept his regime in check.

No one who visited in those days could have been unaware of the secular fear with which he kept the competing religious factions at bay. My conviction to this day is that almost no one in the US/UK cabal that did this thing knew anything much about the dangerous differences between Sunnis and Shias. I remember, too, the pathetic experience of chasing around after the UN’s chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. MI6 and the CIA kept calling up with new locations for Saddam’s “WMDs”. We would rush to a farm or a factory and find nothing – only to hear Blix’s large mobile wailing again with another location.

Two wheels better

Friday, and I’m on the 6.35am KLM flight to Amsterdam for a conference, staged by the Dutch state-owned broadcaster NTR, about the future of journalism. I speak optimistically – perceiving the digital multi-platform age as heralding a golden age of journalism. But perhaps I am boosted by Amsterdam itself.

We are located beside one of the city’s great canals, just 200 metres from the house in which Anne Frank hid with her family during the war before she was transported to Auschwitz, to die just a month before liberation. I see that the queue of visitors winds round the back of her house and I am sure the wait will be too long.

But in the break before our conference supper, when the bitter wind-chill factor has peaked at -15°C, I sneak out to the queue, still 80 people deep. Finally, after only 20 minutes, I am in the downstairs warmth of the Anne Frank Museum, neatly structured beneath the attic rooms she and her family hid in. The narrow wooden steps lead up to the very bookcase that disguised the entrance to their bolt-hole.

As I wander through the stark, dark, unfurnished rooms, I think how Anne’s diary moved my daughters as deeply as it had moved me. It is perhaps the strongest literary narrative between us.

Outside, I am overwhelmed by the Dutch brilliance that has conjured Amsterdam’s urban transit system. Tram, car, bike, foot, all wending their separated ways. We in Britain are nowhere, yet bikes are everywhere in ever greater numbers.

As we pine for infrastructure, for jobs and for the groundwork that will provide the foundations for our new tomorrow – why can’t we get to it? Get the private car out of town, let the buses roll, and get the people on to their bikes and on to their feet. We shall live longer, happier, less overweight lives, respecting each other, instead of trying to carve each other up.

Jon Snow is the lead presenter of “Channel 4 News” For details on the New Horizon centre, visit:

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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.